Modern history


Against All Odds

“I do not want to be interrupted, for I am very tired . . .”



At age sixty-six Rear Admiral John Grimes Walker was still a majestic figure. Even in his dark civilian suit and string tie he looked like The Old Man of the Sea, as he was sometimes known in Washington. Large and handsome, he carried himself, especially on public occasions, in grand military fashion. The gray hair was smartly parted in the exact center of his head. The complexion was ruddy, the brows heavy and beautifully arched, and from the sides of his face grew magnificent muttonchop whiskers that reached to his lapels and that were several decades out of style.

For more than forty years, Admiral Walker had been a special favorite in the capital, enjoying, it was said, more political influence than any officer in the Navy. He was direct, unaffected in manner, and if a bit self-important, he plainly meant well. His reputation for integrity was second to none.

Since his retirement in 1897, he had been devoting himself solely to his duties as head of the two Presidential canal commissions. And on the face of it he had been the ideal choice for the position. His one shortcoming was a lack of engineering background or experience, which until now nobody had made an issue of. He had never tried to assume the role of a technical authority. Over dinner at the Metropolitan Club, soon after the latest commission had been organized, he told its illustrious members that it was for them, the experts, to get at “the bottom facts,” however long that took, however much it might cost; and not once thereafter had he said or done anything to make them doubt his sincerity or his willingness to trust their professional judgment.

As the commission’s head, Walker was the first member to testify before the Morgan Committee. He appeared the morning of February 7, 1902. There had been several other witnesses to date, but except for Édouard Lampré, spokesman for the Compagnie Nouvelle, they had been Morgan’s witnesses—that is, predictably pro-Nicaragua or anti-Panama. A. G. Menocal had appeared two days earlier, for example. Now in his sixties and also retired from the Navy, Menocal was supposedly Morgan’s strongest technical witness, and prodded by Morgan’s patient questioning, he had documented his whole long commitment to Nicaragua. But there was nothing new in anything he said; nothing for the newspapers.

The only remark thus far that the reporters had pounced on was one made by Morgan during an exchange with the Frenchman Lampré—that he would not give 371/2 cents for Lampré’s canal—a remark quoted out of context and that had been nowhere near as offensive as the headlines implied. Morgan had been trying to show his contempt for any purchase of the French property whereby the money would go to the new company, rather than to those original small stockholders who had sacrificed so much. Were they to be denied a just share, said Morgan, then he would want no part of the arrangement even if he could get the canal for 371/2 cents.

Morgan had been enjoying himself enormously the whole while. It had been his show from the first day, when he kept Lampré under fire for three and a half hours, and pointedly reminded the witness several times that he was under oath. When S. W. Plume, the old Panama Railroad man, appeared the day before Walker, Morgan seemed not in the least disturbed that the room was virtually empty. Only one other member of the committee bothered to attend, Senator Kittredge, a Republican, who made a show of looking bored, but Morgan had gone right along in high spirits, questioning the witness as though the entire country were present and as if the hard-bitten old man’s memories of Panama’s horrors far outweighed the views of high-powered engineers.

Walker’s testimony took up the better part of one day and the morning following. In the record book the transcription fills seventy-five pages. The full committee was present this time. And from the moment Walker took his seat it was plain that Morgan and his allies had their knives out for him. To Morgan especially, Walker’s new position on Panama seemed little less than treasonous. It might also prove calamitous to Morgan’s cause, unless Walker could be made to look the fool or led to say, even by inference, that he had no real heart for the Panama plan. One rumor in the Senate corridors was that in return for his Panama support the White House had promised Walker the job of directing construction of the canal, from his office in Washington and with a large salary. It was easy for Walker to recommend Panama, the American minister in Nicaragua had written to Senator Morgan, since Walker would not have to live there. The admiral, it was known, liked his comforts.

The questioning was focused almost entirely on Walker’s grasp of the technical issues involved in the commission’s plan for Panama and it was Senator Harris, the one former civil engineer on the committee and Morgan’s staunchest ally, who monopolized the first hour. Morgan, who had a way of glaring at people even under ordinary circumstances, never took his eye off the witness.

The commission’s Panama scheme, the projected Panama canal upon which all cost estimates were based and against which all virtues or shortcomings in the Nicaragua plan were compared, had been based in large part on a plan devised by the Compagnie Nouvelle. The essential element in the plan, its key, was a giant dam that would check the Chagres River at Bohio and form a large inland lake reaching nearly two-thirds of the way across the Isthmus. The commission’s decision had been to abandon the sea-level concept, as de Lesseps’ engineers had finally done, and to build a lock canal much along the lines of the proposal made by Godin de Lépinay in 1879. The Isthmus was not to be severed by a vast trench, but bridged by an artificial lake, Lake Bohio, as it was called in the plan. Ships would leave one ocean, climb to the level of the lake by a flight of locks, cross the lake, then descend by another flight of locks to the ocean on the opposite side, just as de Lépinay had outlined. The one great task of excavation would be at Culebra, at the Pacific, or southern, end of the lake, where a channel of nine miles would have to be cut through the Cordilleras.

But while the Bohio dam was the most important structure on the line and a “vital necessity to the scheme,” it also presented enormous “difficulties of construction.” Numbers of prominent engineers considered it an extremely uncertain, hazardous solution if not an impossible one.

The dam was to be a man-made earthen hill a hundred feet high and it would create a lake some forty square miles in area, the largest artificial lake in the world. But the dam was also to have a masonry core that would extend farther below ground than the dam was high, and to achieve this, pneumatic caissons—for the foundations of the core—were to be sunk 128 feet below sea level, a depth far in excess of anything previously attempted.

Did the commission’s entire Panama plan hang on the Bohio dam? Senator Harris asked. Yes, replied Walker. Everything depended on the Bohio dam, but the dam would not be the most difficult undertaking. The great cut through the spine of the Cordilleras would be more momentous still. It alone might take as much as eight years.

