Waldorf-Astoria – A Man, A Hotel, And A Canal

On an entire floor in the Waldorf-Astoria the plans for a canal, to run through the Isthmus of Panama and to connect the Atlantic with the Pacific Ocean, were prepared. For weeks it was a hub of activity, of worry, and eventually of triumph.

But behind it all was the figure of a man and a foreign postage stamp.

The man was Phillipe Bunau-Varilla. The postage stamp was one put out by the Nicaraguan government. This man and this stamp made possible the Panama Canal, and the Waldorf-Astoria was the stage for the dramatic turning-point in the fight between proponents for the Panama and the Nicaraguan route. The story is a remarkable one which, although usually not mentioned in the history books, stands verified in the official records of Congress. I have seen one or two versions of it in the newspapers, but none of them seemed to realize that a certain element of mystery entering into it had, as a back-drop, the Waldorf. Even so, I would not think it worthy of a chapter here were it not that the Waldorf for so long a time had been intermixed with the fight for the canal and the plans for its construction.

Bunau-Varilla spent most of his time, while in New York, at the Waldorf-Astoria, and it was there that the executive offices for the canal builders were established.

It was there that the famous French engineer had his own private headquarters and held interviews with prominent New York politicians, economists, financiers, and geologists in his determined fight to have the Panama Canal plan carried through in preference to the then popular Nicaraguan plan.

In 1900 Bunau-Varilla was the advocate of a decidedly unpopular cause. Born in Paris in 1859, he had, when a young man, become enthusiastic about building a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, connecting the two oceans. He was engaged by Count de Lesseps in 1884 as engineer in the Panama Canal Company, and a year later, at the age of twenty-six, was chief engineer.

But after five years the operations of the French company came to a standstill. So Bunau-Varilla determined to get Americans and the United States government interested in the project. But the preference of Americans al-ready was for the Nicaraguan route. It became a fixed idea especially after a commission, appointed by President Grant, unanimously sanctioned the same choice. Thus popular American opinion was at an early date hostile to the Panama project, a hostility that seemed justified by the failure of the French company.

Bunau-Varilla, however, was a doughty Frenchman and he was ready to fight for the Panama cause. He came to the Waldorf-Astoria and began to hold many conferences. Sometimes, in the Palm Room, you might see him dining with Senator Mark Hanna, the most politically powerful man in the United States at the time. They were engrossed in Bunau-Varilla’s Panama plan and Mark Hanna listened attentively to the French engineer’s insistence that it would be three times shorter and cost less than the Nicaraguan plan. If you could have been close enough to their table, you might well have over-heard the shrewd politician advise the engineer that attempting to budge popular opinion was a greater job than building a canal.

One of Bunau-Varilla’s stumbling-blocks was the hesitancy of the French company to fix a reasonable price. So he went to France, where he carried on a campaign of publicity and forced the company into action. And at the same time Senator Hanna, rising in the Senate, announced that the Republican members of the Canal Commission were willing “to reexamine the question of adopting the route via Panama, should the owners of the French work be disposed to sell their enterprise for $40,000,000.” The luncheons at the Waldorf had borne that much fruit.

Still the public was against the Panama plan. The majority of business men and newspapers insisted upon the good sense of the Nicaraguan route as late as January 14, 1902. President Roosevelt was in sympathy with popular opinion and it was with the advent of his administration that Hanna’s power began to dwindle. Senator Hanna was worried, as his appearance while in the Waldorf at the time testified. There was not a day that he did not have famous business men to luncheon in the Palm Room discussing the situation. Oscar and others connected with the Waldorf did everything to help him, and that he was pleased was borne out in several letters of thanks. Mrs. Hanna later wrote Oscar that her husband, in times of strife, found the Waldorf-Astoria an excellent place, free from the worry of the minutest living details.

When the French company finally offered to sell its property and rights on the Panama route for $40,000,000, the Canal Commission, largely through the influence of Senator Hanna, annulled its preference for the Nicaraguan canal project and voted to adopt the Panama plan. This was embodied into a bill offered by Senator Spooner, Senator John T. Morgan of Alabama, however, led the Nicaraguan route forces, having a good majority in both houses. The public was influenced by the questions: Will Congress be susceptible to foreign dictation? Will the United States government allow a Frenchman to dictate the route of the canal? As we realize now, this was altogether silly, yet it was the attitude of the public.

