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Monday, January 31, 2011

TV Show Review: Panama Canal

Panama Canal: Gateway to the American Century
American Experience Series

90 mins
January 24, 2011

Source: Received for Preview from WGBH

“On August 15th, 1914, the Panama Canal opened, connecting the world’s two largest oceans and signaling America’s emergence as a global superpower. American ingenuity and innovation had succeeded where, fifteen years earlier, the French had failed disastrously. But the U.S. paid a price for victory: a decade of ceaseless, grinding toil, an outlay of more than 350 million dollars -- the largest single federal expenditure in history to that time -- and the loss of more than 5,000 lives. Along the way, Central America witnessed the brazen overthrow of a sovereign government, the influx of over 55,000 workers from around the globe, the removal of hundreds of millions of tons of earth, and engineering innovation on an unprecedented scale. The construction of the Canal was the epitome of man’s mastery over nature and signaled the beginning of America’s domination of world affairs.”
In terms of United States history, the building of the Panama Canal was much more that just finding a way to connect the Atlantic and the Pacific in a quicker fashion; it was a “symbol of arrogance, authority and power”, “the story of inspiration and a story of humanity” and also epitomized “America’s mighty march of progress”. It is a classic example of the triumph of man and his machines over nature. It was a way to show the world that the United States would succeed in a job where others had tried and failed at one of the most difficult tasks. While this episode certainly chronicles the building of the Canal and the people that built it, this episode also looks at what the completion of this Canal did for the United States.

Before watching the episode I knew the basics about the Panama Canal – the Reader’s Digest version. After watching this episode, among other things, I learned how the USA instigated the bloodless revolution in Panama, how one man effective eradicated the threat of Yellow Fever in the area during the construction, the mass amounts of problems that beset the progress of the canal, as well as the rampant racism that enveloped the workers. I never would have known that there were those that were paid in gold and those who were paid in silver and that the facilities were segregated based on their method of payment. I also didn’t know that when President Teddy Roosevelt made a trip down to Panama to check on the progress of the canal, this was the first time a sitting President had left the country. The experience of building the Panama Canal became well-rounded and left me with a more complete picture of the events that unfolded.

One thing that I really liked was the great video clips that they had from the canal working, of boats and men, and Teddy Roosevelt. I love looking at old film footage and it really helps to create a complete visual in your mind. They were also able to show blueprints of the canal plans and you could hear letters that were sent home to family members in the USA from workers at the Canal. These letters were effective at showing what the workers actually thought about working down there (and let me tell you, they weren’t necessarily thrilled about the conditions). I was also very surprised to see interview footage with actual canal workers. It looks like these interviews were done many years after the canal was built because these men looked quite old by then – but it was still great to hear of their experiences in their own words.

All in all I learned a lot about the building of the Panama Canal and feel like I could hold my own in a conversation on the subject, should the need ever arise. A very well done episode.

I am a little late at telling you guys about this one, it aired on the 24th of January, but you can watch the episode online at the American Experience website if you missed it.

Here is a trailer of this show for your enjoyment.

At the American Experience website, there are a great many primary resources and wonderful content for you to explore. One thing that I found particularly interesting is an interactive map of the canal. Among other things to note: a timeline of the canal building, a photo gallery of the building of the canal, and an article about the workforce brought in for the job.

Copyright © 2011 by The Maiden’s Court


  1. Missed this one. Sounds good.

  2. Librarypat - this was really good, especially for those (like me) who really didn't know anything about it. But still, not the most exciting of topics.


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