When it was Morgan’s turn, he began with costs. Why was there a difference of $1,000,000 in the estimates for the two canals? The number of locks accounted for most of that, Walker said. There would be five locks in the Panama canal, eight in the Nicaragua canal. The reason for the fifth lock at Panama, he explained, was the great rise and fall of the tide in the Bay of Panama.

“We lift up from the Atlantic to the surface of Lake Bohio with two locks and then we drop down on the Pacific side with three locks, the last lock being the lock in which the lift varies very much, depending on the height of the tide . . . . The lock is intended as a method of passing ships from one level to another.”

“I understand that,” Morgan replied in a low, even drawl.

They were facing each other square on, the regal old Yankee sailor looking no less resolute than the small, white-haired one-time leader of Confederate cavalry.

Did the admiral recall any point of fact upon which he had so suddenly changed his mind as to where the canal should be built?

“Well, that would be pretty hard to answer. I went into the thing with my sympathies and prejudices, as far as I had any, in favor of the Nicaragua line, but I endeavored to take hold of this question with a mind open to proof.”

Morgan said he had no doubt that this was so, but wished to know whether the admiral’s new position was based upon any fact.

“I have changed it to this extent, that I know that the best line is the Panama line. . . .”

“In an engineering sense?”

“Yes, in an engineering sense.”

Morgan, as he told reporters earlier, was convinced that the commission’s sudden affection for Panama had nothing to do with engineering arguments, but was based on price alone, “cheapness” was his word.

“Well, you come to that conclusion without changing any facts in your former statements?” he said.


“Your judgment is convinced that you were in error in the first statement?”

“No, sir; not at all. I have not changed my mind a particle.”

Then how, Morgan demanded, could he conclude that Panama was the best canal when he had recommended Nicaragua?

Because, said Walker, when he recommended Nicaragua it had been the most feasible route under conditions then prevailing.

“What conditions?”

“When I voted in favor of the Panama route it was under quite different conditions.”

“What conditions do you refer to?”

“Very largely the unreasonable price that the Panama people asked for their property.”

“Is it not exclusively that?”

Walker fumbled for words. “I don’t think of anything—I do not go back . . . I think that the engineering features of the Panama route are better than those of the Nicaragua route, although both routes are feasible. . . .”

“You think so?”

“I think so.”

Morgan, who had made his reputation in Selma as a trial lawyer, abruptly shifted ground. His interest now was in the sources upon which the commission had drawn its technical data. His purpose was to show that the commission’s entire Panama proposal, hence its entire decision, was founded on the word of Frenchmen, or on French plans, which by Morgan’s lights were as suspect as the people who drew them up.

“How many days did your commission spend on the Isthmus of Panama?”

“We were there about two weeks.”

“You have not been back since?”

“No, sir.”

“Has any member of the commission been back since?”

“Not to Panama.”

“Well, in two weeks’ time you did undertake, I suppose, to obtain accurate knowledge of the engineering and of all the conditions of that canal and the country through which it passes?”

“Yes,” said Walker, taking the bait, “we had very good knowledge of the matter from having examined the French data with great care; we had our working parties on the Isthmus of Panama . . . . We had a locomotive and a special car every day to take us back and forth along the line, so that we lost no time, and we devoted ourselves to that work every day that we were there. . . .”

Morgan had a vivid picture in mind of the old admiral and his party breezing up and down the Panama Railroad in a private car, deciding the fate of the canal from the view from the window, attended by a swarm of hovering Frenchmen doing everything possible to put them at their ease. It was a grossly unfair picture, but it was one also shared by many in the room.

“Well, you say you made an examination of the French surveys before you went to the canal?”


“Where did you examine them?”

Like everyone on the committee, Morgan knew perfectly well that it had been in Paris; he knew of Cromwell’s stage-managing, the displays gotten up by the French company, and so forth.

“In Paris. We spent about a month in Paris, working every day, usually two sessions a day with officers of the French company, who laid everything before us . . . and then we went to the Isthmus in person to supplement that information . . . . We made our plans for the building of a canal after we had examined this data and after we had personally visited the Isthmus and been over the ground with great care. . . .”

“You did not undertake to make an independent survey of that canal line?” (As everyone present also appreciated, the entire Nicaragua survey had been “independent,” by which Morgan meant the work of American engineers alone.)

“No, sir,” answered the admiral, who now apparently saw the trap being set for him. “For instance, we bored the site of the Bohio dam most thoroughly, much more thoroughly than the French had bored it. So far as what is ordinarily called surveying, topographical work, we did enough of it to convince ourselves that the French work was good and that we could accept their work as our own.”

“Well, you did adopt it?”

“We did adopt it after convincing ourselves of its accuracy.”

“But the basis of that survey and the basis of your calculations and plans was the French survey?”

“No; we accepted their survey after checking it enough to be sure that it was right, and then after that our work was our own.”

“But based on what?”

“Well, based on their surveys, if you like.”

“That is what I mean,” Morgan said smoothly.

Morgan moved right along, taking up the geology of the Bohio valley, the design of the controversial dam, the intended use of levees, the silting up of the old French works. It was his characteristic approach, persistent and exasperatingly patient. The impression he seemed to be striving for was this: that Walker and his commission, by recommending Panama, were asking Congress and the country to risk everything on faith, faith in old John Grimes Walker, faith in the assumptions of one particular set of civil engineers, and, at root and worst of all, faith in the French.

Did the admiral happen to know whether the Bohio basin would hold water if a dam were built there? Would the admiral’s entire plan hold water was the implicit question.

“Have we any right to suppose that it would not hold water?” Walker replied, obviously annoyed.

“I am just asking your judgment,” Morgan said. “I am not an engineer or a commissioner. I am not recommending the government take your plan.”

