Friday marked the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal, a 77.1km waterway across Central America connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and a key conduit for international trade.

France began work on the canal in 1881, but was thwarted by engineering problems and disease. The United States took over the project in 1904, and spent a decade completing one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects the world had seen. The canal officially opened on August 15, 1914.

The US owned and controlled the canal until the 1977 Torrijos-Carter Treaties provided for its handover to Panama. After a period of joint control, the canal was taken over by the Panamanian government in 1999 - and most of the American residents of the Panama Canal Zone packed up and went home.

The zone, stretching 80km from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific and jutting 8km inland either side of the waterway, was purchased in 1904 by the US for US$10 million and an annual lease of US$250,000. The lease was in perpetuity, which made the territory, though never a US state, an autonomous region within Panama, initially established to house, feed, school and entertain the tens of thousands of workers who built the canal and, later, to provide a pleasant living environment for US administrators and military personnel. In 1936, a naval officer based in the zone fathered John McCain, who would become, in 2008, the Republican nominee for the US presidency.

Reminders of its former inhabitants - the Americans among them call themselves Zonians and host annual reunions in the US - can be seen across the zone.


The Panama Canal – past, present and future