June 19, 1902: The U.S. Senate voted 42 to 34 for Panama over Nicaragua as the site for the interocean canal.
A postage stamp may have made the difference.
The canal commission had not regarded seismic activity in either country as a barrier to a canal, and earthquakes were regarded as a more serious problem than volcanoes. Then, in April 1902, Mount Pelee on the Caribbean island of Martinique awoke and on May 8 the mountain exploded, wiping out the city of St. Pierre in minutes and killing nearly 30,000 people.
Pelee was 1500 miles from Nicaragua, but geography is seldom a strong point of our senators. That eruption was followed on May 14 with the report of an eruption of Momotombo in Nicaragua. Philippe Buneau-Varilla, a French proponent of the Panama route, remembered that Nicaraguan postage stamps, and also the Nicaraguan coat of arms, pictured volcanoes. Buneau-Varilla, of course, wanted the canal in Panama so the French could recoup part of the cost of their failed Panama venture by selling the canal, what there was of it, and their equipment to the U.S.
On June 16, three days before the vote, every U.S. senator received a paper with a 1-centavo stamp which featured Momotombo glued on, with the message, “An official witness of the volcanic activity on the isthmus of Nicaragua.”