“I have never seen anything to make me suppose there was the slightest danger of its not holding water.”

“You made no inquiry about that?”

“I did not make any inquiry about that,” said Walker. “There are a great many things that I have not inquired about.”

•   •

In the days when Walker had headed the Nicaragua Canal Commission, indeed until the latest reversal by the current commission, he and Morgan had often worked closely together. They had been colleagues in a common mission. But there was never the slightest sign of familiarity through this long session—no personal asides, no pleasantries—and when the committee convened the next morning, a Saturday, Morgan started in again. Often he was openly uncivil to Walker, or “spluttered” (as one reporter wrote) in exasperation at Walker’s answers.

No, the locomotives left behind by the French were not worthless, Walker insisted. They would have to be overhauled, but they were quite serviceable, as were many of the French excavators and dredges. He knew of nothing along the Panama line that was not within engineering precedents, except for the Bohio dam. No, he had not experienced Panama in the rainy season. No, he did not think that $2,000,000 for the French maps and surveys was excessive. Yes, he thought the engineers on the commission were quite able, as able as any in the United States.

Only when Morgan announced, after about an hour, that he had no more questions, did the tension in the air suddenly subside. It was then that Hanna, in sharp contrast, began to talk to the witness in genial, respectful tones. He asked merely for the admiral to tell the committee why—price aside—the canal should be built at Panama.

“To start with the route has better harbors,” said Walker. “It is a much shorter canal, has easier curves, and we are surer by that route of what we are doing. While we made a very careful examination of the Nicaragua line, as thorough an examination as perhaps is ever made or likely to be made before undertaking a new enterprise . . .”

“Right there let me interrupt you,” Hanna said. “You also had the advantage of all previous surveys made by the United States government of the Nicaragua route?”

“Yes. We know far less about the Nicaragua line than we do about the Panama line. It is impossible to know as much. The Nicaragua line is in comparatively wild country which has not been explored to anything like the same extent that the Panama line has. The Panama line has been a great thoroughfare, traveled for two or three hundred years. It has been examined with reference to a canal for many years past . . . and the country along the line is cleared up so that one can see what he is doing. In the wild parts of Nicaragua it is a jungle, where often we could not see fifty feet, and we would be much more likely to meet disagreeable surprises by the Nicaragua line than by the Panama line.”

He told Hanna he had no misgivings about any aspect of the Panama plan. Further, he did not regard the Panama climate as any greater threat to health than any other place in the tropics.

“There was a great loss of life in building the railroad,” he conceded, “and when they [the French] first went to work on the canal there was a good deal of sickness, but the surface material from which this sickness is supposed to come has largely been removed, and of late years it has been as healthy there as anywhere in a tropical country. . . .”

“Is it not likely,” Hanna put in, “that in the construction of the Nicaragua canal, working a large force, turning up the surface of that soil, and in dredging, that malarial conditions conducive to fevers would arise?”

“Certainly,” said the admiral. “As it stands today Nicaragua is a healthier route, because there is no work of that kind being done and very few people get sick, but when you get to turning up the ground there would be sickness there, as there would be anywhere.”

•   •

The parade of witnesses continued on into March. Much of what was said was repetitious or boring. Frequently one committee member or another would lead the witness through drawn-out explanations simply to get some obscure point into the record. Still much was said that had not been said before, at least for the records, and was of considerable interest.

Lewis Haupt, the University of Pennsylvania professor, declared, for example, that he had signed the commission’s decision on Panama only to make it unanimous. He did not think Panama the superior choice. Alfred Noble, another eminent member of the commission, said no self-respecting American contractor would take the French equipment at Panama as a gift. A third commission engineer, William Burr, told the committee that the French work would all have to be greatly enlarged, from a bottom width of 98 feet and a depth of 29 feet to a bottom width of 150 feet and a depth of 35 feet. This, he said, would make it the largest canal in the world, but none too large for the American Navy being projected.1 Morgan, taking a dim view of such talk, drawled, “Do you expect to make a canal that will carry Noah’s ark or something like that through it?”

“No, probably not,” Burr answered. “We hope there will be no occasion for Noah’s ark.”

The name Ferdinand de Lesseps came up repeatedly. He and his young French engineers seemed to fill the big room like specters. There was talk of the ruined canal, of ruined machinery wallowing forlornly in the jungle, of the graves on Monkey Hill, of scandal and dishonor, and whether the same would happen all over again if Americans were to go into Panama. Morgan was convinced that it would. The engineers said no. De Lesseps’ failure resulted from insufficient investigations on the grounds, said General Abbot, of the Comité Technique. An underlying theme in much of the testimony was that industrious, practical, moral men—Americans—might succeed where others had failed. Indeed, in an inverse way, the downfall of the French, the sheer unpleasantness and difficulty of taking the Panama route, began to have a peculiar, compelling kind of attraction. The pesthole could be a proving ground, an opportunity to succeed gloriously, for all the world to see, where a less industrious, less manly, and less virtuous people had failed so ignominiously. One witness, a railroad contractor, had told Morgan in a letter, “Engineers are sometimes the least practical of men, they may be attracted by difficulties. . . . .”

Another of Morgan’s witnesses, a noted and most convincing engineer named Lyman Cooley, asked how anyone could possibly guarantee that Americans would prove three times as honest, three times as competent, as the French, because that, he said, was what it would take.

The head of the Maritime Canal Company made the legal transactions involved in the purchase of its Nicaragua properties and franchise sound extremely simple and tidy. General Edward Porter Alexander, a former Army engineer, assured the committee that there would be no technical difficulties involved in a Nicaragua canal, then finished with a tribute to the physical allure of the country that not even Morgan ever quite equaled. “It impressed me as one of the most attractive countries that I ever saw for a poor man to make a living in . . . if I had to be born again I would ask the angel that was bringing me down to take me to Nicaragua. . . .”

