The Canal and Central Panama Feature

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A Bit of History

Nearly all Panama's history took place here in Central Panama, where the country is a mere 50 miles across. This was a vital link between Spain and its mineral-rich South American colonies; for centuries, Andean gold and silver crossed the isthmus via mule on jungle roads called the Camino Real and Camino de las Cruces. After various successful pirate attacks, Spain changed its shipping route to the Drake Passage, south of Cape Horn, and Panama was eventually absorbed as a province of Colombia.

In 1849, tens of thousands of would-be millionaires joined the California Gold Rush. Before the Transcontinental Railroad sped up land travel across the United States, most people traveled to California by sea, first via Nicaragua's San Juan River and later through Panama. The American-built Panama Railroad, inaugurated in 1855, ran between Panama City and the new port, Aspinwall (now Colón). After the U.S. rail route started service in 1869, though, the Panama Railroad's heyday and the region's importance both hit a downturn.

Within a decade Ferdinand de Lesseps, of Suez Canal fame, acquired the rights from Colombia to dig an interoceanic canal here. His French company started work in 1882, but mismanagement and disease—some 20,000 workers died—caused the barely begun project to be abandoned in 1889. You can still see part of their effort to the west of the Gatún Locks.

When Colombia rejected a proposal by the United States to finish the job, President Theodore Roosevelt helped foment an independence movement, complete with U.S. battleship backup, that helped the Panamanians declare independence in 1903. A new treaty ceded a 10-mile-wide strip of land to the Americans, where the Canal would be constructed, and gave the U.S. military the right to intervene whenever U.S. interests were threatened.

For the next six decades the Canal Zone was an affluent guarded enclave ensuring American influence in the region. Republican 2008 presidential candidate John McCain was born here while his father was posted in the Canal Zone. But by the middle of the 20th century, protests against the US presence became frequent, one resulting in several student deaths. In the 1970s, Panamanian General Omar Torrijos launched a successful international campaign to get the United States to negotiate, and the subsequent Torrijos-Carter treaties of 1977 mapped out the ultimate transfer of the Canal to Panama on December 31, 1999 (though not before the United States invaded in 1989 to firm up a democracy).

Since the handover, the Panamanian government has facilitated private investment, such as Panama Railway rehabilitation and the construction of hotels and housing while maintaining forests and historic structures. Following a nationwide referendum, the Panama Canal Authority has begun construction of a third set of locks, which will allow larger ships to transit the canal and launch a new era for the country and international shipping. Completion is slated for 2014, in time for the canal's centennial.

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