Panama Canal Area
In the late nineteenth century, a French company began building what would come to be considered one of the greatest engineering achievements in human history. The Panama Canal, a 50-mile (80 kilometer) lock canal across the Isthmus of Panama, cuts through a diverse cultural landscape of colonial ruins, townships, industrial sites, and dense tropical jungle. As the link between North and South America, the isthmus was once an important site of continental cultural exchange between indigenous peoples. After the colonization of Panama, beginning in the fifteenth century, the region became a crucial trading point within the Spanish imperial economy. It was also the location of the world’s first transcontinental railroad in the nineteenth century.
The construction of the French canal began in 1880 under the leadership of Ferdinand de Lesseps. Originally envisaged as a sea-level waterway, the project soon proved infeasible and was abandoned. In 1903, the United States signed a treaty which provided the land for the “constructions, operation, sanitation, and protection” of the isthmian canal as well the recognition of Panamanian independence from Colombia. George Goethals, a U.S. army officer and civil engineer, supervised the construction of the canal, which was completed in 1914. The Panama Canal Area was administered by the United States until 1999 when it was returned to Panamanian ownership.
How We Helped
World Monuments Fund began preservation efforts in the Panama Canal Area by including San Lorenzo Castle and San Jerónimo Fort, two Spanish colonial-era fortifications that have been directly affected by the turnover of the Panama Canal, on the 1998 Watch. In 2001, WMF developed an integrated conservation program for the cultural and natural resource management of the Spanish colonial fortifications and conducted several restoration projects at the forts over the following three years. WMF also formulated a community-based conservation and development plan for the canal township of Gamboa in 2003.
The entire Panama Canal Area was listed on the Watch in 2004 and 2006. Shortly after the second Watch listing, WMF assisted a Cornell winter course focusing on contemporary planning issues within the Panama Canal Area. WMF also helped fund a January 2006 symposium that addressed the potential of a comprehensive conservation strategy for the Panama Canal Area as a whole. Corozal Cemetery, Mount Hope Cemetery, and the historic center of Colón—all of which lie within the canal region—were listed on the 2010 Watch and Way On Cemetery, another Panama Canal Area site, was placed on the 2012 Watch.
Why It Matters
A stunning visual ensemble of built and natural landscapes, the Panama Canal Area embodies exemplary nineteenth and twentieth century technology, aesthetic ideals, and urban experiences, as well as earlier colonial and pre-Colombian architecture. Within the canal and watershed harbor lays one of the most important reserves of bio-diversity within the neo-tropical region. Developmental pressures, inadequate planning, insubstantial public awareness, negligence, and insufficient funding for conservation initiatives threaten the region’s historic urban fabric. An integrated preservation approach could help conserve the network of sites that illustrate the delicate interrelationship of built form and nature that defines the Panama Canal Area cultural landscape.