An Interrupted Dinner at the Waldorf and the Panama Canal



An editorial cartoon with President Teddy Roosevelt and Bunau-Varilla

Political and business deals are more often than not decided over dinner and drinks.   There should be a book of famous meals that created famous laws or corporate mergers throughout history.   One such interrupted meal at the Waldorf-Astoria, that solidified the location of the Panama Canal, is one that could be included.     But this is a story you won’t find in any of the history books about the Canal.


All this talk of the Zika virus today, which is abundant in Panama, it’s amazing the Canal was ever finished.


Jean-Phillipe Bunau-Varilla checked into the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in the summer of 1900.   The French diplomat, now in his forties, had, as young 26 year old engineer, been made chief engineer of the French Panama Canal project by the great builder of the Suez Canal, Count Ferdinand de Lesseps.    As chief engineer he was also responsible for the food service of canal workers. He fought mosquitoes and plagues for five years until disease forced them to shut down the operation.


Jean-Phillipe Bunau-Varilla


The Count de Lesseps, had also presented the Statue of Liberty to the U.S.     His great grandson, Count Alexandre de Lesseps would marry Real Housewives of New York star Luann.


It was Bunau-Varilla’s intent to lobby the U.S. to pick up where he’d left off and build the Panama Canal, buying the land from the French.


But there was one huge problem. Even though America had dreams of Imperialism and becoming a great world power, our idea for the location of a trans-ithmian canal was through Nicaragua.   American politicians saw the French failure in Panama as proof of bad location.


Bunau-Varilla set up office at the Waldorf and dined frequently with Mark Hanna, the Ohio boss and President McKinley’s right hand man. Hanna was the most power politician in the country at the time.   He had orchestrated the rise and nomination of McKinley as Presidential candidate, and then his win over William Jennings Bryant in the election of 1893.


Bunau-Varilla asserted that the Panama route was three times shorter than the Nicaragua plan, and would save the U.S. a great deal.     But public opinion of America was for Nicaragua.   Who were the French to tell us where to build our great canal?    Everyone was convinced that the French company was asking far too much for the sale of the right-of-way property.   If Bunau-Varilla could get a lower price from his government, Hanna thought, he could make the deal. He went back to France and Hanna went to the Senate Canal Commission to announce the dealings.


But then McKinley was assassinated in September, 1901, at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.   As a result, Teddy Roosevelt ascended the White House, and Hanna’s star power began to set.   Public interest in the canal waned.


But Bunau-Varilla came back to the Waldorf in 1901, more determined than ever to seal the deal. But new President Roosevelt was behind the Nicaragua plan.   And there was a majority against Panama in both houses, led by Democratic Senator Morgan of Alabama.


Bunau-Varilla had also asserted there was great danger in Nicaragua in the form of destructive volcanoes. On the Morning of May 6, 1902, news went out that the entire city of St. Pierre on Martinique Island had been wiped out by an eruption of Mount Pelee.   Bunau-Varilla, jumping on the advantage, sent press announcements out through Oscar, the Maitre d’hotel at Waldorf, about the danger of volcanic eruption along the canal route in Nicaragua.


Once this news hit the American Press, the president of Nicaragua reacted and sent out an immediate cablegram that the country had not had an eruption since 1835.   He said, no lava came from Nicaragua’s little volcanoes, only smoke and ash.


Then one day a man came up to Oscar in the hotel lobby saying he needed to see Bunau-Varilla.   Oscar told the man that he was dining and had asked not to be disturbed. The man pushed and Oscar escorted him into the Palm Room and interrupted Bunau-Varilla’s dinner.


The man, with a French accent, gave an irate Bunau-Varilla, a Nicaraguan postage stamp. The image showed an erupting Mount Momotombe, which was on the proposed Nicaraguan route of the canal.


The 1900 Nicaraguan stamp showing an erupting Mount Momotombe.

Bunau-Varilla’s temperament changed and he grabbed Oscar saying, “This stamp will win the Panama Canal!”


The stamp was sent to Hanna, who was asked to buy as many Nicaraguan postage stamps as he could and send one to every member of the Senate.   Accompanying each stamp was a message asking why anyone could reason to begin this colossal work in a country which has taken as its emblem on its postage stamp a volcano in eruption.


The Spooner Bill in favor of the Panama Canal was passed in 1902 and Theodore Roosevelt oversaw the building of the canal from 1903-1914.


If Oscar had not sensed something sincere in the French stranger’s tone, he would not have disobeyed every lesson in hotel formality he’d learned to interrupt that dinner.     The only thing we don’t know is what meal Bunau-Varilla was enjoying when the Panama Canal location was cemented into history.     We do know the menu was in French, and would have consisted of an oyster course, salad, soup, fish, beef or game course, and dessert.   What Buna-Varilla might have been chewing at the famous interruption, we’ll never know.


An 1897 Dinner Menu from the Waldorf-Astoria, giving an idea of what Bunau-Varilla might have been eating when he was interrupted with the Nicaraguan volcano stamp.




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