But in a most indirect manner Nature herself suddenly came to the aid of Bunau-Varilla. All the time he had been arguing that danger lurked in destructive volcanoes in Nicaragua. And on May 6, 1902, Mount Pelee erupted and destroyed the city of St. Pierre Martinique. The American public’s attention was aroused. Opinion changed instantly.

Bunau-Varilla pressed home his new arguments: from the Waldorf-Astoria he sent out his own prepared bulletins to the effect that while Nicaragua was subject to volcanic eruption, in Panama there wasn’t even an extinct volcano within 180 miles.

The debates in the United States Senate were remark-able. Everything concerned volcanoes. Politicians exploded about explosions and erupted about eruptions, Senator Mark Hanna, naturally triumphant, used his most caustic eloquence to show the Senate that the Nicaraguan route would be ineffective. But from Nicaragua came a cablegram, signed by the President of the country, who insisted that the news of the recent eruption was exaggerated. The Nicaraguan Minister added that Nicaragua had had no volcanic eruption since 1835 and that only smoke and ash (but no lava) had come out of the recent so-called eruption.

This was quite a blow to Bunau-Varilla and Senator Hanna. There might be little more occasion for a discussion of the Panama Canal fight in this book (in so far as it concerns the Waldorf-Astoria) were it not for an anonymous visitor who came one day to the hotel and asked to see Mr. Bunau-Varilla. Fortunately, that gentle-man was in. The visitor was ushered into his rooms.

“I have,” he said to the French engineer, after the usual introductions, had been dispensed with, “a postage stamp.” The anonymous visitor was impressive, some-what theatrical. He realized the momentous significance of that stamp.

“But what do I want with a postage stamp, my man? Come to the point!”

“This,” said the visitor, “is a Nicaraguan postage stamp. Please look at it carefully.”

Now it seems that the Post Office Department of Nicaragua, in deciding upon its postage stamp, had selected, as symbolic of the country a picture of Mount Momotombe in eruption. This was another volcano, by the way, whose activity had been denied by the Nicaraguan authorities during the Canal fight. Near the base of it was a part of the proposed route of the Nicaraguan Canal. You could see all that in the picture reproduced on the postage stamp.

What attracted the attention of Bunau-Varilla was the fact that the volcano was shown in eruption! He jumped to his feet and exclaimed, “This stamp will win for the Panama Canal.”

Then he set to work. He collected as many of the Nicaraguan stamps as he could find and wired Senator Hanna to delay further debate on the canal proposal be-cause of the important development. Senator Hanna, of course, was dumfounded. The telegram from his friend, the French engineer, hardly seemed to make sense. He hurried to the station and caught the first train to New York. When he arrived at the Waldorf-Astoria he was advised that Bunau-Varilla was dining in a private home. Hanna went directly to that home and asked to see the Frenchman. The latter was astonished until he heard the Senator ejaculate:

“What the devil do you mean by asking me to round up Nicaraguan stamps and to delay debate? The debate must go on tomorrow. You know that. There can be no delay.”

Bunau-Varilla smiled.

“If you say the debate must go on it must go on; if you say the debate must be delayed it will be delayed.”

That settled it and Bunau-Varilla explained further. To each United States Senator he had addressed a letter inclosing a Nicaraguan stamp. The letter explained that if Nicaragua denied volcanoes in connection with the canal fight, they certainly admitted it on their postage stamps!

The next day debate was delayed. But the day after, Senator Gallinger arose in the Senate and informed his colleagues that he had received a Nicaraguan stamp the day before. He demanded to know whether the Senate could in reason vote to begin “this colossal work in a country which has taken as its emblem on its postage stamp a volcano in eruption.” The Senate passed the Spooner bill, in favor of the Panama Canal project, by a majority of eight. Through the same argument the op-position in the House was overcome. In the same month President Roosevelt signed the bill.

The public was amazed. So were the newspapers. It could not understand the sudden reversal of opinion in the United States. It made dark hints about the power of Mark Hanna. And that same night, when the bill finally was passed, I imagine that Bunau-Varilla must have smiled. He knew that it was neither Mark Hanna nor himself, but an anonymous figure who vanished after his strange mission to the Waldorf-Astoria.

Later, of course, it was only fitting that the same hotel should have been chosen as headquarters for the planning of the Canal and for the solving of its most intricate problems.