PETALUMA’S PAST: When Petaluma eagerly awaited the Panama Canal

The Isthmus of Panama


“One of the greatest works of 20th century engineering!”

So was the Panama Canal often described — before, during and after its epic construction.

The canal opened in August of 1914, and was a bridge uniting two great oceans, cutting 9,000 miles off the arduous trip around Cape Horn. The Panama Canal took 42 years to complete, and tragically cost more than 27,000 lives in the making. Transporting nearly 5,000 ships a year, the canal would change trade and shipping, and our military strategy, forever.

It would even have an impact right here in Petaluma.

The French first got the idea of a canal there in 1880, with an impractical “One Level” plan — and $400 million francs. But besieged by Yellow Fever and Malaria, which killed 22,000 workers over 9 years — plus a solid rock mountain — the project went bankrupt.

In 1902, the U.S. Senate voted to build a canal through Columbia. But the terms weren’t acceptable to that country. President Teddy Roosevelt took umbrage, and sent warships to the area, in support of the Columbian Province of Panama becoming a separate country. In 1903, the new Republic of Panama agreed to terms of payment of 10 million dollars, plus $250,000 annually.

We got the land, a small workforce, some machinery, and 2,100 buildings, most of them in decay.

The French had imported over 36,000 laborers from the West Indies, plus 5,000 French engineers and workmen. Their tragic death-toll over their nine-year effort — plus engineering and financial woes, floods and mudslides — had killed the project. It had also caused a scandal in France, due to corruption.

France did make a second effort in 1894, this time a better “Two Level” plan.

But that also failed and in 1902, they sold it all to the U.S. for 40 million dollars.

“T.R.” was ecstatic.

But if we were to succeed, Malaria and Yellow Fever first had to be addressed. By 1904, American researchers had discovered that both diseases were mosquito-born, and by spreading kerosene over standing water — plus fumigation, screening, new water systems and quarantine facilities — they finally controlled those problems.

By 1905, new workers’ barracks and club houses, with exercise facilities and even baseball fields, had been installed, and Army engineers were in charge of the massive project, which still employed immigrants for the hard labor, most of them from the British and French West Indies.

In addition to rampant diseases, one of the biggest challenges was cutting through the solid rock of the Continental Divide, which rose 360 feet above sea level there. It was a massive job, and over 60 million pounds of dynamite had to be employed, the resulting rock fragments then transported out using an average of 160 trains per day. In the process, two lakes and four dams were constructed, along with the famous locks that allowed vessels to rise, lock-by-lock, up and through the canal.

In 1906, Teddy himself paid a visit.

It marked the first time a sitting American president had visited a foreign Country.

But he would be out of office long before the canal was completed.

The official opening of the Panama Canal was declared by President Woodrow Wilson on August 15, 1914. The project had cost America over $375 million. A total of 75,000 people worked on it, with thousands of deaths due to disease and accidents. That’s not counting the casualties suffered before America took over construction. And although our next U.S. President, William Howard Taft, visited the site seven times, the canal would always be known as “Teddy’s Big Project.”

In 1914, ocean shipping was still the least expensive method of international commerce, and the great canal immensely increased trade from the Pacific to the Atlantic Coast. The biggest winners were petroleum from Southern California and lumber from Oregon, California and Washington. Shipping costs from Portland, Oregon to Great Britain were cut by 31 percent.

And California showed a $39 billion increase in wages and taxes, just from shipping oil. Eventually, there was great benefit in the other direction as well, after Pearl Harbor, when the decimated Pacific fleets had to be restocked from the Atlantic.

But first, there was another World War to survive.

In 1914, Germany declared war on Russia.

France, Britain and Japan declared war on Germany.

And, for a while, the U.S. and China declared neutrality.

The Mexican Revolution started that year too. After President Wilson attempted an arms embargo at Mexico’s Port of Veracruz, the U.S. pulled out of Mexico, and then declared an end to U.S. diplomatic relations.

In Sonoma County, arborist Luther Burbank hosted guests Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Andrew Carnegie, Petaluma’s North West Passage Railroad Station was opened, and the Petaluma Woman’s Club dedicated their new Club House.

How did they inaugurate the building?

With a lecture on The Panama Canal, and its benefits to the poultry and redwood industries.

(Historian Skip Sommer is an honorary life member of Heritage Homes and the Petaluma Historical Museum. Contact him at