Invention and Discovery


The Nicaragua Canal has been so often referred to lately that it will prove interesting to our readers to know more about this project and what its successful completion will mean to the maritime nations of the world, and especially to the United States.

After Columbus had discovered America and it was known that the Indies had not been reached, but that a new continent barred the way, the early discoverers sought a short route past this continent. Hudson, Baffin, and others sought this route in the North, and others tried every available opening in both North and South America, but of course unsuccessfully, as it was soon known that no such route existed.

It must be remembered that the expeditions sailing to the new continent had no knowledge of it geographically. It is hard to understand now, maps are so familiar to all of us now, and we can in a moment call up the shape of the continents, that then they had no knowledge of the Western hemisphere except what could be obtained by their ships slowly crawling along the coasts.

It was not unnatural, therefore, when they sailed into what we now call the Gulf of Mexico and observed how far west they went before coming to land, that they should expect to find the passage there.

When you look at the map that we print herewith, you will see that it is but a short step—for the mind—from the strait that was not found to the idea of connecting the two oceans by a manufactured strait or canal. Much more than a century ago the suggestion was made, and ever since efforts have been made to build such a canal.


The Panama Railroad, a regular steam railroad for passengers and freight, was built across the narrow part of the Isthmus, as indicated in the map, in 1850 to 1855, and at that time negotiations were definitely entered into looking toward the construction of a canal.

Ferdinand de Lesseps, a Frenchman, who made himself famous by building the Suez Canal, organized a company in France, and work was commenced on the Panama route. His plan was to construct what is known as a sea-level canal across the very narrow part of the Isthmus (see map). "Sea level" means that it was to be merely a cut in which the water would be all the way at the same level—an open clear waterway from one ocean to the other. This proved impracticable on account of engineering difficulties and the crossing of the Chagres River, and in 1887 it was decided that it could only be built with locks.

The system of using locks allows the water in different parts of the canal to be at different levels. This is done by closing both ends of each section of the canal with gates; a second pair of gates is placed a short distance beyond, and the space between these is called a "lock." If a vessel is to be taken into a section of the canal higher than that from which she has come, she goes into the lock; water is then let into this lock from the higher level by opening a water-gate until enough has entered to float the vessel up to the level of the higher section of the canal; the gates before the vessel are then opened and she passes out into the new section. If she is to be taken to a lower section, the reverse of this operation accomplishes this: the water is let out until she is on the lower level.


Mr. Eiffel, the engineer who designed the great tower in Paris which has his name, designed locks for the Panama Canal, but in March, 1889, work was stopped on account of lack of money.

How extravagant an operation this canal was, is told by the figures. Two hundred and fifty millions of dollars were spent, and only one hundred and forty millions' worth of work can be shown for it. This great difference created a scandal throughout France, especially as the poorer French people had been led to invest in canal shares, in the belief that they would yield great profit.

The Nicaragua Canal plan is a very different one. The distance across the Isthmus at the point chosen for this route is much greater than for the Panama Canal, and yet there are fewer difficulties in the way. Although the route is one hundred and seventy miles long, there will have to be only twenty-seven miles of actual canal and only six locks. This is on account of the use of Nicaragua Lake and the rivers. The lake is the largest of any lying between the Great Lakes of the United States and Lake Titicaca in Peru.

The route, as laid out after many exploring expeditions have been sent to Nicaragua, is: From Greytown on the Caribbean Sea to the San Juan River by canal, through this river to the lake, through the lake a distance of over sixty miles in clear open water, then by the Lajas River and by canal to the Pacific Coast at Brito. It will be seen that about seventy-five miles of the course is in the rivers and over sixty miles in the lake. Of course the waterway of the rivers will have to be improved, but the cost of this is small compared to making an entirely new cutting. The engineering expeditions have been over every inch of the route to be traversed, and have made thorough examination both of the surface conditions and of the formation of the soil, etc.

All engineers who have investigated the project unite in believing it thoroughly practical and not subject to any extraordinary difficulties.

It was at first planned that the United States Government should build and control this canal, but a bill for this purpose was vetoed by President Cleveland on account of the conditions named by the Government of Nicaragua.

In 1889 a private company was formed to undertake the work, but this company has since failed. It is now hoped that bills can be passed and financial arrangements made which will enable this company to finish the work and the United States to control the canal. The estimated cost of this canal is $150,000,000, and, as General Tracy said in his speech, the saving, etc., will more than compensate the Government for the outlay.

The importance of having this waterway joining the two great oceans has long been recognized and is easily seen. The distance from New York to San Francisco, when vessels have to go all the way around South America, is about fourteen thousand eight hundred miles. If they could pass through a canal at the Isthmus it would be reduced to under five thousand, or about one-third of the distance. Think of the saving in time and money that this would mean!

The great advantages of such a plan are evident in a moment.

We have referred to the speech of General Tracy, who, you will remember, was, during President Harrison's administration, Secretary of the Navy. In that speech he stated that, were this canal completed, we would need to have but one navy where now we practically must have two,—one to guard the Atlantic coast and one the Pacific coast.

If the canal were open, vessels of our navy could be sent from one coast to the other in a very short time.

Moreover, the canal would make trade with the East—China, Japan, etc.—much more direct than now, and, because the voyage would be easier and quicker, greatly increase that trade.

It has been said that the nation that controls such a canal will hold the "key to the Pacific," and with the considerations of our shipping interests, and the desirability of having our war-ships easily transferable from one coast to the other, and our great expanse of country, it would seem that the United States should control it.


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