Everyone knows about the Panama Canal, and how it connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. However, not everyone knows that the United States originally wanted to build this canal through Nicaragua, information on which can be found in NicaFSBO. It was only through the efforts of a few lobbyists and the French intention to sell their interests on the Panama Canal that this plan was diverted.

Early Proposals

Like the Panama Canal, ideas for the construction of trans-oceanic canal through Nicaragua had been proposed by Spanish colonial administrations. As for Nicaragua, the Federal Republic of Central America — composed of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica — made the proposal in 1825 to the United States.

In line with its proposal, the Republic made surveys, which showed that the canal would be 278 kilometers long. The canal’s route would be parallel the San Juan River and enter Lake Nicaragua, after which locks and tunnels would be built in order to link the lake to the Pacific Ocean.

Washington, D.C. was impressed with the proposed canal, which prompted a presentation to the U.S. Congress by Secretary of State Henry Clay. However, the Congress rejected it because of the poverty and political instability of the Nicaragua area. The British’s presence in British Honduras and the Mosquito Coast also played a part in the rejection of the proposed canal.

The Nicaraguan government turned to other means, by entering into a contract with Cornelius Vanderbilt which enabled his company the exclusive right to build a canal for 12 years. Vanderbilt’s company, the Accessory Transit Co., would also solely administrate the temporary overland trade route through the Rivas isthmus. However, the canal was not completed because of the Nicaraguan Civil War and William Walker’s invasion of the region.

The Panama Canal is Built

Two more proposals were pitched forward for the construction of the Nicaragua Canal. The first was in 1897 by the U.S. Nicaraguan Canal Commission, and another one in 1899 by the Isthmian Canal Commission. It should also be noted that the second commission gave the U.S. the second option of continuing the French construction of the Panama Canal, which was failing due to inhospitable conditions and high mortality rate among the workers.

The Nicaragua canal faced yet again several oppositions, although several key figures supported the idea like the Nicaraguan minister in Washington Luis Felipe Corea. The U.S. government even entered into talks with Nicaraguan president Jose Santos Zelaya for a lease in preparation for the construction of this canal.

The Nicaragua Canal proposals ultimately lost to the Panama Canal proponents when a Nicaraguan stamp depicting the Momotombo volcano was printed. Lobbyists led by William Nelson Cromwell made use of the stamp to argue that the Nicaragua canal was exposed to the threat of volcanic activity, although such claims were unfounded as Momotombo was significantly distant from the proposed Nicaragua canal.

However, the die was cast. Panama Canal was chosen over the Nicaragua canal and the efforts of Cromwell — who was under the employ of the French Canal Syndicate — paid off. In 1902, majority of the U.S. senators voted for Panama, driven by the stamps and a volcanic eruption in Saint-Pierre, Martinique.

After failing in getting the United States to build the canal, President Santos Zelaya turned to Germany and Japan for financial support. However, the United States opposed the construction, because it would pose competition for the high successful Panama canal.

Present Proposals

The idea of building a Nicaragua canal has once again been revived in 2004. The Nicaraguan government made pitches to build a canal which could be large enough to accommodate modern ships whose capacities made them unable to traverse the Panama Canal.

The proposals met again fierce opposition. This time the opposition came from the environmental sector, who argued that the canal would most likely damage Nicaragua’s rivers and jungles.

Despite oppositions, Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos announced intentions to push through with the Nicaragua Canal plans. According to the official, the Nicaragua canal would work well with the Panama Canal — an expansion of which is also being proposed to answer the new ship capacities — because there is demand to have two trans-oceanic canals to exist in the Central American isthmus.

One of the advantages being cited by Bolanos is that the canal, which is estimated to cost around US$18 billion, can shorten sea travel to and from California and New York by a day. Compared to the Panama Canal’s capacity to accommodate ships having a displacement of only 65,000 tons, the proposed Nicaragua canal can accommodate up to 250,000 tons.

Aside from the Nicaragua canal, there were also proposals to build an overland link made by two companies: the Intermodal System for Global Transport and the Inter-Ocean Canal of Nicaragua. SIT Global’s proposals also call for a combination of oil pipeline and fibre optic cable in addition in addition to a railway.