As early as the sixteenth century, nations sought passage by water through the Isthmus of Panama, a slim stretch of land bridging the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. But it was not until 1881 that a French company headed by Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had built the Suez Canal, began to dig a canal of similar construction across Panama. Plagued by engineering problems, tropical diseases, and scandal, in 1889 de Lessep’s company went bankrupt.
On November 18, 1903, the United States and Panama signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty (named after U.S. Secretary of State John Hay and Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla, a French engineer and the diplomatic representative of Panama). The treaty established a Panama Canal Zone to build the canal, granting the United States sovereignty over the zone.
Two months after the treaty was signed, in January 1904 Reuben Brooks Hale—a San Francisco department store tycoon and president of the Merchants’ Association (the future Chamber of Commerce)—suggested that San Francisco host a world’s fair in 1915. The occasion, Hale wrote, would be “the opening of San Francisco as the center of trade for the Pacific Ocean, or in commemoration of the completion of the Panama Canal.” “And in that plea,” notes Hale’s great-grandson Lee Bruno, “begins the sort of inspired movement to pursue a world’s fair dream.”
Shortly after Hale’s proposal, in May 1904, the United States took over all operations from France, and on August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal—the greatest engineering triumph of the age—opened its locks to international trade. As the map above demonstrates, the completion of the canal at the narrowest point between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans forever altered geological and navigational maps.
The California Connection
California’s historic connection to Panama is evident in the memoirs of Argonauts written during the early years of the Gold Rush. Rather than sail around Cape Horn, they shortened the voyage to California, traveling by mule or by foot through the Isthmus of Panama’s treacherous and disease-infested jungles.
This view of the Culebra, which became part of the Panama Canal, shows the Isthmus prior to the building of the Panama Railroad in December 1854. Work on the railroad began in 1851 to more effectively and safely move a growing number of people, supplies, and mail from the eastern United States to California.
When the canal was completed, overnight the maritime voyage between the East and West Coasts was reduced from about 13,000 miles to about 5,300, bringing San Francisco closer to the East Coast and the busy ports of Europe. The nearly 48-mile-long channel joining the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans at the Isthmus of Panama gave San Francisco—the closest port on the route from Panama to Yokohama—new status as a port of call. With enormous impact on California’s economy, the canal elevated the city’s place in the world.
On February 20, 1915, Reuben Hale’s vision became reality with the opening of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition along 635 acres of San Francisco’s northern shore, today’s Marina District. Promotional materials advertising the fair—such as a muscular Hercules parting the continents to form the canal and the “kiss of the oceans”—symbolized the fair’s accomplishment and suggested an international spirit of collaboration.
At the fair, a five-acre working-scale model of the canal featured mechanically operated boats, trains, lighthouses, and buoys that replicated the canal’s full operation, providing the ordinary fairgoer a grasp of the nation’s herculean accomplishment in Panama. The exhibit was described in World’s Advance magazine:
Miniature ships travel through the locks, trains run along the tracks bordering the Canal, the illuminated buoys marking the channel flash in various colored lights, sparks leap about the minia¬ture aerials of the radio-telegraph stations; and all this occurs without the aid of visible mechanism. The secret of this lies in the application of electromagnets, which are moved about on tracks placed beneath the model and directly underneath the route to be taken by the working model above. At the locks the steamers drop their hawsers, tow lines are magically attached to them and miniature electric locomotives tow them through the locks.
The Next 100 Years?
In 1977, the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty was abolished, allowing a transfer of full control of the canal to Panama in 1999. As the canal’s future was envisioned at a PPIE100 event at the Commonwealth Club in June of this year: “In more business-oriented Panamanian hands since 2000, with plans to double its capacity by the end of 2016, the canal could become the global logistics hub for the Western Hemisphere, raising expectations and concerns about the impact the canal will have during the Pacific Century.”
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager
Laura A. Ackley, San Francisco’s Jewel City: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 (Berkeley: Heyday/California Historical Society, 2014).
Lee Bruno, author of Panorama: Tales from San Francisco’s 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition, interviews conducted December 9, 2014, at the California Historical Society, San Francisco.
Commonwealth Club, “The Panama Canal: The Next 100 Years,” June 11, 2015.
H. A. Eveleth, “Panama-Pacific Exposition Notes,” World’s Advance 31, no. 3 (September 1915).
Louis Levy, Chronological History of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, vol. 1 (San Francisco: Panama-Pacific International Exposition, 1915).
CHS’s exhibition about the Panama-Pacific International Exposition—City Rising: San Francisco and the 1915 World’s Fair—is open until January 3, 2016 at CHS headquarters, 678 Mission Street, San Francisco, and until January 10, 2016, at the Palace of Fine Arts.
City Rising: San Francisco and the 1915 World’s Fair is part of San Francisco’s Centennial Celebration of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE100), presented by AT&T. CHS is an organizing partner of the PPIE100 along with Innovation Hangar, the Maybeck Foundation, and the San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department.