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The Panama Canal and Balboa Port  – A Short History

Panama Canal

The Panama Canal and Balboa Port  – A Short History

The Building of the Panama Canal took place from 1903 to 1914, during the tenure of President Theodore Roosevelt, allowing businessmen to ship goods quickly and cheaply between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

There were a few attempts at connecting these 2 oceans previously:

  • The proposed Anglo-American canal through the Central American Republic of Nicaragua in 1850, never progressed past the planning stages.
  • The French’s first attempt at a canal through Panama in 1880 resulted in the loss of about 20,000 lives as a result of diseases and disaster. This effort ended in bankruptcy.

After a failed attempt to negotiate a treaty with the Colombian government for the building of a canal, President Roosevelt sent his military power to support the Panamanians in their attempt at Independence from Colombia, enabling them to declare independence on November 3rd, 1903.

The Panamanian government put a French engineer in charge – Philippe Bunau-Varilla who negotiated the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty of 1903 which “provided the United States with a 10-mile wide strip of land for the canal, a one-time $10 million payment to Panama, and an annual annuity of $250,000.”

The United States purchased the French equipment and excavations and the Panama Railroad as well, all of which, together with their own investments, allowed them to complete the canal by 1914.

A floating crane used during the construction of the canals, the “Alexandre La Valley”  was essentially the first self-propelled vessel to transit the canal from ocean to ocean, and reached the Pacific on January 7, 1914.

In all of our research, there seems to be no clarity between which cargo vessel first transited the canal between the SS Ancon on the 15th August 1914, and the SS Cristobal, a cargo and passenger ship,  on August 3rd, 1914. What is certain is that these vessels set in motion many long and fruitful years of international trade between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Panama Canal Balboa SS Ancon
SS Ancon

However, as the years progressed, tension mounted between the 2 countries over the control of the canal leading eventually to a brief interruption of diplomatic relations between them, and they recognized the need for new negotiations.

A few ensuing political setbacks during the 1960’s resulted in new leadership of Panama by Colonel Omar Torrijos.

After further turbulent political times between the 2 countries, 2 treaties were signed:

“The first, called The Treaty Concerning the Permanent Neutrality and Operation of the Panama Canal, or the Neutrality Treaty, stated that the United States could use its military to defend the Panama Canal against any threat to its neutrality, thus allowing perpetual U.S. usage of the Canal. The second, called The Panama Canal Treaty, stated that the Panama Canal Zone would cease to exist on October 1, 1979, and the Canal itself would be turned over to the Panamanians on December 31, 1999. These two treaties were signed on September 7, 1977”

In 1999  relations between the 2 countries were at a peaceful point and the Canal was turned over to the Panamanians who have administered it ever since.

The Port of Balboa

During the building of the canal, the Port of Balboa was founded by the United States, an opened in 1909. It is the terminal port for the Pacific Ocean end of the Panama Canal and was named after Vasco Nunezde Balboa, “the first European known to have seen the Pacific Ocean from the Americas”.

Until 1979, the port was the Canal Zone’s administrative centre and a territory of the United States and contained a variety of buildings and facilities run by the US Government.

However, since it became part of the Republic of Panama, the Port of Balboa has been redeveloped and is now part of Panama City’s suburb of Ancon. There you will find huge harbour facilities including warehouses, dry docks, marine shops, a coaling plant and more.

In 2012, Balboa was ranked the busiest container port in Latin America and has a multimodal (ship-to-train) terminal which allows transportation of containers by train across the isthmus, and also runs a passenger service between Panama City and Colón.

The port covers 182 hectares and contains five container berths and two multi-purpose berths that enjoy a depth of 17 meters and handles a third of all cargo moving through the Panama Canal.

Panama Canal Balbao


Stay tuned for the next in our series of articles on the Panama Canal to discover some interesting maritime attractions to visit in the area.

If you need underwater maintenance for your vessels calling Panama, feel free to contact us for a no-obligation quote!