Nicaragua Channel? | Life |


A channel from the Pacific to the Atlantic through Nicaragua does not exist, although it has been discussed for over a century.

It had been proposed as an alternative to a canal through Panama partly because being farther north it would cut about 800 kilometers from the navigational distance from New York to San Francisco.

Additionally, the use of the large inland Lake Nicaragua and existing rivers could reduce the digging distance of the canal. But Panama was chosen as the site for this massive undertaking; there is an interesting story about how postage stamps influenced this decision.

France began work on a canal across the Isthmus of Panama in 1881. This attempt was led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, who was famous as the diplomat who delivered the Statue of Liberty to the United States from France . He had been able to raise a large amount of investment money for the Panama Project after completing his highly profitable construction of the Suez Canal.

This time things didn’t go so well and the project went bankrupt in 1889, after jungle conditions killed thousands of workers and destroyed equipment. After a few years, it became apparent to the US government that a Central American canal could be of enormous benefit to its own economy, despite the difficulties of construction.

The US Senate considered options for restarting the French attempt, versus building an entirely new canal through Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan government had promoted this idea for years; a set of 1896 postage stamps showed a map of the country with the proposed route of the canal clearly marked.

But postage stamps could also be used by the other side. Lobbyist William Nelson Cromwell was hired by French interests to promote the location of Panama to the US government. When he discovered that seismic activity in the Caribbean had increased in 1902 (for example, 30,000 people were killed by the eruption of Mount Pelée in Martinique), Cromwell published a story in the New York Sun according to which the Nicaraguan volcano Mt. Momotombo had erupted.

In fact, Momotombo had been dormant for centuries. Cromwell’s next idea came when he saw the current series of Nicaraguan stamps, which depicted a train in front of Momotombo. The stamp designer, from the American Bank Note Co. of New York, probably wanted a more dramatic view, as he had added a plume of black smoke rising from the volcano, playing into Cromwell’s game!

Leaflets were sent to US senators with one of the stamps affixed and a caption reading: “An Official Witness to Volcanic Activity in Nicaragua”.

Obviously, it wasn’t worth risking the expensive canal project being damaged by an active volcano nearby. Three days later, the US Senate voted strongly in favor of Panama’s location, with only 8 votes for Nicaragua. Cromwell was paid $800,000 for his lobbying efforts, that’s $30 million in today’s money! A simple postage stamp had destroyed the chances of long-term financial stability in the country of Nicaragua.

The Panama Canal opened in 1914, but the idea of ​​a Nicaragua Canal was not completely dead. A barge canal was planned there during World War II, but never started. A 2004 proposal for a new, wider canal sounded exciting as it offered passage for ships weighing up to 250,000 tons, compared to Panama’s maximum of 65,000 tons.

Nothing happened. More recently, a wealthy Hong Kong financial group pledged to the Nicaraguan government to build a canal, but by April 2018 its offices had closed without an address or phone number.

The project is now considered null and void. Considering the amount of environmental damage that the construction of the Nicaragua Canal has been estimated to cause in a very sensitive area, perhaps this is for the best.

Postage Paid is a column submitted by members of the Penticton Stamp Club. For more information about the club, contact Harv Baessler at 250-492-4301 or email: [email protected]


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