Watch Now

FreightWaves Classics/Infrastructure: US transferred police powers in Panama Canal Zone 40 years ago

A ship in the canal. (Photo: Panama Canal Authority)

The two Torrijos-Carter Treaties are treaties signed by the United States and Panama in Washington, D.C. on September 7, 1977. The 1977 treaties superseded the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty of 1903. The 1977 treaties guaranteed that Panama would gain control of the Panama Canal and the Panama Canal Zone on December 31, 2000, ending the control of the canal that the U.S. had exercised since 1903. 

Between the signing of the treaties and the formal transfer of the Canal Zone, there were intermediate steps that led to the transfer. On April 1, 1982, Panama formally assumed responsibility for judicial oversight and law enforcement in the Canal Zone. The event was accompanied by thousands of Panamanians singing and dancing in the streets. Others waved signs and banners.

The 1977 treaty is signed. (Photo:
The 1977 treaty is signed. (Photo:

Among the honored guests at the ceremony to mark the transfer was Lester Greaves, a Black Caribbean worker who was sentenced in 1946 to 50 years in prison by one of the Canal Zone’s American judges for allegedly attempting to rape a white woman. Greaves served nearly 16 years in a Panamanian prison before the conviction was overturned because the Canal Zone judge – a relative of the alleged victim – had refused to allow her to testify.

The U.S. special police force in the Canal Zone was disbanded and Panamanian police and courts had the power to arrest and try all U.S. and Panamanian residents of the Zone (with the exception of certain civil cases still covered by U.S. law under the terms of the treaty).

A brief overview of the Panama Canal

The idea of a water passage across the isthmus of Panama to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans dates back to at least the 1500s. King Charles I of Spain ordered his regional governor to survey a route along the Chagres River. A lack of the technology to complete such a task across the mountainous, jungle terrain meant that it was impossible at the time. However, the idea of a shortcut from Europe to eastern Asia remained.

The French effort

France became the first country to attempt the task. Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had led the construction of the Suez Canal, led the initial effort to build the Panama Canal. Ground was broken on a planned sea-level canal in 1880. De Lesseps belatedly realized that a sea-level canal was too difficult and reorganized efforts toward a lock canal. Moreover, the frequent rain generated heavy landslides, and laborers by the thousands died due to yellow fever and malaria. Funding for the project was stopped in 1888.

Part of the French effort to build the canal. (Photo: National Archives)
Part of the French effort to build the canal. (Photo: National Archives)

The U.S. takes over

In the United States an Isthmian Canal Commission deliberated about a U.S.-led effort to build a canal in Central America. President Theodore Roosevelt advocated that the U.S. purchase the French assets and move forward with that effort. That led to the U.S. purchasing the canal zone and equipment for $40 million in 1902. At the time, Panama was still part of Colombia. A proposed treaty over building rights was rejected by Colombia. The U.S. backed a Panamanian independence movement and when that was successful, negotiated the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty of 1903 with the government of the new nation of Panama.

The United States recognized the Republic of Panama, and on November 18, 1903 the treaty was signed, granting the U.S. exclusive and permanent possession of the Panama Canal Zone. Panama received $10 million and an annuity of $250,000 beginning nine years later. The treaty was roundly criticized by many Panamanians as an infringement on the nation’s new sovereignty.

The American project officially began with a dedication ceremony on May 4, 1904, but the project encountered problems immediately. Most of the French equipment needed to be repaired; yellow fever and malaria were still prevalent. The project’s chief engineer resigned after the first year. 

Railroad construction specialist John Stevens became the chief engineer in July 1905 and  addressed issues related to the workforce by recruiting West Indian laborers. He also ordered new equipment and developed efficient methods to speed up work. Stevens also quickly recognized the dangers of landslides and convinced President Roosevelt of the crucial redesign from a sea-level to a lock-based canal.

Chief sanitary officer Dr. William Gorgas discovered that mosquitoes carried the indigenous deadly diseases. He began an effort to wipe out the mosquitoes; his team fumigated homes and cleansed standing pools of water. The effort worked; the last reported case of yellow fever occurred in November 1905 and malaria cases dropped significantly during the following decade.

Men dig a section of the Panama Canal. (Photo: National Endowment for the Humanities)
Men dig a section of the Panama Canal. (Photo: National Endowment for the Humanities)

Chief engineer Stevens resigned; Roosevelt appointed Lt. Col. George Washington Goethals of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as his replacement. Goethals was granted authority over virtually all administrative matters in the building zone. Although he was a tough leader (putting down a work strike after taking charge) Goethals also ordered the construction of facilities to improve the quality of life for workers and their families. 

He focused workforce efforts on Culebra Cut, the mountain range between Gamboa and Pedro Miguel. Excavating the nearly nine-mile course was an around-the-clock operation; as many as 6,000 men worked at any one time. Culebra Cut was a very difficult and dangerous work zone, and casualties mounted from landslides and explosions used to clear areas.

Construction on the locks began at Gatún in August 1909. Built in pairs, each lock’s chamber measured 110 feet wide by 1,000 feet long. The locks were built with culverts that used gravity to raise and lower water levels. When they were finished, the canal’s three locks lifted ships 85 feet above sea level, to man-made Gatún Lake in the middle. 

Construction of the Miraflores Locks. (Photo: US Army South)
Construction of the Miraflores Locks. (Photo: US Army South)

The project moved toward completion in 1913. Two steam shovels working from opposite directions met in the center of Culebra Cut in May. A few weeks later, the last spillway at Gatún Dam was closed, and the lake filled. In October 1913, President Woodrow Wilson used a telegraph at the White House to trigger an explosion of Gamboa dike, which flooded the final stretch of dry passageway at Culebra Cut.

The Panama Canal was officially opened on August 15, 1914. The canal’s cost was more than $350 million – the most expensive construction project in U.S. history. Its scope was hard to comprehend – more than 3.4 million cubic meters of concrete were used to build the locks, and nearly 240 million cubic yards of rock and dirt were excavated. Of the 56,000 workers employed between 1904 and 1913, nearly 10% died from construction accidents or disease.

About 20 years later, the Madden Dam was completed in 1935. During the 20th century the Panama Canal was a key component of expanding global trade. 

The canal was recognized by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the seven wonders of the modern world in 1994. In September 2010, the one millionth ship passed through the Panama Canal.

A ship transits the Panama Canal. (Photo: Embassy of Panama)
A ship transits the Panama Canal. (Photo: Embassy of Panama)

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.