The interest in digging a passage through the region of Central America can be dated back almost 500 years. The first potentate to express interest in a canal was Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, who also happened to be Charles I of Spain. In 1534, he ordered the regional governor of the Panamanian region to do a survey in the area of the Chagres River. The eventually proposed route followed very nearly the same path as the present day canal. However, Charles thought it impossible to successfully dig a canal through that region, and the idea was abandoned for about 300 years, until the inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant as president of the United States in 1869.

Grant had a personal interest going back 17 years, to July 1852, when he was a Captain in the army, leading the American Fourth Infantry across the isthmus to California. In 1869, Grant sent expeditions to Central America. He appointed Navigation Bureau Chief Commodore Daniel Ammen under the command of the Secretary of the Navy. Various surveys were conducted in places such as Tehuantepec, Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, and many other places. Again, the proposed route for the canal by the Panama team proved to be extremely similar to the present day canal.

Today, the Panama Canal is a valuable asset for both militaries and shipping companies. Anything from cruise ships to battleships to speedboats are permitted through the canal, and tolls can range from under a dollar (for a daring swimmer) to over 100,000 dollars (for large cruise ships).