Panama Canal Exhibition On View

“The Panama Canal is one of the modern wonders of the world,” says Rochelle T. Pienn, Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Museum Library Coordinator and curator of the new exhibition Wonders Never Cease: The 100th Anniversary of the Panama Canal, on view in the Rare Book and Special Collections Library Vestibule through August 26. “The idea for the Canal was batted around for centuries. Imperial powers were looking for trade routes through the Caribbean to the Pacific that were safer than going around Cape Horn.” Completed in 1914 and described as “the most gigantic engineering undertaking since the dawn of time,” the Panama Canal inaugurated a new era of global trade and travel.

In recent years the museum has received significant donations of rare Panama Canal photograph albums, books, and other printed matter by Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf, some of which is on view in the exhibition, as are materials from other donors, including Laurence Miller and Thomas C. Ragan. Wonders Never Cease coincides with both the anniversary and the Panama Canal expansion currently underway. 

The exhibition recounts some of the early, unsuccessful attempts to create a canal by many European countries. “That part of Panama is a very rugged area, with tropical forests, mountains, and mud. Workers often died of yellow fever and malaria,” Pienn explains. In the 1880s France, following the success of the Suez Canal, attempted to create a passage through the Isthmus of Panama, only to end up millions of dollars in debt. Ultimately the United States, under the leadership of Theodore Roosevelt, stepped in. All told, it took thirty-three years for France and then the United States to realize the Canal. The effort succeeded largely due to the completion of a railroad and the introduction of innovative methods to eradicate the mosquitoes that transmitted yellow fever.

The Canal employed a complex system of hydraulic gates, lakes, and locks and was widely recognized as an engineering marvel. Following its completion, the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco celebrated the achievement. The extravagant, nearly year-long fair, while ostensibly in honor of the Panama Canal, was also a way to demonstrate that San Francisco had recovered from the earthquake and fire of 1906.

Wonders Never Cease showcases a diverse selection of materials related to the Panama Canal and the San Francisco fair, including maps, postcards, brochures, books, travel guides, advertisements, and photograph albums.

One of the items on display is a photograph album titled Panama and the Canal Zone. As I Saw It, February 9th to May 4th 1921 (pictured), which documents the country and Canal Zone with original black and white photographs of US Navy ships passing through the Canal. The compiler of the album is unknown, although it seems probable that he was a government official or peace-time naval officer, according to Pienn. To complement the materials on view in the display cases, the exhibition features a digital slide show that includes images of several interior pages from the photograph album.

“The Panama Canal exists seemingly because of sheer will, determination, and blind optimism characterizing America during a time of intense national pride, colonialism, and industry,” Pienn wrote in a library blog post. The works on paper showcased in Wonders Never Cease clearly convey the excitement generated by this monumental achievement.  


Captions (click below to enlarge):


Book, plate 4, from The Panama Canal: The World's Greatest Engineering Feat, c. 1930
I. L. Maduro, Jr., Panama, publisher
The Wolfsonian–FIU, Miami Beach, Florida Gift of Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf


Postcard, Meeting of the Atlantic & Pacific: The Kiss of the Oceans, c. 1915
Charles A. de Lisle-Holland (1859–), 1910, illustrator
P.P.I.E. Novelty Co., San Francisco, publisher
The Wolfsonian–FIU, Miami Beach, Florida, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Photograph album, Panama and the Canal Zone. As I Saw It, February 9th to May 4th 1921, c. 1921
Albumen prints
The Wolfsonian–FIU, Miami Beach, Florida, Gift of Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf

Book, The Panama Canal: An Illustrated Historical Narrative of Panama and the Great Waterway which Divides the American Continents, 1914
Willis J. Abbot (American, 1863–1934), author
Syndicate Publishing Company, London and New York, publisher
The Wolfsonian–FIU, Miami Beach, Florida, Gift of Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf

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Panama Canal Exhibition On View
Panama Canal Exhibition On View
Panama Canal Exhibition On View