When US independence closed the colonial trade routes within the British empire, the merchantmen and whalers of New England swarmed around the Horn, in search of new markets and sources of supply.
As trade grew, European and East Coast continental commerce continued to round Cape Horn of South America to get to the Pacific (although the Arctic northern route was shorter and sometimes used, it could mean passage in cold and stormy seas, and in many cases the shorter distance might take longer and cost more than the southern route.)
As trade and commerce expanded across the Pacific, numerous countries were looking for faster passage and many looked to Nicaragua and Panama in Central America for possible dredging of a canal as a shorter, safer passage between the two Oceans.
In 1881, France started construction of a canal through the Panama isthmus. By 1899, after thousands of deaths (primarily due to yellow fever) and millions of dollars, they abandoned the project and sold their interest to the United States.
After Panamanian independence from Columbia in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt announced that the US would complete a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, begun years earlier by a French company.
For a while, starting in 1907, some ships took their freight via the Tehuantepee route, where ships called at Coatzacoalcos in the southern area of the Gulf of Mexico, where their cargo was taken across this narrow part of Mexico via rail to Salina Cruz on the Pacific.
“It is interesting in this connection to compare the gradual movement of freight from the Atlantic to the Pacific Coast, across the Isthmus of Panama and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in the six years previous to the opening of the canal.”
“In this period coast to coast tonnage increased 446 per cent. In 1907 the American-Hawaiian Steamship Company inaugurated its coast to coast service via the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.”
“In 1911 the California Atlantic Steamship Company inaugurated a line via Panama. Though the distance from San Francisco to New York by the Isthmus routes is over 2,000 miles longer than by rail, the shipments have steadily increased with the advance of each new steamship line.” (Bennet)
Before the Panama Canal was ‘officially’ opened for commerce, “The first commercial business handled by the canal was a shipload of sugar from Hawaii.”
“The American-Hawaiian steam ship Alaskan could not use the Tehuantepec route for the transfer of its cargo, on account of the war in Mexico, so it went to Balboa instead.”
“There it was met by the tug Mariner, with several barges in tow. The tug and its tow left Cristobal at 6 am on May 19th (1914), reaching Balboa at 6:40 that evening.”
“This was the first continuous ocean-to-ocean trip through the Panama Canal by any vessel. The entire 12,300-ton cargo of the Alaskan was thereupon lightered through the canal by the Mariner.”
“On August 15, 1914, the canal officially opened for commerce. On that day at 7:10 am, according to a prearranged schedule, the Ancon, one of the big cement-carrying steamers of construction days, left her berth at Cristobal with about 200 distinguished guests aboard, and in nine hours and forty minutes completed the passage from sea to sea.” (Bennett)
“The first cargo ship passing westward through the Panama Canal to call at Honolulu was the American Hawaiian Steamship Company’s SS Missourian commanded by Captain Wm. Lyons, on September 16, 1914.” (Schmitt)
The Panama Canal is a 51-mile ship canal in Panama that connects the Atlantic Ocean (via the Caribbean Sea) to the Pacific Ocean.
The canal cuts across the Isthmus of Panama and is a key conduit for international maritime trade. The American Society of Civil Engineers named the Panama Canal one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
The canal would cut 8,000 miles off the distance ships had to travel from the east coast to the west. No canal of this scale had been built before, and many said it could not be done.