By far the greatest amount of time was spent on Panama, however, and the most impressive testimony was that of George S. Morison, whose reasons for wanting a canal there were essentially the same as those stated by Admiral Walker, only coming from him they appeared unassailable. Morison, as someone remarked, was a “force”—a huge, human bulwark, slow and deliberate in manner, slow to make up his mind and intractable once he had. The basic Panama plan was sound, he said; things that were impossible twenty years earlier were now quite possible. The dam could be built. The river could be controlled. The dam need not have a masonry core; the whole business of pneumatic caissons could be dispensed with.

The thing that must not be underestimated, he said, was the size of the job. The Culebra Cut would be the largest excavation ever attempted. “It is a piece of work that reminds me of what a teacher said to me when I was in Exeter [Phillips Exeter Academy] over forty years ago, that if he had five minutes in which to solve a problem he would spend three deciding the best way to do it.” No less than two years, Morison said, ought to be spent just getting ready for such a task.

Again, as with Walker, Hanna asked about the problem of disease. “If the reports are correct,” Morison said, “we can get rid of yellow fever by killing the mosquitoes.” Nobody picked him up on that, nobody seemed the least interested, and nothing more was said on the subject during the whole course of the hearings.

The final witness, a fusty retired congressman from Nevada, who had spent some time in Nicaragua half a century earlier, appeared on March 10. Three days later the committee reported the Hepburn Bill favorably: the committee wanted a Nicaragua canal. The vote was seven to four, exactly what it would have been had it been taken before the hearings began.

•   •

The odds against a Panama victory in the Senate appeared now to be about 100 to 1. The impression also was that a great deal of time had been spent on a great deal of talk for nothing. And in contrast to the events that were soon to follow, the drawn-out testimony of the engineers would seem particularly colorless and unimportant. But the case for Panama had not gone unnoticed in certain quarters, and this was to prove of critical importance. An incident in Brooklyn, for example, caught the attention of the New York papers, and thus, almost certainly, the New Yorker in the White House. At a dinner on March 16, in honor of a Brooklyn engineer, C. C. Martin, one of the builders of the Brooklyn Bridge, the main speaker was Irving M. Scott, of San Francisco, head of the Union Iron Works, builder of the battleship Oregon. The canal was his topic. “We must have that canal. Whether it be Panama or Nicaragua, I care not. But have it we must.” His listeners, nearly all civil engineers, did care, however. “Panama! Panama!” someone shouted. Then at once everyone in the room was on his feet, handkerchiefs were fluttering in the air. Everyone was shouting, “Panama! Panama!”


One topic that had been scarcely touched on, ironically, was that of “seismic disturbances.”

The commission had pretty well dismissed seismic action of any kind as a serious threat to canals in either location, but between volcanoes and earthquakes, earthquakes were regarded as a more serious danger. There had been fourteen recorded earthquakes along the Nicaragua line, the report noted, including one in 1844 that did damage four miles from the canal line. But, as the report explained, canals were underground structures; even the proposed dams would be so broadly based as to be virtually part of the ground itself; the locks would all be founded on rock.

Of the fourteen or so volcanoes in Nicaragua, only a few had shown any signs of life since the time of the Spanish, and all but one of these, Ometepe, which rises on an island in Lake Nicaragua, were a considerable distance from the proposed canal line. Even Ometepe was thirteen miles from where the ships would cross the lake, and from Ometepe to the site for the nearest lock was a distance of twenty miles.

Late in April, however, on the Caribbean island of Martinique, 1,500 miles from Nicaragua, an enormous, long-dormant volcano, Mount Pelée, began rumbling ominously and spewing up clouds of hot ash. Then on the night of May 2, the mountain trembled to the accompaniment of thunderous, terrifying subterranean explosions. The city of St. Pierre, the “little Paris,” was showered with volcanic dust and the sea for miles was littered with dead birds. After that the volcano was seldom still. At 7:52 on the morning of May 8, 1902, the whole mountain exploded. The city of St. Pierre was wiped out in approximately two minutes. It was one of the most appalling disasters of all time. Sailors on a cable ship anchored eight miles off shore felt the heat. A man watching from a distant mountainside said it looked “as if Martinique was sliding into the sea.” Nearly thirty thousand people had been killed, and above the island, blotting out the sky, was a tumultuous black cloud, perhaps fifty miles across. The sole survivor of St. Pierre was a prisoner locked in a windowless underground jail cell who had no idea what had happened until he was discovered by rescue workers.

At the White House, disregarding all red tape, Roosevelt ordered the cruiser Cincinnati to leave for Martinique at once under full steam and the Dixie, a converted freighter, followed, carrying Army rations, medical supplies, and doctors. Congress was asked for an immediate appropriation and Congress quickly granted $200,000. Pelée kept erupting in subdued fashion, meantime.

For Philippe Bunau-Varilla the news was heaven-sent. “What an unexpected turn of the wheel of fortune!” he would write. “If not the strongest of my arguments against Nicaragua, at least the most easily comprehensible of them was thus made a hundred times more striking . . .”

In the past months he had been chasing about seeing newspaper editors, talking to Hanna, talking to everyone who would listen, with such fanatical zeal that word had reached Paris that he had lost his mind. Now he swung into action as never before. A letter outlining the “terrible object lesson” of Pelée was rushed to the White House and a still more elaborate version went off to Senators Hanna and Spooner. There was an impassioned appeal on Waldorf stationery to John Tyler Morgan.

In New York the ancient and reliable John Bigelow was stirred into action still one more time. Through Bigelow a meeting was arranged with editor Edward P. Mitchell, of the Sun, the result of which was a vigorous editorial declaring that the “volcanic menace” in Nicaragua could no longer be dismissed as a remote issue.

