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Notes On the Nicaragua Canal by Henry Isaac Sheldon
A. C. McClurg & Co. 1897
Hardcover 214 pages
20 B/W illustrations
1 fold-out map

My efforts to find information on the author of this book have been fruitless. The Library of Congress doesn't even have a listing for him. A Google search turned up a few college sites listing the book as a source for studies on American foreign policy before 1898 and a few used book dealers with copies of the third edition published in 1902. Prices ranged from US $85 to $100, I paid $12 for my first edition at Babbitt's Books in Normal, IL. It is a signed copy donated by the author to the Yates City School and Public Library in Yates City, Illinois.

In the preface of the book, Sheldon says his 1895 visit to Nicaragua was "...undertaken in search of some means for stimulating the tardy development and depressed agricultural interests of California, Oregon, and Washington." At the time, the Panama Canal was a project abandoned by the French for several years. Moving goods from the Pacific Coast to the East Coast of the United States required either expensive shipment by rail or a very long journey by ship around South America. The United States was investigating possible sites for building a canal, and Sheldon wrote this book in an apparent attempt to influence the final decision. Part of the preface is a summary of American attitudes towards the use of government money for a canal project in Central America divided by region. Pacific Coast and Southern states tended to favor the idea because they would benefit economically from faster and cheaper transportation, Eastern states were wary because the railroads they controlled would become less important, and the central states were on the fence.

By his own admission, Sheldon was not a professional author and he "...[knew] nothing of book-making..." His writing style was certainly not academic. He was a traveler and a businessman, and his personal experiences and opinions are everywhere in this book. Minute descriptions of his hotel accomodations, the people he saw, and the practical considerations of traveling by horse in a hot climate seem just as important to him as the economic, political and engineering considerations of building a canal through Nicaragua. He seems to have felt that although a canal through Nicaragua would be about 168 miles long, it was preferable to Panama because most of the distance was by river and lake. His information indicated that only 26 miles of the proposed route would require excavation. It makes for quite interesting reading, even if it is only a historical curiosity. Especially interesting to me was a section in the chapter on "The Present Plans" where he attempted to downplay the significance of volcanic action and earthquakes in Nicaragua. He states that, "As the crust of the earth continues to cool and contract, the tendency is toward less and less damage by earthquakes." He obviously wasn't a geologist. He loved fine dining however, and went into great detail about a breakfast he had in Greytown.

As nothing gives a picture of a foreign country like a desription of any social affair, I wish to describe a small breakfast most kindly given me in Greytown. The hour was twelve o'clock, agreeably to the custom in Nicaragua of serving nothing but chocolate or coffee and rolls for the early hours of the day. We were four to a table, all men, and our host was dressed in white. The first course was a clear soup, with some novel kind of macaroni in it, cut up very fine. A grated cheese was served, to be added to the soup to each one's taste. Claret was brought on after the soup , a capital vintage which had been four years in glass at Greytown. The place is a free port, and there being no duty on imported articles, some very satisfactory wines are to be had there. The next course was a chicken fricassee with boiled rice served as a vegetable. The flavor of this fricassee was novel and extremely good. We had next some spare-ribs, the pigs having been fed on cocoanuts. This dish appeared to have been first roasted and then carefully completed as an entrée. It tasted very like some kind of game. As a novelty for myself, as was explained, the next course was roasted peccary, the wild peccary which every boy-reader of Captain Mayne Reid's stories remembers. I must say that, cooked as they serve it in Greytown, it is a capital dish. We had next a fresh pineapple cut in slices, and brought on in a glass dish. Not a particle of sugar had been placed on this delicious, juicy fruit, yet it tasted of sugar. It was what they call the sweet pine, so unlike pineapple of our northern markets as to deserve another name. This pine is soft as a ripe peach, and when it is cut, the juice runs out like water. We had, last, custard or sago pudding, and finished with chocolate, and some cigars from Jamaica. These were unlike the Cuban growth, of different flavor, and very good.

Talk about a breakfast. I don't know how he found time to look at canal excavation sites when a breakfast like that started at noon.

Contents of Notes On the Nicaragua Canal:

  1. The Journey to Nicaragua
  2. The Route to the Canal
  3. Concessions and Legislation
  4. The Present Plans
  5. Sanitary Questions
  6. The Country and the People
  7. Other Great Canals
  8. Cost
  9. Nicaraguan Cities
  10. Shall the United States Assist?

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