NICARAGUA, ATRATO RIVER CLOSELY RIVALED
PANAMA AS ROUTE FOR INTEROCEANIC CANAL
The Panama Canal Review
. . . April 5, 1957


Some 50,000 residents of the Isthmus of Panama might well have been residing in Nicaragua today, except for a few relatively minor but fateful turns in history 55 years ago.

The construction of a Nicaraguan Canal instead of a Panama Canal came within a politician's breath of being an actuality in 1902.  Although the United States Government decided by an overwhelming vote in both the Senate and House of Representatives to build the Panama Canal, the House had previously approved the nicaragua route.  the Panama project might well have lost had it not been for the all-out backing of Senator Mark Hanna, of Ohio, one of the most powerful political influences of his generation in United States' affairs.

Of the eight principal canal routes through the American Isthmus, two -- Nicaragua and Atrato -- have rivaled the Panama route in popularity, in entertaining history, and in the number of surveys.  Also, they are the closest Panama rivals in construction costs, differing only by about one billion dollars -- Nicaragua as a lock canal, and Atrato as a sea-level waterway.  Therefore, neither today is completely out of consideration as an interoceanic canal possibility although, undoubtedly, more than economic considerations would be needed for their construction.

The long bitter fight in the United States over the canal routes at the turn of this century had its roots in more than 50 years of history.  It flared brilliantly about 1850 in rivalry for the possession of an overland or a canal route to California between groups of financiers, which resulted in the construction of the Panama Railroad.

Students of Panama and Nicaragua history are entranced by the colorful story of the fight of the routes.  It is told in great detail in Gerstle Mack's The Land Divided and in Miles P. Duval's And The Mountains Will Move.

The history of the Atrato route is also colorful but without evidences of the rancor the other main rivals developed.

About 100 years before the Panama Canal was opened to ship traffic, cartographers showed an Atrato Canal on their maps of the New World. The Canal, supposedly, had been in existence since 1788.  It was then called the Raspadura Canal and joined the San Juan and Atrato rivers. A claim to the first announcement to the outside world of the existence of the Raspadura Canal was made by the noted German scientist and geographer, Baron Alexander von Humboldt.  The following note appeared in the early 1800's in his voluminous writings about his explorations in the New World:

"In the interior of the province of Choco, the small ravine, de la Raspadura, unites the neighboring sources of the Rio San Juan and the small river Quito (a tributary of the Atrato).  A monk of great activity, cure of the village of Novita, employed his parishioners to dig a small canal in the ravine de la Raspadura, by means of which, when the rains are abundant, canoes loaded with cacao pass from sea to sea. This interior communication has existed since 1788, unknown in Europe. the small canal unites, on the coasts of the two oceans, two points 75 leagues distant from one another."

Despite its unimportance commercially and despite doubt even as to its existence the publicity achieved aroused great enthusiasm and even resulted in the organization of the Atrato and San Juan Canal and Transportation Company in 1851.  It was one of two canal concessions granted by the Government of New Granada at the same time, the other being for a canal using the Atrato and Napipi rivers.  Promoters of the latter called it the Humboldt Line to lend a more authentic air to their prospectus and encourage the investment of capital.

Promoters of both routes painted glowing pictures of their plans but included few facts.  Capital, needing more than high promises, was not attracted and the charters were later annulled.

It is interesting to note that Humboldt suggested both the Napipi and San Juan routes as among the five possible canal locations.  Others mentioned were Tehauntepec, Nacaragua, and panama.  he indicated his preference for Nicaragua, with the Atrato-Napipi as second, and Panama third.

Oddly, Humboldt was never within a hundred miles of any one of the canal routes he suggested, but his writings, based on information then available, were sound.  They attracted worldwide attention and undoubtedly constituted a great contribution to investigations and surveys which later followed.