On May 14, incredibly, came a dispatch from New Orleans describing the eruption of Momotombo, in Nicaragua itself. Now “even the mountains of Nicaragua are enlisted in the alleged conspiracy to defeat the great purpose of Senator Morgan’s life,” observed Mitchell in the Sun. Momotombo was said to be shooting great shafts of fire into the sky, and an accompanying earthquake had supposedly sent a government dock plunging into Lake Managua. On May 20, Pelée exploded a second time, leveling what little remained of St. Pierre, and on the island of St. Vincent, just to the south of Martinique, still another volcano erupted.

At the request of John Tyler Morgan, the Nicaraguan minister in Washington cabled Managua for verification of the Momotombo story. Morgan, meantime, had also obtained assurance from John Hay that the President would remain silent on the canal matter.“He greatly prefers, as did President McKinley,” Hay wrote assuringly, “that the question of the route be decided by Congress . . .” The Senate was to commence debate on June 4.

On June 3, the Nicaraguan minister reported back to Morgan with a copy of the reply from Managua, a cable signed by José Santos Zelaya, president of Nicaragua:


“I may add also,” wrote the Nicaraguan minister in a covering letter to Morgan, “that Nicaragua has not had any volcanic eruption since 1835, and at that time Coseguina discharged smoke and ashes, but no lava. No one was killed or injured and no property was destroyed by that occurrence.” Momotombo was a hundred miles from the proposed canal line.

The minister’s name was Luis Corea. Whether he actually received such a cable from President Zelaya or was responsible for the copy he passed on to Morgan is impossible to determine. In any event, Momotombo had definitely erupted; the cable accredited to President Zelaya was quite false.

•   •

It was Old Morgan who made the first speech when the debate on the Hepburn Bill began in the Senate, Wednesday, June 4, 1902.

“Mr. President, I do not care to approach the discussion of this important measure in a cloud of volcanic smoke and ashes which the opponents of the measure outside of the Senate have brought as a funeral pall to place over its bier, and I think it proper that I should try to clear the atmosphere. . . .”

He read Luis Corea’s letter, then two others from the American minister at Managua, his old friend William Merry, who emphasized that there had been no seismic disturbances along the proposed canal line. But mainly the speech was an attack on Panama for its political violence, “its mixed and turbulent people,” for its seismic disturbances. He read a vivid eyewitness account from the Panama Star & Herald of the destruction caused by the earthquake of 1882. If seismic disturbances were the only way to defeat the Nicaragua canal, then he was sorry to report that the argument would carry Panama down with it.

For quite a while the Senate was subjected to a lesson in geopolitics, as Morgan explained the peculiar relationship of Panama to the rest of Colombia because of geography. Taking Bancroft’s History of Central America as his text, he explained the Bidlack Treaty and the touchy nature of American involvement in Panama. The one possible solution to Panama’s political demoralization, the immortal Bancroft had said, was a strong government “provided from abroad.” Did this mean then, the historian had asked rhetorically, that the United States—“as the power most interested in preserving the independence” of a Panama waterway—would take upon itself “the whole control for the benefit of all nations?” Only time would tell, Bancroft had written. Only time would tell, repeated the frail, white-haired Senator from Alabama. That, he said, looking about the chamber, was what concerned him above all. Should the United States decide on a canal at Panama, it would be merely a matter of time before the United States would be compelled to take Panama by force. And he wanted no part in that. It would “poison the minds of people against us in every Spanish-American republic in the Western Hemisphere, and set their teeth on edge against us . . . it would tarnish our national honor to enter Panama under the pledge that our purpose is to build a canal and follow it with the annexation of Panama.” He was Jeremiah now, and the part came easily. “And no actual necessity for annexation, however imperative it may be, would ever excuse or palliate that result, in the opinion of the Spanish-American people. If this is to be . . . as a necessity for the protection of the canal, it would be the most dangerous national pitfall into which we could plunge.”

The place for the canal, as always, was Nicaragua, “where all the people are anxiously awaiting the coming of the United States to their assistance, with eager hopes and warm welcome, to their fertile, healthy, and beautiful land.”

Morgan was not much of an orator. He paused often to frame his sentences and like all his speeches this one would read better than it sounded. He closed with an appeal for an act of kindness, as he said, for his beloved South. “ . . . I would brighten that land with the bloom of prosperous industry, and bring back to my brethren the consciousness that they live and move in the current of human affairs. I hope to see the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea . . . as busy with commerce as the bay of San Francisco.”

He had spoken for some two and a half hours and he had made no mention of engineering considerations.

•   •

The following day, June 5, shortly before two in the afternoon, Marcus Alonzo Hanna limped down the aisle of the Senate to deliver the most important speech of his career. Behind him hurried a secretary carrying a stack of books, papers, and pamphlets.

The chamber was nearly full and all about were hung enormous maps and plans. One map of Central America and the Caribbean islands reached from the gallery railing to the floor. It showed the location of every principal volcano, active or extinct, the active ones being marked in red, the extinct in black, with the result that an almost solid band of red dots ran from the Mexican-Guatemalan border on the Pacific shore to about midway into Costa Rica. Eight of the red dots were in Nicaragua. In the Colombian province of Panama there were none. Also, as many observers were quick to note, Pelée, on Martinique, was indicated as extinct.

The maps and the plans were merely colossal enlargements of several from the report of the Walker Commission, copies of which had long since been made available to every member of the Senate and to the press. But Hanna, who had an instinct for promotion, knew the effect such a display would have. No graphic presentation of such scale had ever been seen before in the Senate.

“Ladies and diplomats, reporters, agents of the powers, all jammed the gallery’s aisles,” we are told. Telephones had been ringing across town all morning with the message that Hanna was to speak.

