The American Engineers that Built the Panama Canal


When the United States took over title of the French canal franchise in Panama in 1903 they approached the project with vigor and confidence, treating it as an enormous railroad engineering project. A large part of the eventual success of the United States in building a canal at Panama came from avoiding the mistakes of the French, whose leadership had proven too inflexible. From the outset the Americans employed third party oversight and a knack for innovate solutions on a broad number of challenges which, like the French, they did not foresee. By 1907 the various excavation problems led American engineer John Frank Stevens to redesign the project, using a series of three locks at either end to lift ships 85 feet and transit across man-made Gatun Lake. In 1908 control of the project passed to four Army Corps of Engineers officers and a Navy civil engineer, who completed the project in August 1914, excavating 225 million cubic yards of material at a cost of $22 million below budget, despite battling landslides for the previous 10 months. The project was the jewel of an emerging American empire, and its contributions to world health and sea-born commerce were without precedent.

Meeting Name

Sessions Honoring the 100th Anniversary of the Panama Canal at the ASCE Global Engineering Conference (2014: Oct. 7-11, Panama City, Panama)


Geosciences and Geological and Petroleum Engineering

Keywords and Phrases

Budget Control; Engineers; Hydraulic Structures; Army Corps Of Engineers; In-Buildings; Large Parts; Panama Canal; Third Parties

Geographic Coverage

Panama Canal

International Standard Book Number (ISBN)


Document Type

Article - Conference proceedings

Document Version


File Type





© 2014 American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), All rights reserved.

Publication Date

01 Oct 2014