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The Elusive Nicaragua Canal

For over one hundred years, the Panama Canal has been a world-renowned marvel of engineering, creating a vital shipping link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. But at the turn of the 20th century, if it were not for some eleventh hour political maneuvering, and perhaps a very persuasive postage stamp, perhaps the famous canal would have been built not in Panama, but in Nicaragua.

Panoramic view of the Nicaragua Canal

“Panoramic view of the Nicaragua Canal,” Julius Bien & Co., c1870. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The dream of the Nicaragua Canal arose out of a centuries-long quest for establishing a shipping shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through Central America. Before such a canal, ships traveling between the oceans had to embark on the far longer and more treacherous journey around the southern tip of South America. The earliest serious proposals considering a path through, what is today, Nicaragua date back to the early 1800s. Since this time, a number of specific canal routes through southern Nicaragua have been considered, with the one constant among them being passage through Lake Nicaragua (also known as Cocibolca). The route detailed in the 1913 map below stretches from San Juan Del Norte on the Atlantic coast to Corinto on the Pacific coast, passing through the San Juan River, Lake Nicaragua, and the capital city of Managua.

Detail of canal region of Nicaragua, map from 1913.

Detail from “República de Nicaragua,” Robelin, L, 1913. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Throughout the 19th century, the Nicaraguan government sought support from foreign governments and investors, including American politicians and entrepreneurs, for taking on the massive infrastructure project. However, a number of concerns on the part of American lawmakers and businessmen hampered these efforts, including fears of earthquake-induced landslides, heavy rainfall, and political instability in the region.

The most dramatic failed attempt came in 1902, when Congress seemed to be on the verge of finally approving a Nicaraguan canal deal, but was grappling with geologic concerns in the country, specifically the risk of volcanic eruptions and related seismic activity. In the spring of 1902, Momotombo, a volcano in western Nicaragua, erupted. Seeing an opportunity to raise fears about the Nicaraguan route in Congress, lobbyists for a competing canal deal through Panama pounced on the news.

Nicaragua Canal cartoon

“A thing well begun is half done / Victor Gillam.” Victor F. Gillam, 1899. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Philippe Bunau-Varilla, a French engineer spearheading the Panama Canal proposal, sent every congressman a Nicaraguan postage stamp created two years earlier depicting a smoking Momotombo, aiming to drive home fears of volcanic activity sabotaging the Nicaraguan canal route (one of these postage stamps can be found in the Philippe Bunau-Varilla Papers). The full impact of this ploy on the legislators has been debated by historians, but the cumulative effect of the concerns over volcanic activity eventually pushed Congress to change course (literally, in a geographic sense) and approve Panama over Nicaragua for the canal.

Despite the Panama Canal’s success in providing the pivotal mid-continent shortcut, efforts to build a canal through Nicaragua have continued up to the present day, but thus far, none have come to fruition. It is interesting to think about how the course of maritime history may have changed considerably if it weren’t for some bad volcanic timing and an evocative postage stamp.

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