A Stamp that Changed History: How the Panama Canal was Almost the Nicaragua Canal


By Jordana Bickel, Department of Education & Visitor Services Intern

People may often think about postage stamps as documenting history, as artwork, or as commemorative objects lauding important events – such as the millennium or the anniversary of the moon landing. Stamps may also represent pop culture, nature, and holidays, and such stamps may depict cartoon characters, orchids, or food. However, stamps not only have the ability to document history, they can also change it. In fact, one such Nicaraguan stamp changed both American and world history by playing a role in the completion of the Panama Canal!

This blue Panama Canal Zone 5 cent stamp depicts a map of the country of Panama, surrounded to the top and bottom by water with the words “CANAL ZONE” overwritten on the stamp.
This 5-cent stamp, from the Panama Canal Zone, depicts where-about the canal wound up being built.

The Panama Canal, completed in 1914 by the United States after over construction by the French, was an important innovation in sea travel in the early 20th century because it created an easy connection for ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The canal saved time in a journey that would otherwise have taken a ship from the East Coast around Cape Horn—at the southern tip of the Americas—to the West Coast. This journey would have been about 14,000 miles, or around five months[1]! While a canal built in Central America would significantly cut down on travel time, it was not always inevitable that this canal was going to be built in Panama.

In the early 1900s, American politicians wanted to build a canal to bridge the distance between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, but they were divided on where to build it – in Panama, or in Nicaragua. Many members of Congress originally viewed Nicaragua as a safer choice when planning where to construct a canal. One reason for this was because the French had been working on just such a canal in Panama for the previous twenty years, to little success. The problems the French had run up against included a regular summer rainy season and deadly diseases such as yellow fever and malaria.[2]

There was also the question of foreign diplomacy; Panama had recently split from Colombia and, at the end of 1903, declared itself an independent nation. If America decided to pursue a project in Panama, it could jeopardize the U.S.’s diplomatic relationship with Colombia, which would not be pleased with an American business deal in a recently lost territory.[3] In contrast, Nicaragua was politically stable and construction on the canal would have been easier, due to a lake in the middle of the proposed canal zone.

The debate of where to build this canal tied Congress up for years. In 1902, a French engineer by the name of Philippe Buanu-Varilla decided to lobby Congress to continue their construction of the Panama Canal, instead of starting a new one in Nicaragua. Buanu-Varilla had, in fact, not only been an engineer on the French Panama Canal project for the past twenty years, but had also been an investor in the original project. Interested in preserving his work and stake in the project, he worked with an American named William Nelson Cromwell to lobby Congress to carry on with the Panama Canal.[4]

One of the ways Cromwell and Buanu-Varilla planned to convince Congress to move forward with a canal in Panama instead of Nicaragua was by mailing each member of the Senate a Nicaraguan stamp.[5] This stamp, one of a series, was released in 1900[6] and depicted the building of the railroad industry in Nicaragua, all in the foreground of a beloved national symbol: the local volcano Mt. Momotombo. The problem with the stamp, however, was with how Mt. Momotombo was drawn. With smoke spewing out the top, the volcano appeared active thereby giving the viewer the idea that it could possibly erupt!

This purple Nicaraguan 10 cent stamp depicts a train and water in the foreground, surrounded by workers, with a smoking volcano in the background.
This stamp is an example of one of the 1900 Nicaraguan stamps sent by Buanu-Varilla to members of Congress. Note the references to industry in the foreground, and the smoking Mt. Momotombo in the background. (Image from the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, originally part of the National Postal Museum collection. visitthecapitol.gov/exhibitions/artifact/nicaragua-mount-momotombo-10-centavos-postage-stamp-ca-1900.)

The implication of Buanu-Varilla sending these stamps was clear: did Congress want to build a canal in a place where it could be destroyed by an active volcano? This concern was compounded by a recent volcano explosion on the Caribbean island of Martinique in 1902 that killed 30,000 people, making people wary of the uncertainty and danger around volcanic areas.[7] In the end, Congress voted to continue work on the Panama Canal for numerous reasons – including duration of time crossing the canal, the amount of land needed, and yes, even volcanic activity[8]  – and thus, in 1904[9], history was made in part due to this stamp!

Who would have thought that a stamp could have played such a substantial role in the completion of the Panama Canal? Sometimes it can be easy to overlook objects in our everyday lives, since they are so common. A stamp is a wonderful example of an object that we may think of as ordinary, but can still influenced history! As we have seen, stamps can change the world. Next time you go to the post office and browse the stamp selection, perhaps consider why certain images may be on stamps, and what they represent. What are some stamp images you think may be more than just meets the eye?

Jordana is currently an intern in the Department of Education & Visitor Services at the National Postal Museum and is interested in museum education and accessibility. Her favorite item(s) in the museum is either the perforation paddle, the Titanic pocket watch, or the vast array of brass knuckles the museum has accumulated.


“5c Canal Zone overprint single.” National Postal Museum, ID 2005.2005.115.11. Accessed 18 September 2020.

Congressional Record—Senate. United States Senate, 17 June 1902. govinfo.gov/content/pkg/GPO-CRECB-1902-pt7-v35/pdf/GPO-CRECB-1902-pt7-v35-11-1.pdf. Accessed 21 September 2020.

Le, Vivian. “Episode 376: Great Bitter Lake Association.” Audio blog post. 99% Invisible. Radiotopia, 29 October 2019. 99percentinvisible.org/episode/great-bitter-lake-association/. Accessed 14 September 2020.

“Nicaragua Mount Momotombo 10 centavos postage stamp, ca. 1900.” U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, visitthecapitol.gov/exhibitions/artifact/nicaragua-mount-momotombo-10-centavos-postage-stamp-ca-1900. Accessed 14 September 2020.

“The Panama Canal.” U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, visitthecapitol.gov/exhibitions/artifact/nicaragua-mount-momotombo-10-centavos-postage-stamp-ca-1900. Accessed 14 September 2020.

“To California By Sea.” On the Water, National Museum of American History, americanhistory.si.edu/onthewater/exhibition/2_4.html#:~:text=Around%20the%20Horn,by%20boarding%20steamships%20for%20Panama. Accessed 21 September 2020.

Trotter, Gordon T. “Panama Canal Issue.Smithsonian National Postal Museum. Accessed 14 September 2020.

Wills, Mattew. “How a Postage Stamp May Have Helped Create the Panama Canal.” JSTOR Daily, 14 December 2017, daily.jstor.org/how-a-postage-stamp-may-have-helped-create-the-panama-canal/. Accessed 14 September 2020.

[1] “To California By Sea”

[2] Le.

[3] Wills.


[5] Trotter

[6] Wills


[8] “Congressional Record—Senate”. You can read a transcript of part of the Panama/Nicaragua debate in the Senate here: govinfo.gov/content/pkg/GPO-CRECB-1902-pt7-v35/pdf/GPO-CRECB-1902-pt7-v35-11-1.pdf

[9] U.S. Capitol Visitor Center.