Largely misunderstood in his own day, largely forgotten by the time the last of his generation had passed from the scene, Marcus Alonzo Hanna was an original, the plain, plain-spoken, brilliant, eminently practical man who had made a business of politics and made himself the nearest thing there had ever been to a national political boss. Coal merchant, ironmonger, owner of ore boats and newspapers, he was burly, but seemingly bland, with a bald head and large brown eyes and a bad case of rheumatism. He had put his adored friend William McKinley in the White House by amassing the biggest campaign fund on record and through keen political judgment, and when McKinley made Senator Sherman Secretary of State in 1897, Hanna was appointed to fill his place. He was still finishing out Sherman’s term and until now he had had comparatively little to say in the Senate. He thought political speeches “gas.”

But the talk now, increasingly, was of Hanna for President in 1904, which was a major reason for the stir over the speech he was about to make. For while he made light of any possible Presidential ambitions, the idea of big, able “Uncle Mark,” friend of business, friend of labor, host of sumptuous parties, holding forth in the White House in his own style appealed to many, and especially to Wall Street, where Roosevelt was thought “unsafe.” History, moreover, seemed to be on his side. Of the four Vice Presidents who had previously succeeded to the Presidency upon the death of a President not one had even been nominated by his party to run for the office in his own right.

“He has a mass of material,” Cromwell informed Bunau-Varilla the day before, “but he says he will use little of it and speak only in his own simple and direct way. . . .” Cromwell, who was sitting in the gallery as Hanna made his entrance, had been personally responsible for a volume of testimony, now in the hands of Hanna’s trailing secretary. Some eighty-three shipowners, shipmasters, officers, and pilots—those who would use the canal—had given their unanimous preference for the Panama route. The lawyer had prepared a businesslike questionnaire covering trade winds, weather conditions, canal curvature, towing, and nighttime navigation, and through his Wall Street connections he had seen that copies were sent to the ranking officers with the Cunard, White Star, American, and Red Star lines. Only two had said they would risk their ships through a Nicaragua canal at night. None thought the Nicaragua canal would offer a saving in time, because of its length, and without exception they agreed that the shorter the canal, the less time spent in the canal, the less risk to their ships, and so the better the canal.

Bunau-Varilla, no less busy than Cromwell, had contributed a number of clever diagrams of his own design, all based on the canal commission’s own statistics, each pointing up Panama’s essential engineering and navigational virtues. The diagrams were as simple as illustrations in a child’s primer, conveying their message at a glance and easy to remember. They were an inspiration, Hanna saw instantly. The inevitable problem with technical reports, with any arguments based on technical data, was that few would read them, and the only advantage that Panama could claim was its technical superiority. So it had been arranged that the pamphlets containing the diagrams be delivered to the Senate in quantity at the close of Hanna’s speech.

Hanna was even less an orator than John Tyler Morgan. He was also in poor health and would be forced to spread his remarks over two days, stopping suddenly, unexpectedly, on this first day after being on his feet little more than an hour. But he had a disarming manner of talking as though he had no intention of inflicting a speech on anybody. He made things sound easy and sensible. He had thought the subject through, as a business proposition. It was the voice of common sense speaking, of American enterprise, of the North, of power and “stubborn facts,” as he called them. “This plain old person in a dull gray suit,” wrote a biographer, “was doing something and a drama heaped itself in the warm chamber while he drawled along, explaining this investment without an eloquent phrase.”

We have passed the experimental stage, Hanna began. We have passed the sentimental stage, we want the best route, we want the best canal, we want a canal to serve the needs of the entire world, we will build not just for today or next year but for all time.

“It is the great, broad, liberal American policy for which we stand in the building of a world canal. I sympathize with all those who in other days, laboring for an isthmian canal, had but one star to guide them—Nicaragua—and who must now naturally feel like giving up an old friend to pass it by. But in this age of progress and development, Mr. President, the American people are looking to Congress to answer to them on this question without regard to sentiment. . . .”

De Lesseps had been no fool. At Panama there could be a sea-level canal, at Nicaragua there would be no chance for that, never ever. If Panama was unsettled politically, all Central America was unsettled. In any event, an American canal would be a great peacemaker.

It was then that his legs gave out. He was too tired to go on, he said suddenly, causing a commotion in the gallery, and at once he sat down. But the next day he was back again and took up as though nothing had happened.

Panama was the place to build the canal for the following reasons, Hanna began, as his secretary, who sat behind him, handed up a sheaf of papers. One: A Panama canal would be 134.57 miles shorter, terminal to terminal. Two: It would have considerably less curvature. Three: The time in transit, by steam, would be less than half that at Nicaragua—twelve hours against thirty-three. Four: Panama required fewer locks. Five: Panama had better harbors. Six: Panama was “a beaten track in civilization.” Seven: Panama had a railroad “perfect in every respect.” Eight: A Panama canal would cost less to run. Nine: “All engineering and practical questions involved in the construction of the Panama canal are satisfactorily settled and assured. . . .”

He wanted no one to underestimate the importance of reason nine. The engineers wanted a Panama canal and they were the ones to listen to. “Why, Mr. President, there are now done a great many things which fifty years ago were unheard of, never dreamed of, never thought possible, as a product of human intelligence and ingenuity in engineering. It has become almost a byword today that in the hands of a skillful engineer nothing is impossible.”

Morgan had called for a boon to his native southland; Hanna said neither sentiment, sectionalism, nor personalities ought ever enter into so momentous a decision. Morgan had cited the preference of past canal commissions for Nicaragua; Hanna urged his colleagues to think not of the past but of the future.

When Senator Mitchell, an ardent Nicaragua man, tried to break in as Hanna read Cromwell’s survey of shipmasters, demanding to know who the author of this questionable document might be, Hanna had replied, “I do not want to be interrupted, for I am very tired . . .”

He ended on a warning. If the United States were to build a Nicaragua canal, what then was to prevent some other power—by which he meant Germany—from finishing the French canal? Our competitors then, he said, would have all the advantages.

