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USS Oregon, photograph by I. West Taber for Detroit Publishing Company, May 6, 1896

The Oregon, one of the nation’s first battleships, raced 14,000 miles from California to join the Navy’s North Atlantic Squadron in the Caribbean after the destruction of the Maine. A cartoonist depicted Uncle Sam pointing to the Isthmus of Panama, regretting not having cut a canal sooner to speed naval access between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

USS Oregon, photograph by I. West Taber for Detroit Publishing Company, May 6, 1896

The Panama Canal

By the 1880s Congress considered a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans necessary for commerce and defense, but disagreements about its location stalled any action. Then the USS Maine exploded in Cuba. The battleship USS Oregon, stationed on the West Coast, took two months to reach the Caribbean to provide support in the Spanish-American War. The long voyage convinced Congress that a canal was imperative. In 1902 Congress authorized the purchase of a project initiated by France on land owned by Colombia, to complete construction of the Panama Canal.

I want . . . a bill to be passed here under which we will get a canal. There never was greater need for it than now. The Oregon demonstrated [that] to our people.

Senator John Spooner of Wisconsin, Speech to the U.S. Senate, June 18, 1902