National Geographic : 1932 May
AN ARMY ENGINEER EXPLORES NICARAGUA Mapping a Route for a New Canal Through the Largest of Central American Republics BY LIEUT. COL. DAN I. SULTAN Corps of Engineers, U. S . Army SURVEYS for the building of canals and the improvement of waterways are routine jobs for an officer of the Army engineers; but the survey of a new interoceanic canal across Nicaragua was something different. The importance of this proposed new canal and the difficulties that were certain to be encountered in a survey of this magnitude in the tropical wilderness of Nicaragua fired the imagina tion and challenged the ability as no every day job in the States could. With a group of Army officers and a provisional battalion of Engineer troops, it was my privilege to spend two years in this interesting country surveying the canal route and planning its construction features. The Marines put us ashore in small boats from an Army transport anchored several miles offshore from Corinto, the chief Pa cific port, for the entrance channel to the harbor was considered too shallow to be safe for so large a vessel. In the early morning, our first glimpse of the Nicaraguan shore was impressive. The northern end of the line of Nicara guan volcanoes-El Viejo, Santa Clara, Telica, and others-stood out in bold re lief against the sunrise, and in the hazy distance rose the perfect cone of Momo tombo, marking the location of Lake Ma nagua, whose waters almost surround it. Corinto is one of the few places in Nica ragua the average tourist sees. One gets here the unmistakable smell of the Tropics, and, although it is only a commonplace sea port, it has an atmosphere all its own. NO HOLIDAY JAUNT IN THE JUNGLES We found it no holiday jaunt, this busi ness of surveying an interoceanic canal through tropical jungles. There were prob lems enough to keep us alert, whether they dealt with health, with supplies, or with carrying on our technical work. Our most difficult terrain was near the Caribbean end of the zone. This is one of the wettest places in the Americas, averag- ing some 255 inches of rainfall each year. By way of comparison, Washington, D. C., has 42 inches and San Francisco 22. You can pick out what may be called the height of the wet season in Nicaragua by the concentration of showers, but it is impossible to find a distinct dry season in the east. Here one may expect rain every day in the year and is rarely disappointed. Tents were first used as shelter, but in the wetter parts of the zone we soon substi tuted thatched native shacks, as they were cheaper, shed the water better, and re quired less transportation, as all materials were readily at hand. The troops were never dry; but fortu nately, although being wet constantly is not comfortable, in Nicaragua this condi tion does not lead to colds and pneumonia, as would be the case in the United States. Working in an almost continuous down pour in a jungle so thick that you can rarely see ten feet in any direction, where the vegetation is so dense overhead that little light penetrates and a permanent gloom pervades, where the footing is al ways insecure, and where large areas are covered with bottomless swamp, is not a very happy existence for an American soldier. If you increase this discomfort by add ing unnumbered mosquitoes; insects by the million, so varied as to size, shape, bite, and method of locomotion that classifica tion is impossible; and then throw in alli gators, snakes, and scorpions, not to men tion the fleas and ticks, you will have a picture of the conditions under which the Army personnel worked in Nicaragua. The men showed courage, determination, and the stamina to carry on that won the highest praise. And there was always the saving sense of humor. Some of the younger officers wanted to play a joke on one of their number who had a particular aversion for snakes; so they captured what to them was a small, harmless snake and placed it under a tin bowl at his place in the mess tent.