“Mais, il est formidable!” the Russian envoy was heard to remark.

It was the finest speech Hanna ever made. There were no ringing phrases, but apparently it did something very rare in the Senate; it changed some votes. One Senator told Hanna that he had been undecided until then. He would vote now, he said, for the “Hannama Canal.”

Even so, the Hanna forces felt the tide was running against them as the debate continued in the days after. A Nicaragua speech by Senator Harris received blazing newspaper acclaim. More serious was the spreading belief that the volcano scare in Nicaragua was something Hanna and his cohorts had manufactured. The Nicaraguan embassy stuck by its denial of any serious disturbances, and a cartoon in the Washington Star showed Hanna at an easel slapping out Nicaraguan volcanoes by the yard to the delight of two onlookers, Philippe Bunau-Varilla and the head of the Great Northern railroad, James J. Hill. (In Minneapolis, Hill had sounded off to reporters about asinine congressmen and the “nasty, crooked” Nicaragua canal; only if a volcano were belching beneath the seat of his pants would any congressman ever take heed, said James J. Hill.) Hanna was enraged by the cartoon and he, Cromwell, and Bunau-Varilla tried desperately to think of some response.

“It was absolutely necessary to reply with emphasis,” Bunau-Varilla recalled, “ . . . but it could have no weight unless official. How could I obtain such a document? Nicaragua was far away. The authorities had shown their bad faith. It seemed impossible to procure anything whatever . . . . Only six or seven days remained.”

And it was then that he remembered the postage stamp.

“Young nations [he had written in his pamphlet of the previous year] like to put on their coats of arms what best symbolizes their moral domain or characterizes their native soil. What have the Nicaraguans chosen to characterize their country on their coat of arms, on their postage stamps? Volcanoes!”

He knew the exact one, a pretty little one-centavo Nicaraguan stamp showing a railroad wharf in the foreground and, in the background, Momotombo “in magnificent eruption.” Rushing about to every stamp dealer in Washington he managed to purchase ninety altogether, one for each senator. He pasted the precious stamps on sheets of paper and below each typed out: “An official witness of the volcanic activity on the isthmus of Nicaragua.” The stamp arrived at the office of every member of the Senate with the morning mail on Monday, June 16, three days before the deciding vote. He had, declared Philippe Bunau-Varilla, fired the last shot of the battle.

•   •

But that was not so; not quite. The last shot, like the first, was fired by Old Morgan, who, the following day, rose from his seat still one more time, to enter into the debate the name of William Nelson Cromwell, unleashing, as he spoke, years of stored hatred for the lawyer’s “humiliating and repulsive” intrusion into the decisions and policies of the United States government.

No talk of volcanoes, not the cleverest propaganda, could disguise the insidious course of this hired agent, Morgan said. “I trace this man back . . . to the beginning of this whole business.” It was Cromwell who had fed Hanna every supposed fact that Hanna stood behind, Cromwell who had intruded the commercial interests of the nefarious French company into congressional legislation, the hearings, the deliberations of technical commissions. “He has not failed to appear anywhere in this whole affair . . .” It was all a matter of record and the record was as much as Morgan ever wished to know of such an individual. “I would not dare to follow him when he is not on the surface.”

Panama, declared the old Senator at length, was “death’s nursery”; those who wished “to touch that thing” might go ahead and do so.

On June 19, after fourteen days, the debate ended. The majority report—for the Nicaragua canal—had been spoken for by Morgan, Harris, Mitchell, Turner, Perkins, Stewart, and Pettus. Besides Hanna, those for the minority—for the Panama canal—included Kittredge, Cullom, Gallinger, Teller, Allison, and Spooner. There had been a full gallery most all the time; the press and the country had followed the story very closely. Hanna claimed to have forty-five votes, exactly half the Senate. Everybody knew it would be extremely close.

The test came the afternoon of the nineteenth. The vote was 42 to 34. Panama had won by eight votes. So had there been a difference of just five votes, the result would have been a Nicaragua canal.


They were all very busy congratulating one another—Hanna, Spooner, Cromwell, Bunau-Varilla. Telegrams went off, effusive letters of gratitude to supporters in Cincinnati and Chicago, editorials were clipped and saved. Bunau-Varilla called it a “conclusive vindication.” Hanna was told that his place in history was fixed forever. Cromwell was happily confiding to almost anyone who would listen that he had written most of Hanna’s speech.

As time went on, as the details of what happened emerged, Cromwell and Bunau-Varilla would both be amply credited (or scorned) for the parts they had played in the astonishing victory, which, as one able historian would write, ranks among the masterpieces of the lobbyist’s art. Hanna’s role would be weighted heavily by his colleagues in the Senate. Senator Orville Platt would call Hanna’s speech the most effective he had ever heard in all his political career. Senator Frye said Hanna had converted him from a lifelong advocacy of Nicaragua.

Pelée and Momotombo would also figure prominently in all subsequent accounts of the “Battle of the Routes,” as well they should. Had there been no such eruptions that spring, it is quite unlikely that the Senate would have voted as it did.

How much the little postage stamp really mattered, whether it actually changed any votes, is impossible to say. Probably it did not, Bunau-Varilla’s assertions notwithstanding. His diagrammatic pamphlet probably had a more telling effect. Still, the stamp was an inspired bit of propaganda, perhaps even worth ten thousand senatorial words, and it would brighten after-dinner reminiscences in Washington and Paris for years to come.

But a careful study of the record and some reasonable conjecture suggest, in retrospect, that one other figure had been a great deal more influential than had met the eye, a man who deserves our recognition. That was George S. Morison.

