Mr. J. Foster Crowell lately read a paper before the Engineers' Club of Philadelphia upon the Present Situation of the Inter-oceanic Canal Question, presenting the subject from a general standpoint. He sketched the history of the various past attempts to establish communication through the American Isthmus, and traced the developments in the different directions of effort, which finally concentrated the problem upon the three projects now before the world, summarizing the progress in each case, and stating the following propositions:
I. That Panama is the only possible site for a Sea Level Canal, and that such treatment is the only feasible method at that place.
II. That Nicaragua is the only practicable site for a Slack Water system (for a canal with locks), and that it is pre-eminently adapted by nature for such a use; that there are no obstacles in an engineering sense, and no physical drawbacks that need deter the undertaking.
III. That the Ship Railway, as a mechanical contrivance, has the indorsement of the best authorities, and may be admitted to be the ne plus ultra as a means of taking ships from their natural element and transporting them over the land.
IV. That none of these plans has as yet advanced sufficiently to warrant our considering its completion as beyond doubt.
V. That, as the additional sum now asked for by De Lesseps (even if sufficient) to complete the Panama Canal is greater than the estimated cost of either Nicaragua Canal or the Ship Railway, it would be economical to abandon the Panama Canal, and the money sunk in it, to date, unless its location and form possess paramount advantages; and we therefore may profitably consider the relative merits of the three lines without regard to the past, from four standpoints, viz.:
1. Geographical convenience of location.
2. Adaptiveness to all marine requirements, present and future.
3. Political security.
4. Economy of construction and operation.
He then discussed the comparative claims to excellence. In the first consideration, after classifying the several grand divisions of future ocean traffic, and noting especially the needs of the United States, he claimed that while there was little to choose, in this respect, between Nicaragua and Tehuantepec, either was far superior to Panama.
In the second particular he maintained that owing to the characteristics of the Panama Canal and the practical impossibility of enlarging it hereafter, excepting at stupendous cost, it could not serve the purposes of the future, although it might, if completed, supply present need. He praised the ingenuity of the plans for the Ship Railway, but emphasized the fact that it will be the movement of the traffic, not merely the lifting and supporting of ships in transit, that will test the system, and suggested that even the beautiful application of mechanical force which had been contrived might be powerless to insure the high grade of service which is an absolute necessity. In this connection the general features of the Nicaragua Canal, in its latest form, were referred to, and the opinion expressed that even were all difficulties in the way of the Ship Railway eliminated, it could not be superior to the canal in respect of adaptiveness.
In point of political security he claimed that both Tehuantepec and Nicaragua were reasonably free from doubts, with the advantage in favor of the latter, while at Panama no security, for United States interests at least, could be counted on, without the liability of a military expenditure far exceeding the cost of the canal itself.
The matter of comparative cost of construction and operation was discussed generally, and in conclusion the author stated that "this all-important question is still an open one, of which the future needs of our country justify and demand at this time a most searching scrutiny, and moreover our interest and the interest of mankind require that before this century closes, the best possible pathway between the Atlantic and the Pacific shall be open to the navies of the world."
The paper was illustrated with maps and diagrams.