White Part of the Canal Zone

Date: 1910
Owner: Library of Congress
Source Type: Images


This is the white occupied area of the Canal Zone, a U.S. owned section of Panama that encompassed all land within ten miles of each bank of the canal. The U.S. received the land cession from Panama after assisting its war of independence from Colombia in 1904, buying out and resuming work upon the partially completed French canal. After the waterway was completed in 1914, the Canal Zone served as home to the North American managers of the canal as well as many Panamanians and West Indians who continued to perform most of the canal-related labor.

The early twentieth century theory of environmental determinism, the pseudoscientific and racist idea that some races are "naturally" suited for certain climates, led North American whites living in Panama to consider themselves unsuited for tropical life. They thus sought to remake U.S. conditions in the Canal Zone, effectively separating it from Panamanian nature. Only 3000 acres were considered fit for white communities while 450 square miles of the Zone were unoccupied by canal managers, U.S. military personnel, and their families. This small, elite area was serviced by many sanitary and health care services, including a YMCA meant to encourage physical and moral fitness in defiance of perceived tropical degeneration. The local population was excluded from this part of the Zone, which was intentionally bounded by forest and hills and patrolled by security forces.


Conniff, Michael L. Black Labor on a White Canal: Panama, 1904-1981. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.

Frenkel, Stephen. "Geography, Empire, and Environmental Determinism." In Geographical Review, Vol. 82, no. 2 (Apr., 1992), p. 143-153.

CITATION: View from Cristobal looking along the principal business street of Colon, Canal Zone. 1913. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: LC-USZ62-117214. Page 2: Native Houses at Cruces, Canal Zone. 1908. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: LC-USZ62-75680.