105th Anniversary of the Panama Canal

This year marks the 105-year anniversary of the completion of the Panama Canal. To commemorate this historical engineering accomplishment, the Caterpillar Visitors Center is launching a new display celebrating the event.


Originally, machines designed and built by The Bucyrus Company and Marion Steam Shovel Company were used on this massive project. France began work on the construction of the Panama Canal in 1881 but had to stop in 1889 because of engineering problems and high mortality among workers due to disease. After years of debate, the United States took control of the Canal project in 1904 and established the Isthmian Canal Commission for the Panama Canal (ICC) to oversee the construction.   

The ICC awarded their first steam shovel bid to Bucyrus. Bucyrus continued to win bids from the ICC until Secretary of War and Ohio native, William Howard Taft, intervened on behalf of Bucyrus’ Ohio-based competitor, Marion. Ledger entries show that by the end of the project, Bucyrus supplied 77 of the 102 steam shovels purchased, generally in the 70-ton and 95-ton class. Marion Power Shovel Company was awarded bids for 24 shovels.

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was the major supporter of the cause to build the canal.  This was never more evident than when he personally visited the construction site in 1906. He even posed on one of the Bucyrus steam shovels for a photo. His trip marked the first time a sitting U.S. president left the country during his term of office.

The first ship passed through the Panama Canal on August 15, 1914, signaling completion of the project. Approximately 1,000 ships traveled through during the canal’s first year. One of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, the Panama Canal greatly reduced the time needed for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

In the years since, several projects have helped to widen and expand the Panama Canal, and contractors have used Caterpillar machines in those endeavors. Caterpillar products first worked on the canal when fourteen Caterpillar Sixty track-type tractors helped with the building the Madden Dam.

In 2016, the Canal went through one of its most recent expansions, and Caterpillar equipment was there. Contractors used 75 Cat® machines on two phases of the project to build a new single-lane, three-step lock system allowing the Panama Canal to accommodate larger vessels.

Named one of the seven wonders of the modern world by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Panama Canal now sees over 14,000 vehicles traveling through its locks and passages each year.

Bucyrus International, Inc. purchased the Marion Power Shovel Company in 1997. Caterpillar Inc. acquired Bucyrus International, Inc. on July 8, 2011.

The Exhibit

People who come to the Caterpillar Visitors Center can expect to see the following one-of-a-kind items:

  • Select images scanned from the original glass plates of what may be the largest collection of glass plate negatives documenting the building of the Panama Canal between 1904-1914.
  • Several images scanned from the actual glass plate negatives of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt operating Bucyrus equipment at the Canal Zone in 1906. This was the first time a sitting U.S. President left the country.
  • 1920s replica model of a Bucyrus steam shovel used to build the canal.
  • Tools used at the Bucyrus South Milwaukee factory at the time of the manufacture of the machines to be used to construct the Canal.
  • Bucyrus and Marion ledgers that document the sale of steam shovels to build the Canal.
  • Serial plate “No. 1016” from an actual Bucyrus 70-ton railroad steam shovel that worked in the canal zone.
  • Two videos documenting Caterpillar and its acquisitions’ products constructing and maintaining the Canal from 1904 to the present.