In his first speech to Congress as president, Roosevelt called for the United States to build a canal to join the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. “No single great material work which remains to be undertaken on this continent is of such consequence to the American people,” he told the lawmakers. President Roosevelt wanted to make the United States a great power that could exert influence around the world. A canal would be a way to achieve this goal. If ships could move between the Atlantic and Pacific, the U.S. navy would be better able to defend the nation’s new territories gained in the Spanish-American War. In addition, businesses would benefit from lower shipping costs.
The treaty would have given America the "canal zone" but Colombia never ratified the treaty. Colombia thought that America was trying to take a weaker country’s valuable resources.
Roosevelt knew that Panamanians wanted independence from Colombia. The day after the ship arrived, a revolution started in Panama. With U.S. marines keeping Colombian soldiers from reaching Panama’s harbors, the rebels quickly won.
Panama gives a ten-mile wide "canal zone" to America. Some U.S. senators and newspapers—and countries all over the world—objected to America’s “gunboat diplomacy.” But most of the public supported the president.
John Findlay Wallace, formerly chief engineer and finally general manager of the Illinois Central Railroad is appointed as chief engineer and construction begins.
The new chief engineer improved housing and strictly organized the huge project. Using dynamite and huge steam shovels, men made a wide, deep cut through Panama’s mountains. The excavated dirt was moved by railroad car to lower elevations. Here, workers created earthen dams to form three giant lakes. Engineers supervised the construction of locks, a type of gate that would allow water levels to be raised and lowered along the canal.
Workers faced terrible conditions. “We had to bathe, wash our clothes in the same river; drink the same river water and cook with it,” said one.
By the time the 51-mile-long canal opened, Roosevelt had left office. His influence in the Panamanian revolution continued to be controversial. Roosevelt himself admitted, “I took the Canal Zone.”
Congress apologized to Colombia and gave it $25 million. But anti-American feelings remained high in Latin America, and Panamanians increasingly resented U.S. control of the Canal Zone.