The Atrato region had lain dormant so far as world attention was concerned for more than 200 years when Humboldt recommended it as a canal possibility.  It was one of the first areas to be explored and settled after visits by Columbus in 1498 and 1502.  Some of the earliest proposals for a canal named the route between the Gulf of Darien and San Miguel Bay as one of the four most advantageous of the American isthmus.  this selection, however, probably came from inaccurate maps of the day for apparently no serious effort was made for an on-the-ground investigation such as those on the Tehauntepec, Nicaragua, and Panama routes.

When Philip II ascended the Spanish throne in 1555, the policy on transit rights across the isthmus was reversed.  Since the Atrto offered the best transit possibilities, Philip forbade navigation on the river under penalty of death, thus effectively sealing ti for more than 200 years.

Most of the canal surveys and explorations in the region, both actual and claimed, have been made within the past century.  Many of these resulted in fraudulent claims.  None cast any doubt about the practicability of an Atrato Canal, but most of the more thorough surveys resulted in recommendations for another location when comparisons were made.

Because of its width, depth, length, and route, the Atrato river lends itself favorably to consideration as a canal channel.  It is more than 1,000 feet wide and 50 feet deep as far as 60 miles upstream.  It rises near the Pacific coast and flows approximately 150 miles on a course nearly parallel to the coast, where it turns and flows 60 miles more into the Gulf of Darien.

The San Juan River, to which the Atrato has mostly been linked as a canal route and with which it was supposedly linked in actuality by the Raspadura Canal, rises only a short distance from the headwaters of the Atrato and flows southward for 150 miles.  It is one of the largest rivers in northern South America.

Six Atrato routes were studied in the 1947 investigations, with the Atrato-Truando being selected as the best route.  the others are named from small rivers rising near the continental divide just opposite the Atrato and flowing into the Pacific.

In the rash of canal investigations and plans which came after Humboldt's writings, cursory investigations were made in 1824, 1827 and 1847 by officers of the British Navy.  The earliest of these resulted in the lowest estimate ever made for an isthmian canal -$500,000 as compared with over $4,000,000,000 estimated in 1947.

The first instrument survey and thorough exploration was undertaken in 1852 by John C. Trautwine, one of the surveyors and builders of the Panama Railroad.  His report was exceedingly gloomy and he expressed the opinion that none of the routes was worthy of further attention.  He lightened his report somewhat by expressing the opinion that a canal might be cut from the Atrato to Cupica Bay, slightly off the Atrato Napipi route for $325,000,000, a staggering sum in those days. Many other surveys followed Trautwine's exploration, several under the official sponsorship of the United States Government under agreement with New Granada and later Colombia.  These continued sporadically until shortly before the Panama Canal was opened and each is an interesting story alone.  the last of these was in 1912 by two U.S. Army officers, one of whom was Capt. (later Gen.) Frank R. McCoy, who investigated two plans, advocated a few years before, which proposed Cupica Bay as the Pacific terminal.  The two officers found nothing new in the two plans, one being only a slight variation of the Napipi River route, which the officers described as "the traditional salt trail to portage from river to sea in the time it takes to smoke a cigar."

This ended all consideration of an Atrato canal until the 1947 Studies were authorized.  Most of the material used by the Special Engineering Division in evaluating the relative merits of the various Atrato routes was taken from these earlier surveys, supplemented by additional material obtained from the Tropical Oil Company.  This had been gathered in its extensive explorations for oil and mineral deposits.

The last survey was jointly made by the United States and Colombia in early 1949 under the direction of Lt. Col. David McCoach III, at the request of Secretary of the Army Kenneth C. Royall.  This two-month field survey, aided by aerial reconnaissance, added little of value to what was already known.  the report was submitted as an addendum to the Isthmian Canal Studies of 1947 report.

While the special report stated that either a sea-level or lock canal was practical, it indicated that the cost of the former would be $5,261,000,000 nearly a billion dollars more than the original report. The cost of a lock canal, not estimated in the 1947 Studies because of the obvious high cost, was estimated at $4,147,000,000. While actual field surveys were needed at Atrato to establish reasonably accurate estimates on excavation and costs, such was not needed on the Nicaraguan route.

