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1902::The Stamp That Influenced the Building of the Panama Canal

Updated: Mar 22

The stamp that betrayed its own country.


1902::The Proposed Two Canals To Connect Two Oceans

"1902::Two Canals To Connect Two Oceans"

Clip: The Minneapolis Sunday Tribune (1937)

Minneapolis, Minnesota


In 1902, the United States Congress, entrusted with building a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and opening a faster shipping route between the Eastern and Western worlds, faced a significant decision. They had two options to consider. The first was the construction of a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, a project that the French had initiated many years earlier but abandoned and now offered their building rights to the United States. The second option was to build a canal further north across Nicaragua on one of the routes that the United States and Great Britain had jointly surveyed years earlier. The debate in the Senate over both plans was complex, but it was a decision of great consequence that would impact world trade forever. The Panama Canal was favoured by many and seemed the better route, but the French demanded an exorbitant price for their rights. For this reason, a Nicaraguan canal became the preferred choice despite warnings of volcanic activity along the proposed routes, a fact Nicaraguan officials denied.


1902::Colonel Phillipe Bunau-Varilla

"1902::Colonel Phillipe Bunau-Varilla"

Photo Clip: The Kansas City Times (1925)

Kansas City, Missouri


Colonel Bunau-Varilla, former Chief Engineer of the abandoned French canal enterprise, believed Panama to be the better route. To him, the failure of the French undertaking was an international tragedy, and he was determined to set things right. In 1902, as a decision drew near, Bunau-Varilla successfully convinced his home country to lower the cost of the French rights. This new price steered many votes away from the opposition, but it wasn't enough. Nicaragua was still the canal of choice. Several weeks later, however, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes destroyed cities across Central America, including Nicaragua. Panama now seemed the obvious choice, but there was one problem. To keep their canal deal alive, the Nicaraguan government denied the eruptions ever happened and insisted that the volcanoes along the proposed routes were not a threat. This announcement sparked further debate about the safety of a Nicaraguan canal and the decision-making senators to turn to their scientists and engineers for answers. Bunau-Varilla had a better idea.


1902::Stamp that Betrayed Its Country

Bunau-Varilla, stationed in Nicaragua and keen on selling France's rights to construct a canal across Panama, sent a persuasive letter to each Congressional Senator. When the letters arrived on their desks, the stamp on each envelope was hard to miss. On each two-cent Nicaraguan stamp was the image of an active volcano in eruption, Nicaragua's very own Mount Momotombo, towering over one of the proposed canal routes. The stamp effectively made the senators rethink the Nicaraguan Canal just as the Colonel hoped it would. In his mind, the image of an erupting volcano on an official Nicaraguan stamp represented their government's admission of the volcanic danger along their proposed canal route, and the senators agreed.


1902::Stamp that Betrayed Its Country

The stamp was the proof needed to tip the scales. A final vote came to pass, and although the Nicaraguan route was still preferred by many, the Panama Canal won by eight votes. It took years of administrative work and preparation before the United States could pick up where the French had left off, but construction of the Panama Canal finally resumed in 1907. Whether the Panama Canal was the right choice weighed on American Senators for years, even throughout the years of construction. Many still believe the Nicaraguan Canal would have served its purpose better. Despite all the doubt, the Panama Canal officially opened in 1914 and changed world trade forever.


1899::Nicaragua’s Lake Managua Pier With Mount Momotombo as It Appeared on a Stamp

"1899::Nicaragua’s Lake Managua Pier With Mount Momotombo as It Appeared on a Stamp"

Photo: (tbd)


In 1902, scientists in Central America believed there were at least 75 active volcanoes within a 500-mile stretch. Nicaraguans were proud of their great snorting and slumbering volcanoes that attracted tourists to their country, and highlighting them as a feature on the canal route seemed like a great marketing idea.


1902::Momotombo Eruption

For this reason, the photo of the erupting Mount Momotombo appeared on Nicaragua's turn-of-the-century stamps, coins and a small collection of official government seals.


"1902::Momotombo Eruption Destroys Pier"

Clip: The Buffalo Express (1902)

Buffalo, New York


What was not well known was that weeks before the canal decision came to vote, the typically quiet Mount Momotombo began to grumble. An earthquake soon followed and devastated the area, a fact that the government quickly denied. The Momotombo Pier, where passengers from the Managua Lake steamboat disembarked and boarded the train to Corinto, was utterly wiped out. Remnants of the lake's busy pier and the train's shoreline terminus are lost today.


"...part of the pier sank into the lake, sending to the bottom the locomotive and part of the coffee that was piled on the platform." - Eyewitness, 1902

1905::Mount Momotombo Errupts Just Three Years After Panama Canal Vote

"1905::Mount Momotombo Errupts Just Three Years After Panama Canal Vote"

Clip: The Mansfield News (1905)

Mansfield, Ohio


In 1905, just five years after Mount Momotombo first appeared on Nicaraguan stamps and three years after the canal decision, the grumbling volcanic giant awoke once again, reminding everyone of the difficult decision made.


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