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Panama: Role of the Canal From 1903 to 1977
Country Study > Chapter 3 > The Economy > Panama Canal > Role of the Canal From 1903 to 1977


In 1903 the United States secured the right, by treaty, to build a canal across Panama.

Construction of the canal involved damming the Río Chagres to create the huge Gatun Lake in the middle of the isthmus. Channels were dug from each coast, and locks were built to raise and lower ships between sea level and Gatun Lake. Three sets of locks were constructed: Gatun Locks on the Atlantic side, and the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side. The lock chambers were 303 meters long by 33 meters wide, which limited vessel size to approximately 287 meters in length and 32 meters in width. Distance through the canal is eighty-two kilometers, and in 1987 transit took about fifteen hours, nearly half of which was spent in waiting. The canal began commercial operations in 1914.

The United States operated the canal and set tolls from the beginning of operation. Tolls covered operation costs but were kept low to encourage canal use. Direct benefits to Panama were minimal, consisting of annual annuity payments that increased infrequently, usually in response to Panamanian demands. In the 1975 to 1977 period, the annuity payments reached US$2.3 million a year. Indirect benefits to Panama's economy were substantial, however, and included the jobs of its citizens working in the Canal Zone, value of goods and services sold to the Canal Zone and to passing ships, and expenditures by visitors.

Data as of December 1987

Last Updated: December 1987

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Panama was first published in 1987. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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