1513: Spanish explorer Vasco Balboa discovers that a thin isthmus of land is all that separates the Pacific from the Atlantic Ocean, raising the first discussion of a canal.
1881: Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had directed the engineering of the Suez Canal, begins a $70 million project to build a canal through Panama. Limited funds and epidemics of yellow fever and malaria thwart his efforts.
1889: De Lesseps's company goes bankrupt.
1903: Panama gains independence from Colombia, after an uprising triggered by Colombia's rejection of a United States plan to build a similar canal.
1904: The US Senate passes the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, giving the US control of a 10-mile-wide and 51-mile-long swath of land - the Canal Zone - "in perpetuity." In exchange, Panama receives $10 million from the US, and is to receive annual payments of $250,000 starting in 1913.
William Gorgas follows the theory that mosquitoes are linked to yellow fever and malaria. He oversees massive swamp drainings around the Panamanian isthmus, and cases of worker illnesses are drastically reduced.
1906: President Theodore Roosevelt travels to Panama and appoints John Stevens as chief engineer of the canal project.
1907-1913: Approximately 96 million cubic yards of rock are removed from the Gaillard Cut along the Continental Divide - the toughest part to be excavated on the route.
1914: The Panama Canal is opened under US sovereignty, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
1977: Hong Kong-based shipping company Hutchison Whampoa begins port operations at Balboa and Cristobal on both approaches to the canal. Some US politicians will later be concerned about Chinese control of the canal.
1978: President Carter signs the Treaty Concerning the Permanent Neutrality and Operation of the Panama Canal is passed, enlisting the US and Panama to maintain joint control of the passage. The Canal was to be handed back in 1999.
1999: US removes its last troops from a military base in November. Panama assumes control on Dec. 31.
Source: Encyclopedia Americana; wire services
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society