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“Spanish laborers at work in Culebra Cut,” stereograph, August 1914

Excavations for the Panama Canal began in 1879 under an agreement between France and Colombia. After tropical diseases ravaged the Panamanian and Jamaican workforce, France withdrew and offered the project––including surveys, equipment, buildings, and a railroad—to the U.S. for a relatively low price. The offer influenced Congress to select Panama as the canal site.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

“Spanish laborers at work in Culebra Cut,” stereograph, August 1914

The Panama Canal

By the 1880s Congress considered a canal between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans essential for commerce and defense, but disagreements about its location became a “Battle of the Routes.” Senator John Tyler Morgan of Alabama, head of the Committee on Inter-Oceanic Canals, wanted it in Nicaragua, near southern U.S. ports. Senator Mark Hanna of Ohio wanted to complete a canal in Panama begun by a French company. In 1904, after the U.S. militarily supported Panama’s independence from Colombia, the Senate approved a canal treaty with Panama.