How Postage May Have Saved the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is in Panama, hence its name. The 51-mile (82 km) long waterway connects the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, allowing for ships to circumnavigate the globe without having to travel all the way north through Canada’s Arctic Archipelago or all the way south around Chile’s Cape Horn. Nearly 15,000 make the nearly 12-hour trip through the Canal each year. And it’s not just a big trench carved through the land. The Canal consists of a series of locks, designed to safely transport ships from one side of the world to the other. Building the Canal was, therefore, a massive undertaking; as a result, the Canal is considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world, per the American Society of Civil Engineers

And it may not have existed — at least not in Panama — had it not been for the postage stamp below.

At first glance, there’s nothing really notable about that stamp. And for good reason: to most people, there truly is nothing notable about the stamp pictured above. But to Philippe Bunau-Varilla, it was an epiphany — and, loosely speaking, evidence.

Bunau-Varilla was a French engineer who, as early as 1882, focused his professional career on building a passage between the Atlantic and Pacific. The site of the modern-day Panama Canal made a lot of sense, as it is the narrowest section of Central America. The territory around that area was controlled by Colombia, and France — via a company led by Bunau-Varilla — had a plan to build a canal. Colombia was on board with the French plan and the project began to move forward, but it wasn’t meant to be. The engineering task proved a lot more difficult than originally thought and many workers died on the project — many more than expected. To make matters worse, there was competition: the United States had begun exploring the possibility of building a canal in Nicaragua. For Bunau-Varilla, hope seemed lost.

In a last-ditch effort to keep the Panama plan alive, Bunau-Varilla offered his construction efforts to the United States. On paper, it seemed like a better option — the Nicaraguan canal would have to be more than three times longer than the Panamanian one, adding costs and risks that, all else equal, no one would prefer. But all else was not equal. At the time, civil unrest and political instability was the norm in Colombia-controlled Panama; Nicaragua, on the other hand, was rather stable. Given the risks in Panama and a lack of a commensurate risk in Nicaragua, many American politicians preferred the latter option. With a decision coming in the summer of 1902, time was running out for Bunau-Varilla…

That’s when Bunau-Varilla noticed the stamp above. According to National Geographic, “he received a letter from Nicaragua with a stamp [either the one above of the 5-centavos equivalent] that showed Nicaragua’s Momotombo volcano erupting.” (It may be hard to see, but if you look at the top of the mountain pictured in the stamp, you should be able to make out a smoke plume wafting to the left.) As JStor notes, this was significant: “Momotombo, the smoking volcano portrayed on the stamp, suggested that the Nicaraguan route—which was longer but potentially less of an engineering challenge than the Panamanian—was on seismically dangerous ground. A volcano that had erupted that May in Martinique, killing 30,000 people, was still very much on peoples’ minds.”

So Bunau-Varilla went shopping. Per Nat Geo, “he visited every stamp dealer in Washington, D.C. and bought 90 copies of the stamp.” No, he wasn’t collecting them — he was using them to lobby Congress. Bunau-Varilla “attached each stamps to a piece of paper with a caption stating ‘An official witness to the volcanic activity in Nicaragua'” per StampCircut, and sent this evidence to the then-90 members of the United States Senate. 

The Senators got the message. While “the full impact of this ploy on the legislators has been debated by historians,” per the Library of Congress, “the cumulative effect of the concerns over volcanic activity eventually pushed Congress to change course.” By a vote of 42-32, the Senate gave the Panama Canal project a green light.


Bonus fact: If you want to cross the Panama Canal, you have to pay a toll. The cost is usually a function of the length of the vessel and its capacity, but the cost can be as low as $800 and as high as tens of thousands of dollars. But one adventurer managed to pay a lot less. In 1928, American travel writer Richard Halliburton paid only 36 cents (or about $5.50 today, accounting for inflation) to traverse the canal. His trick? No ship. Halliburton swam the distance.

From the Archives: The Watermelon War: How five cents of watermelon turned Panama into a war zone.