Enough surveyors and would-be canal builders have tramped across Nicaragua to wear tow-paths along the banks of the proposed canal. When the big lakes in Nicaragua were discovered in the early 1500's, they aroused immediate interest in their usefulness for a canal. Although scant material is available, a canal was suggested for Nicaragua after a route was explored in 1529.  Interest was revived 25 years later by the publication of two books, one of which, according to Gerstle Mack in "The Land Divided" described the route "through Xaquator, a river of Nicaragua, which springeth out of a lake three or four leagues from the South Sea, and falleth into the North sea; whereupon doe saile great barks and crayers (small trading vessels)." From that time until this very day, interest in the Nicaragua route has been nearly incessant and, most time, violent.  The international complications over the route have perhaps been the most complex of any of the eight main routes.

Serious studies of Nicaragua, with the objective of constructing a canal, began in 1837 under the sponsorship of the ten confederated states which today include Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.  This was not completed because of a dissolution of the federation.

Nicaragua granted a canal concession in 1850 to the American Atlantic and Pacific Ship Canal Company but his lapsed without any actual construction.  Extensive surveys were made in 1872-73, 1885-93, and between 1897 and 1901 by the Nicaragua Canal Commission, and the first Isthmian Canal Commission which first recommended the Nicaragua route and later changed its recommendation in favor of Panama after the French Canal Company agreed to sell its rights and concessions for $40,000,000. A comprehensive study of the Nicaragua route was made in 1929-31  by a provisional Engineer Survey Battalion of the U.S. Army under the direction of Lt. Col. Daniel I. Sultan.  An active participant in that survey was a young lieutenant called "Joe" Potter who was destined nearly 30 years later to head the Panama Canal enterprise.  This survey incorporated data from previous studies and obtained sufficient additional data to fix the best alignment; establish lock locations and designs; and determine hydraulic requirements.

The United States Army Interoceanic Canal Board reviewed the Sultan report and agreed that a Nicaraguan lock canal was practicable but concluded that construction of a third set of locks for the Panama Canal and subsequent conversion of the Panama Canal to sea level was the most feasible method of increasing the facilities for interoceanic traffic.

Seven Nicaraguan routes were investigated by the Special Engineering Division in the 1947 Studies.  These ranged in length from 167 miles to 300 miles.  All of these had a common alignment from the Atlantic through the Deseado and San Juan rivers to Lake Nicaragua.  Three of these routes exited across the continental divide from Lake Nicaragua and followed separate alignments to the Pacific, while the other three turned north across Lake Nicaragua, to cross Lake Managua and the divide and reach the Pacific Ocean over different routes.  The seventh was one skirting Lake Nicaragua and was studied primarily as a possible route for a sea-level canal.

The wealth of data available on the Nicaragua routes made the selection a comparatively simple matter.  The choice was the selection of the Greytown-Brito route, the same made nearly 20 years earlier by Sultan. The following brief summary in the 1947 report describes the route and the canal plans, in part, as developed for estimating purposes: "A lock canal on any route through Lake Nicaragua would be entirely feasible, but the Greytown-Brito Route is the most favorable.  The plan adapted for a lock canal on the Greytown-Brito alignment is similar to that proposed by Lt. Col. Sultan, modified to include locks and other facilities adequate for future needs.  Lake Nicaragua would be regulated between the limits of 105 and 110 feet above sea level to furnish water for lockages.  The lake channel would be extended westward by a cut through the continental divide to locks on the Pacific slope.  Dropping through the Pacific locks, the canal would extend at sea level through an artificial entrance and improved harbor to deep water in the Pacific Ocean near Brito.  East of lake Nicaragua, the canal would continue at summit level to the Atlantic Locks on the eastern slope of the east divide, within 17 miles of the Atlantic Ocean."

A sea-level route except at most exorbitant costs was manifestly unfeasible due to the necessity of draining the 100x40 mile lake.  The changes this would bring to Nicaraguan life and economy are too drastic to permit consideration.


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October 26, 1998

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