Date on Master's Thesis/Doctoral Dissertation


Document Type

Master's Thesis

Degree Name




Degree Program

History, MA

Committee Chair

Ehrick, Christine

Committee Co-Chair (if applicable)

Dills, Randall

Committee Member

Dills, Randall

Committee Member

Castro Herrera, Guillermo

Author's Keywords

Panama Canal; Water; Rio Grande; Panama City; Waterscapes; Environment


This thesis is an examination of the history of environmental change in the defunct Rio Grande river valley in the former Panama Canal Zone. By mining secondary sources and engineering records, this study provides a narrative of the historic river’s role in the formation of the so-called interoceanic corridor through the isthmus of Panama from 1521 to 1950. More importantly, however, as a case study of river histories in Latin American environmental history, this understudied, Pacific-draining river illustrates how nature and non-human nature made Panama’s strategic transit region into a loci for material flows over time. The Rio Grande played a vital role in the establishment of the Spanish colonial mule road during the colonial period. The nineteenth century ushered in the industrialization of the corridor, initiated with the construction of the Panama Railroad by American capitalists. Great advances in hydraulic technology led to the first serious canal building efforts in the area, with the French effort succumbing to an unyielding nature. The Panama Canal, built by the US government, led to a radical reorganization of the area’s socioecological systems. This thesis applies the concept of social metabolism and the ‘cultural landscape’ to understand material change in central Panama.