If one traces back through the chain of events that led to the Senate vote, keeping count of who was influencing whom and when, and if it is remembered that Morison, unlike Hanna, Bunau-Varilla, or the garrulous Cromwell, made no effort to glorify his contributions, at the time or later, then Morison emerges a bit like the butler at the end of the mystery—as the ever-present, frequently unobtrusive, highly instrumental figure around whom the entire plot turned.

The significant thing about the outcome of the “Battle of the Routes” is that it was decided on technical grounds. It was the technical view, the considered judgment of the engineers, that triumphed in the Senate. The situation was the exact reverse, interestingly, of that at the Paris congress of 1879 and yet Panama was still the end result. The emotional power, the force of personality—Morgan’s—had been on the side for Nicaragua this time. At Paris it had been the engineers—Menocal, Eiffel, and others—who had urged a decision for Nicaragua.

The most articulate and forceful of the engineers and by far the most stubborn Panama proponent was Morison. It was Morison whom Bunau-Varilla singled out as the leader on the commission. It was Morison, in the summer of 1901, before McKinley’s death, who prevailed against the inclination to wind things up with a unanimous decision for Nicaragua because the French company refused to set a price. It was Morison who wrote the minority report in favor of Panama. It was Morison who did the most to convince others on the commission and Walker in particular that the Bohio dam could be built, and who then convinced Mark Hanna.

Indeed Morison seems to have had just about everybody’s ear at one time or other, except Morgan’s, of course, and most important of all he seems to have been the one who worked the conversion of Theodore Roosevelt. Someone did, it is certain. It could not have been Cromwell or Bunau-Varilla. Neither of them had entrée to the White House as yet. It was not Hanna.

The most solid evidence we have is a letter Morison wrote to the President dated December 10, 1901. The letter sets forth in the clearest, strongest terms the technical reasons why the canal should be built at Panama and Morison’s own personal unwillingness to accept Nicaragua as the only choice. The date is important. For it means Roosevelt received the letter before—a month before—he called the commissioners in to see him one at a time, to hear each explain things in his own words.

Morison himself seems to have had little doubt of what he accomplished. Years later, his close friend and confidant, Dr. Leonard Waldo, of Peterborough, New Hampshire, the Morison family physician, wrote that Morison “practically alone” had changed official opinion regarding Panama and it is unlikely that the doctor had any other source for the claim than George S. Morison.

Nor is it without significance that Morison was exactly the sort of man Theodore Roosevelt admired, trusted, and listened to. His whole career had been built on intelligence and daring. He was at the very top of his profession because of what he had done and he had done it in spite of his background. He was a preacher’s son, a classics major at Harvard, who had made himself an engineer on his own, through selfstudy, self-development, sheer will power. Bright but not distinctive as an undergraduate, he had gone to Harvard Law School and finished in the same class as Justice Holmes. But the law bored him—as it had Ferdinand de Lesseps, as it had Roosevelt—so he had decided to be an engineer, “that I may lead a good and useful life.”

Unlike Roosevelt, Morison was a lifelong bachelor and a prude. The sole failing he ever admitted to was an inability to handle horses. “There is a kind of man,” he once said, “that likes animals and handles them well, particularly horses, and such men are usually the type who are popular with others, and are known as ‘good fellows,’ but—but such men are usually fellows with lax morals.” Morison was never known as a good fellow. He was arrogant, inflexible, most unpopular, a man who was easy to admire from a distance.

Probably it was his total candor, the unshakable air of authority, that appealed most to Roosevelt. The Harvard background, a mutual interest in the West, in books, also gave them common ground. But in the last analysis Morison was brilliant, he did know what he was about, and he knew how to make other intelligent men feel that in their bones. “I hate to eat my lunch with Morison, he always quarrels with the waiter,” one noted engineer once remarked, “but I’d trust his judgment sooner than that of any other engineer I know.”

Originally he had been for Nicaragua, Roosevelt was to say, until the engineers convinced him otherwise. How often he was exposed to Morison is not known, but it is easy to picture them being quite direct with each other. Had Morison lived, it is probable that Roosevelt would have asked him to take a major part in the building of the canal. Very possibly he would have been made chief engineer, but he died in 1903, during his first illness since childhood, at age sixty.

•   •

The important fact is that Theodore Roosevelt had been convinced that Panama was the superior choice from the strictly objective technical standpoint. And to have a fair understanding of Roosevelt’s subsequent moves this must be kept in mind. “I took the Isthmus” was to be his arrogant, unfortunate claim, but in a very real and crucial sense, quietly, rationally, without fanfare, well before the Panama revolution, he “took the Isthmus” because the sort of men who would have to build the canal assured him that Panama was the place to put it. A momentous policy decision was determined by technical advisers here at the start of the new century.

And Panama was the superior choice, as George Morison said, and for the reasons he, Hanna, and the others cited. Given the sort of canal that was needed, considering the size of the ships of the day, taking into account all the advantages offered by the two routes, Panama was the place. The choice was never so clear-cut as Bunau-Varilla made it out to be, and while a Nicaragua canal would have taken longer to build and would have cost more, it would not have been a failure. Furthermore, if such nonengineering concerns as health and Central American politics are entered into the discussion, as Morgan had always insisted they must be, then the issue becomes as debatable in hindsight as it was then.

•   •

On June 26, the House passed the Spooner Bill by an overwhelming vote of 259 to 8, the Nicaragua forces in the House having received word from Senator Morgan that the game was not up quite yet, since failure to obtain a clear title to the French properties was certain and this would force the Administration to revert to Nicaragua. “Make way for the canal!” cried one congressman. “Make way for the canal!”

The President signed the Spooner Act two days later, June 28, 1902, and so it became the law.

1 The largest ships being built for the Navy then were of the Virginia class, which had a beam of 76 feet. The largest commercial ship then on the ways was the Kaiser Wilhelm II, with an overall length of 706 feet and a 72-foot beam. As Burr pointed out, the Suez Canal was already insufficient for such ships.

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