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4-cent Thatcher Ferry Bridge

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4-cent Thatcher Ferry Bridge and Map of Western Hemisphere plate proof

The 4-cent Thatcher Ferry Bridge commemorative (Scott 157) was issued on Columbus Day, October 12, 1962, to mark the opening of the new bridge over the Panama Canal at Balboa, Canal Zone, to pedestrian and vehicular traffic. As per the custom, it was named for the ferry that formerly operated at that site. This ferry had been named to honor the last of the Isthmian Canal Commission members, the former U.S. Congressman Maurice H. Thatcher, who was still alive at the time and who was an occasional visitor to the Isthmus. The 4-cent denomination was chosen as these stamps would be used on ship mail to the United States.

This stamp is likely the most famous Canal Zone stamp because of an error on one sheet of fifty stamps in which the stamps were printed without the bridge. The sheet was unknowingly sold in a group of 5,000 to Boston dealer H. E. Harris. This happened because the bridge was printed in silver on the stamps in a separate operation. Three additional sheets from the original pane were discovered in the Philatelic Agency at Balboa. An attempt to print an additional 100,000 copies was made in order to reduce its value to collectors, but Harris successfully sued in federal court to stop this new printing of what soon came to be known as the 'bridgeless bridge' stamps. Today examples of the spectacular error still in collector hands are valued at many thousands of dollars. The National Postal Museum is fortunate to possess of not one but two of these fifty-stamp sheets, one of which is shown in the accompanying illustrations for this stamp.

The other illustrations include rarities such as plate proofs of the accepted design, including one without the bridge, as well as a separate one of the bridge by itself. There are also proofs of unaccepted versions of the stamp.

There were a total of 775,000 copies of the Thatcher Ferry Bridge stamp issued, and apparently all were sold. It is common on first day cover, with the great majority of cacheted examples prepared by the premier isthmian cachet designer of the day, Elmer Smith. Only a very few other cachets were prepared although about 216,000 stamps were sold on the first day, and the large number of 44,000 plus covers was processed.

Interestingly, the Republic of Panama issued two stamps honoring the new bridge, which the increasingly nationalistic Panamanians called 'The Bridge of the Americas', at least partially because they often referred to the Republic itself as 'The Bridge of the Americas'. This conflict of names was not resolved until the Canal Zone disappeared as a political entity at midnight, September 30, 1979. Thus, the very title "Thatcher Ferry Bridge" has disappeared into the dustbin of history.

Other than on first day covers, the Thatcher Ferry Bridge stamp was almost always used on ship mail letters to the United States. The airmail rate increased to 8-cents shortly after it was put on sale, and numbers of them were used in pairs on airmail letters. This commemorative is seldom seen in other mixed usages, although some are known to foreign destinations or on registered letters, etc., with other stamps.

Robert J. Karrer