With the recent news of the Suez Canal being blocked by a massive container ship, I was reminded of the intriguing story of how the Panama Canal almost wasn’t built in Panama.
For those who may not know, the Panama Canal is a 51-mile-long passage built in 1914 which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Nearly 15,000 ships per year use the canal, rather than sailing 7,000 miles out of their way around the tip of South America. What’s more, cargo which needs to go from East to West Coast can sometimes be shipped less expensively through the canal rather than on transcontinental trains. The Panama Canal was such a massive undertaking that it’s considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
The book The Path Between the Seas is a fascinating read of how the Panama Canal almost didn’t exist. A French engineer named Philippe Bunau-Varilla had long advocated building a canal at its current site, arguing it was the narrowest section in Central America. Unfortunately, a couple of efforts to dig a canal in Panama were plagued by yellow fever, malaria, and the deaths of nearly 20,000 workers.
The U.S. decided to take over the canal building and to shift the route to Nicaragua. A Nicaraguan canal would have to be more than three times longer than the Panamanian one and therefore significantly more expensive. However, at the time, Colombia-controlled Panama was marked by civil unrest while Nicaragua was relatively stable.
Bunau-Varilla was desperate to keep the Panama route intact. A week before the U.S. Congress voted on a final plan, he received a letter from Nicaragua with a stamp that showed Nicaragua’s Momotombo volcano erupting. Hatching a plan, Bunau-Varilla “visited every stamp dealer in Washington, D.C. and bought 90 copies of the stamp, one to send to each senator.”
The potential for an eruption in Nicaragua spooked the senators. It was widely known that a volcano in Martinique had recently erupted and killed 30,000 people. The senators voted 42-32 to put the canal in Panama rather than Nicaragua.
The canal that almost wasn’t built in Panama became a reality.
But the story doesn’t end there. For decades Nicaragua has wanted to build a rival canal and in 2013 the government approved a $50 billion proposal from a Chinese company for a canal with an oil pipeline, a railway, and an airport. With significant environmental concerns and a lack of funding, it’s unclear if the canal will ever get built.
Maybe someday I’ll write an article about the Nicaraguan canal that almost wasn’t.