According to official sources, 5,609 people died in the construction of the Panama Canal.
It was the greatest infrastructure project the world had ever seen. When the 77 kilometre-long Panama Canal officially opened in 1914, after 10 years of construction, it fulfilled a vision that had tempted people for centuries but had long seemed impossible.
The French had tried and failed to build a canal in the 1880s, finally giving in after years of fighting a recalcitrant landscape, ferocious disease, the deaths of some 20,000 workers and spiralling costs. But the U.S., which purchased the French company’s equipment, promised they would do it differently.
The destruction was devastating. Whole villages and forests were flooded, and a railway constructed in the 1850s had to be relocated. The greatest challenge of all was the Culebra Cut, now known as the Gaillard Cut, an artificial valley excavated through some 13 kilometres of mountainous terrain. More than 100 million cubic metres of dirt had to be moved; the work consumed more than eight million kilograms of dynamite in three years alone.
The first two and a half years (1904-1906) of the American canal effort were substantially dedicated to preparation, much of it making the area fit for large-scale human habitation. A significant part of this was the sanitation program put in place by Gorgas. Nearly $20 million was spent on health and sanitation during the ten years.
In the end, these efforts were a success: by 1906, yellow fever was virtually wiped out in the Canal Zone, and the number of deaths caused by the other tropical disease, malaria, was also reduced significantly. The hospitals maintained were by far the best to be found anywhere in the tropics; some 32,000 patients were treated per year but it was not sufficient. The 5,609 people died according to official sources but many historians think the real toll was several times higher.
A majority of the men who died under U.S. management were natives to the area. Only 350 of the U.S. deaths were white Americans.