The Panama Canal struck a chord throughout the world that the many quotations regarding its creation underscore its significance to the people of the early twentieth century.
People variously referred to the Canal as "the eighth wonder of the world," with an impact akin to "shifting the nations on a map," and "one of the few achievements which may properly be called epoch-making" (Todd, I: 30; Macomber, 11). The endeavor, which removed enough dirt to fill a tunnel, 14 feet in diameter, through the heart of the earth, lived in the public's imagination unlike any other event of recent memory (Barrett, 47).
Yet the significance of the Canal lay primarily in its worldwide commercial value to merchants.
Many historians of the time considered trade and commerce the primary reasons for the creation of the Panama Canal. The Canal's necessity arose out of the industrialization of the Gilded Age, highlighted by the exponential growth of manufacturing and importance of labor in the nineteenth century.
With the explosion in manufactured goods, the demand for exporting them expanded proportionally. In the pre-Canal years between 1870 and 1910, gross shipping tonnage in the United States nearly doubled.
Emerging markets in the Pacific Rim and the rapid growth of the western United States sat as untapped resources for trade with this growth in retail goods. Contemporary shipping around South America's Cape Horn had become a liability.
European ships, using the Suez Canal, could reach the Pacific Rim, including the western United States, before United States ships steaming from New York, prior to the Panama Canal. The emergence of the United States onto the global commercial scene begged for a maritime short-cut through the Panamanian Isthmus to truly compete with the world's powers (Johnson, 10-11).
The waterborne highway created by the Canal shortened the distances between the East Coast of the United States and these markets to the west.
Through the Canal, a vessel sailing from New York to San Francisco could cut its journey from more than 13,000 miles around South America and Cape Horn, to just over 5,000.
A voyage that previously took over sixty days was halved to about thirty.
What this meant to all maritime merchants was that they could take on twice the tonnage in cargo for each voyage; virtually making two trips in one.
The intent for the Canal did not lie solely with the United States; opening this great waterway for every nation's use was a precept in the Canal's creation (Todd, I: 30).
The unrestricted, international usage of the Panama Canal was a precept in its creation.
The nations of Europe and elsewhere, it was hoped, could take a part in the economic development of the countries that lay on the other side of the Canal.
Some speculated that global cooperation in trade could strengthen political partnerships and fortify acquaintances between leaders.
With bonds of international brotherhood built through trade the danger of war between two commercial allies and the development of differences that might lead to war.
The Canal would so strongly fortify trade between nations in the East and those in the West that many spoke of it as a supremely valid argument for world peace (Barrett, 103).
The Panama-Pacific International Exposition used the Panama Canal as a metaphor for the great inter-mingling of nations and sharing of ideas between them.
As the Director of Domestic Exploitation (what they called their publicity department) wrote to Michigan's Governor Woodbridge Ferris on 15 January 1913:
The Exposition will mark the beginning of a closer fellowship and a better understanding with all Nations and all peoples and, what is equally desirable, the east will come to know the truth about the west and the west will exchange realities for fiction concerning the east.
A representation of all states will surely lead to the elimination of old prejudices based on misinformation and be the beginning of a new and better understanding among (them).
The importantance of this letter lies in the intention of the Exposition as a collection of "all peoples and all nations," that it was intended for every nation to meet on a field of equality and learn one another's cultures, and to unlearn their preconceived notions.
It's no mistake, then, that this great multicultural event was to take place in San Francisco, America's gateway to the Pacific.
In 1852, William Seward prophetically stated that even though European culture, politics and thought were gaining in force, they will shrink in importance; while the Pacific Ocean and its shores "will become the chief theater of events in the world's great hereafter" (Todd, I: 32).
The Panama Canal furthered the shift of the world's interest into the waters of the Pacific and its shores.
Oceans aren't boundaries, but links.
Oceans connect people from distances; while land, with its barriers of deserts, valleys and mountains, separates them.
The Canal served as a bridge over a spit of land that had separated people for centuries of navigation.
With this new connection, the people of the Orient had a closer tie to people of the Occident, and the growing city of San Francisco served as a primary "port of call" (Todd, I: 32).
San Francisco and its bay, one of the world's greatest natural harbors, served as a port of call for boats steaming from New York to Asia.
While on their journey, ships often find a "port of call" to load or unload cargo, obtain supplies, or undergo repairs before embarking on the rest of their trip.
As a navigational necessity, San Francisco lay less than 100 miles off of the direct voyage between New York and Yokohama, one of Japan's largest ports, through the Canal.
Such a distinction offered an opportunity for expansion in all types of maritime trade and growth of businesses that cater to the shipping industry.
It's no understatement to say that the presence of the Panama Canal gave San Francisco a new position on the planet (Todd, I: 31).