Military


First Isthmian Canal Commission - 1899-1901

Through the efforts of engineers employed by the boards appointed by Congress to investigate the feasibility of a canal between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (viz : the Canal Board of 1895, the Nicaragua Canal Commission of 1897, and the Isthmian Canal Commission of 1899), a large addition was made over these five years to the knowledge of the climate of Central America.

The Spanish-American War illustrated to the American public the need for some type of canal in Central America -- it took the battleship Oregon more than 60 days to go from San Francisco to the Caribbean by way of Cape Horn. In December 1898, the French made an official approach to the United States about buying the concession rights of the New Panama Canal Company.

To sort this all out, Congress appropriated $1 million to fund an Isthmian Canal Commission to recommend either Panama or Nicaragua as the route for an interoceanic canal. The ICC included Haupt and Hains from the previous commission and Army engineer Lieutenant Colonel Oswald H. Ernst.

In 1899 the US Congress appointed a commission to examine all possible routes for a canal, and this commission reported that the canal across Panama could be constructed with less expense than the Nicaragua canal if the French company could be bought out for a reasonable sum. The proposal of the Compagnie Nouvelle de Canal de Panama in December 1898 to transfer its rights and properties in the canal in Panama to the United States, and the increasing awareness of the need for shorter interoceanic communications in time of war, prompted Congress on March 3, 1899, to authorize an exhaustive series of investigations to determine the most practical route for a canal, which should be owned and controlled by the United States. Accordingly, on June 10, 1899, President William McKinley appointed the first Isthmian Canal Commission, popularly known as the second Walker Commission. Like the Nicaragua Canal Commission, it included Rear Admiral John G. Walker, U.S. Navy, as President, Professor Louis M. Haupt, and Colonel Peter C. Hains. Because of its expanded duties, several other members were added to the Commission. They were Alfred Noble, civil engineer, who has served on the Nicaragua Canal Board in 1895; George S. Morision and William H. Burr, also civil engineers; former Senator Samuel Pasco of Florida; Emory Richard Johnson, transportation expert; and Lieutenant Colonel Oswald H. Ernst, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Lieutenant Commander Sidney A. Staunton, U.S. Navy, served as Secretary to the Commission.

To speed the progress of the investigations and to secure the best results, the Isthmian Canal Commission organized itself into five committees, each of which was to take the lead in examining a particular subject. The fove subjects were: (1) The Nicaragua route; (2) the Panama route; (3) other possible routes; (4) the industrial, commercial, and military value of an interoceanic canal; and (5) rights, priveleges, and franchises. Each committee had three members in addition to Admiral Walker, who was ex officio a member of all five committees.

The Commission soon decided to limit its investigations to Nicaragua, Panama, and the Isthmus of Darien. It appointeda chief engineer for each of these areas who made his headquarters in the area and controlled field operations there. Each chief engineer, with the aid of working parties assigned to him, examined the geography, topography, hydrology, and other physical features of his area. Twenty work parties were assigned to Nicaragua, five to Panama, and six to the Darien region, comprising a work force of about 850 men.

The chief engineers in Nicaragua and Panama also made a special study of the canal routes in those two areas. The schemes already planned were thoroughly tested and further surveys were carried out in order to vary the canal line and to select better locations whereever the conditions were found to be unsatisfactory. Finally, a complete plan was prepared for each route. This study of the canal routes involved the examination of terminal harbors and approaches; the selection of locations for dams and locks; a series of borings to determine the nature of the subsurface material at these proposed locations as well as along the canal lines; and observations of the continuance of rainfall and stream flow.

In Nicaragua, the Chief Engineer of Surveys, the Superintendent of Borings, the Commissary Officer, and the Disbursement Offier established their headquarters at Greytown. The twenty work parties sent to that area were fivided into three geographic divisions: Eastern Division (Caribbean Sea to Caño Tigre); Middle Division (Caño Tigre to Las Lajas); and Western Division (las Lajas to the Pacific Ocean). In Panama the surveying parties confined their efforts to areas adjacent to the canal being constructed by the Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama. In the Isthmus of Darien the work parties were assigned to either the Caledonia Bay or the Gulf of San Blas region.

The data assembled by the surveying teams were forwarded to the Commission headquarters on Washington, DC. There, under the direction of the committees, they were arranged and entered upon the plats and profiles of the canals for examination and consieration preparatory to the drafting of recommendations. The Commission's final report was published as Senate Document 54, 57th Congress, 1st session (serial 4225, 2 parts), and was later republished with a separate atlas as Senate Document 222, 58th Congress, 2nd session (serial 4609).

In its report of November 1901 the Commission narrowed its choice to the Niacaragua and the Panama routes and recommended the Nicaragua route. The cost of the Nicaragua project was estimated at $189,864,062; that of the Panama project, at $144,233,358, plus the cost of concessions and the purchase of the rights and property of the Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama.



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