100 years ago today, the SS Ancon was the first vessel to transit the canal. The panama canal was started by the french, who were emboldened by their success building the Suez canal. Panama was very different, and they ran out of money long before they finished digging. The Americans bought the whole operation for pennies on the dollar, adjusted their plans, killed mosquitos, and 100 years ago today succeeded.
David McCullough offers an excellent history of the canal in his book the Path Between The Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 – its arranged in 3 parts – the french attempt, the American attempt, and the political dealings in between. Its a good read, and i highly recomend it.