CHAPTER VI

THE AMERICANS IN PANAMA

Foreign activities in Panama were watched, officially and unofficially, by the Americans with profound interest, and with a desire that the construction of a canal should be the work of the United States.  The thought of communication between the oceans being in European hands was distasteful to our statesmen.

The Monroe doctrine seemed broad enough to shut out foreign governments, but not private corporations of such governments, from acquiring the territory through which to dig the canal.  However noisily the Monroe doctrine might be flaunted by the orators of the Untied States, our international position in 1850 did not give it anything like the weight that has attached to it ever since the Spanish-American War woke Europe to our strength.

In 1852, when the Panama Railroad was being built, a captain of a company in the Fourth Regiment of Infantry, Ulysses S. Grant, crossed the Isthmus at Panama, on his way to the new California post.  There were 1,800 men in the command, which arrived at Colon on July 16th of that year.  They used the new railroad as far as it had been constructed, twenty or thirty miles, and the remainder of the trip was by the traditional mule-back system.  an epidemic of cholera broke out, costing the lives of 80 men, and the general hardships of the transit deeply impressed Captain Grant with the need of a better passage.

Several American exploring parties had been on the Isthmus, and, in 1854, Lieut. Arthur Strain, with twenty-seven companions,  attempted to penetrate the jungle.  they got lost, and after ninety days of living death he and two or three of the men reached Panama.  Every fact that was secured about the geography of Panama by any nation cost human life.

President Lincoln, in 1863, when he was freeing the negro slaves, cast his eyes upon the Chiriqui province of Panama as a suitable place for colonizing the negroes of the south after the Civil War,but his untimely death prevented the opportunity to work out this idea.

The Senate, in 1866, asked Secretary of the Navy Welles to supply it with information as to the feasibility of a canal through the Darien region of Panama.   Admiral Charles H. Davis a year later reported adversely to this route which, although the narrowest place on the Isthmus, had a mountain barrier with an elevation of 700 feet to make a sea-level canal an impossible undertaking.

That Captain Grant, who had crossed the isthmus in 1852, became President in 1869, and the very same year he directed Gen. Stephen A. Hurlbut to negotiate a treaty with Colombia for a Panama canal.  He knew from experience how advantageous it would be to his country.  such a treaty was signed at Bogota on January 26, 18870, but the United States Senate did not ratify it and the Senate of Colombia mutilated it.   Somehow the two governments did not get along well in those days.

President Grant then sent Admiral Ammen to Nicaragua to investigate that route, more in a pique at Colombia than from a belief in its availability.  Colombia returned the feeling by turning to the French and giving Lieut. Wyse a concession.   At the instance of Present Grant the Panama route again was surveyed by Commanders E. P. Lull and T. O. Selfridge, at the Chagres River and in the Darien region, in 1875, but from this time onward the French had the center of the stage.

Their spread-eagle operations followed by a collapse in 1889, reorganization in 1894, and half-hearted efforts until 1898 served rather to make the world and the Americans think that a canal was a white elephant proposition.  the Spanish-American War, however, suddenly brought the American people to a realization of the vital necessity, from a military viewpoint alone, of an interoceanic canal.

Day by day as the battleship Oregon steamed around Cape Horn this lesson was impressed upon the people.  A 10,000-mile journey could have been saved by a Panama canal.  the war over, and peace allowing the country and the government to consider other things, President McKinley reorganized the Isthmian Canal Commission which he had appointed in 1897 with the following personnel:

ADMIRAL JOHN G. WALKER, Chairman
SAMUEL PASCO,
GEORGE S. MORISON,
LIEUT.-COL. OSWALD H. ERNST, U.S.A.,
COL. P.C. HAINS, U.S.A.,
LEWIS M. HAUPT,
ALFRED NOBLE,
WILLIAM H. BURR,
PROF. EMORY R. JOHNSON

This commission was appointed in March, 1899, with instructions to investigate all Central American routes.  The French canal company by this time was in a situation where it was seeking a soft place to fall.  Hope of financing the project by private capital absolutely was dead in France.  Only by a sale to other capitalists or to some government, Colombia being willing, could the shareholders hope to get anything out of their stupendous investment.  and it was not so many years distant before their concession would expire and their property revert to Colombia.

William Nelson Cromwell, a New York lawyer, was the counsel for the canal company and the Panama Railroad Company.  He was, by all odds, the brainiest man connected with the French enterprise, and the task of guiding the company to a solution of its troubles devolved upon him.  Naturally he was elated with the revival of interest in a canal on the part of the United States,and he was indefatigable, in many accomplished ways, in bringing the Panama route to the notice of the Commission.  P. Bunau-Varilla, a Frenchman, also was active in interesting Senator Mark Hanna, and other official and private Americans in the French project.

The Walker Commission unofficially asked the French company what their property might be bought for, and when quoted a price of $101,141,500, promptly decided that Nicaragua looked better.  The report made on November 16, 1901, by the Commission frankly stated that the Panama route was preferable, but the price asked by the French company was prohibitive.  The Commission dropped the remark that $40,000,000 was about what the French holdings were worth to the United States.

The astute Mr. Cromwell probably was not greatly disturbed by this report, but the shareholders thought $40,000,000 looked like a windfall to a bankrupt concern, even if it had invested $265,000,000.  A sixth load decidedly was better than none at all.  They made it be known that $40,000,000 would strike a trade.  It has not been admitted, but the first valuation by Mr. Cromwell and associates doubtless was a "feeler" which would make the price ultimately agreed upon look like a bargain for the United States.

At any rate they fell off their perch in a hurry, and when they had agreed to the Commission's valuation, the report to the President promptly was revised in favor of the Panama route.  Admiral Walker probably played his own little game in the first recommending Nicaragua to send a chill down the French company's spine.  On the outside one cannot tell how much theatrical play both sides indulged, but it is not a bad guess to believe that there was four-flushing all around.