In 1513, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa discovered that only a narrow strip of land separated the Atlantic and Pacific oceans at the juncture of North and South America. In 1534, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (also King Charles I of Spain), hoping to find a faster route to Peru, ordered the regional governor of Panama to assess the feasibility of building a canal across the narrow isthmus. On completion of the survey, the governor concluded such a feat was impossible.
In the ensuing centuries, the idea periodically reemerged. In 1668, English philosopher Sir Thomas Browne wrote, “Some isthmus have been eat through by the Sea, and others cut by the spade: And if policy would permit, that of Panama in America were most worthy the attempt and would open a shorter cut unto the East Indies and China.”
In 1788, Thomas Jefferson, then Minister to France, proposed that Spain should make the attempt, adding that once it was dug, ocean currents would widen the canal.
In 1848, the California Gold Rush spurred intense U.S. interest in a canal for a time, and in 1855 the United States completed construction of a railroad across the isthmus.
French success in building the Suez Canal, which opened in 1869, led to a serious attempt at building a canal in Panama, beginning in 1881. Against a formidable jungle with venomous snakes, giant spiders, the Anopheles mosquito, and challenging terrain, the effort proved far more difficult than imagined. An estimated 22,000 workers died from disease and accidents, and eight years later the project was abandoned when money and fortitude ran out.
As the 19th century came to a close, however, naval interests at last accomplished what commercial concerns could not.
In 1898, with war between Spain and the United States threatening after the explosion and subsequent sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor, the battleship Oregon (BB-3) was ordered to depart Bremerton, Washington, and make the unprecedented (for a battleship) voyage around Cape Horn to join the North Atlantic Squadron. Rumors were flying that a “Spanish Armada” had been sent to attack the East Coast of the United States, and a state of near panic led to calls on the Atlantic Fleet to protect coastal cities.
The Oregon headed south to San Francisco to take on coal, provisions, and ammunition. While there, the ship’s captain became ill, and Captain Charles E. Clark—a Civil War veteran with considerable sea time—took command only 48 hours before the Oregon’s departure for the 14,000-mile voyage to the opposite coast.
The Oregon’s crew was shorthanded by 67 seamen and—more significant—27 firemen. Some 4,100 tons of coal would have to be shoveled into the battleship’s fireboxes under arduous conditions, made more so by the need for speed. Captain Clark recorded in his later memoir:
When Chief Engineer Milligan informed me that he thought we should never allow saltwater to enter the boilers, I felt it was asking almost too much of the endurance of the crew. It meant not only reducing their drinking supply but that the quantity served out would often be so warm as to be quite unpalatable. When I explained to the men, however, that salt water in the boilers meant scale, and that scale would reduce our speed, delay us in getting to the seat of war, and might impair our efficiency in battle, the deprivation was born without a murmur.1
The voyage down the South American coast, around Cape Horn, and north to Jupiter Inlet, Florida, included a violent storm in the Strait of Magellan and required five stops to replenish coal. Marcus Goodrich, in his novel Delilah (Farrar & Rinehart, 1941), described the coaling operation as “the dirtiest, the most punishing routine chore that men-of-warsmen ever have been called upon to perform,” adding “not even the old iron men in their exacting wooden ships ever regularly faced any task so oppressively dull, extended, and exhausting.”
Despite these hardships, the Oregon reported for duty 66 days after leaving San Francisco. By then, war had been declared, and Clark’s battleship played a key role in the overwhelming U.S. victory at the Battle of Santiago. The Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships describes the Oregon’s journey as sweeping “away all opposition for the construction of the Panama Canal, for it was then made clear that the country could not afford to take two months to send warships from one coast to the other each time an emergency arose.”
On 4 May 1904, the United States—having signed a treaty with a newly independent Panama—began construction of the canal, completing it ten years later. The first U.S. naval vessel to transit the canal was the collier Jupiter. Her trip from ocean to ocean took a mere 12 hours and considerably less coal than had the Oregon’s.
From Our Archive
These and other photographs and artwork are available as prints through the Naval Institute Photo Archive.