Simanaitis Says

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THANKS TO Harry Franck and Herbert C. Lanks, we’ve already accomplished a goodly portion of our virtual 1940 adventure from the Rio Grande to the Canal Zone. Today in Part 3, alas, we learn about Nicaragua feuds, Costa Rica heritages, and Canal Zone Silvers and Golds. Language, though, is no problema.

¿Hablas Inglés? ¿Español? “… in all the countries between the Rio Grande and the Canal Zone there is probably less variation in spoken Spanish than there is between the English of New England and our deep South.”

Harry Alverson Franck, 1881–1962, American adventurer and travel writer. Image from

The people of Nicaragua “developed rivalries which divided them into opposing camps imbued with a bitterness reminiscent of Kentucky mountain feuds… not so much sectional as a clash over the degree of church reform.”

“There are many reminders, too, of the long occupation [1912–1933] by American marines, both in variations from the black-haired norm and in customs, such as the extraordinary popularity of baseball.”

This and other images from The Pan American Highway, by Harry Franck and Herbert C. Lanks, Appleton-Century, 1940.

And then there was the idea of a canal: “France, Holland, England, and the United States, not to mention William Walker, have at one time or another been interested in the canal route across Nicaragua. Walker [an American ‘filibuster’ sacking Granada, Nicaragua, in 1856] made it one of the bones of contention in the Nicaraguan War of 1855-1860… when he attempted to take the transit rights away from old Commodore Vanderbilt.”

“In the days of the gold rush to California, Vanderbilt constructed a surfaced highway, remains of which still exist, on which to transfer passengers from his paddle-wheel lake steamers to Pacific ships plying to California…. The proposed canal would follow this same route.”

And not a bad idea at all: One rise of only 152 feet above sea level was “low indeed compared with the 662 feet which made the Culebra Cut the main task in digging the Panama Canal.”

“ ‘Rich Coast’ was discovered by Columbus himself in 1493 and… the city of Puerto Limón claims to be the exact spot where he first landed on the American continent.”

A view of San Lucas Island, Costa Rica.

Our authors offer a mixed message about Costa Rican heritage: “Having little gold or silver, Costa Rica was settled not by swashbucklers who put the Indians to work in their mines, but by Gallegos, the hardest-working and the least easy-fortune-seeking of Spaniards….”

Fine so far; however: “From their Galician forebears they inherited a belief in hard work rather than in exploiting their fellow-men; they exterminated or drove out the Indians rather than setting them to work and mixing racially with them.”

By the end of the drive: “Frankly, the Panama section of the Pan American Highway is something of an anticlimax. Its mountains are undramatic compared with those of Costa Rica and Guatemala; the people along the highway are just more Americanized Central Americans….”

“Once it reaches Panama, the Pan American Highway hurries on toward the Canal Zone.”

“Today, exclusive of our armed forces there, fewer than thirty thousand people live in the Canal Zone. Over entrances everywhere throughout the Zone the word ‘Silver’ or ‘Gold’ indicates to which class of the population the establishment within caters. As in the digging days, those who work for Uncle Sam are subject to a class distinction at variance with American ideals of democracy but very much in keeping with [1940] American practice.”

“Balboa, headquarters of the Canal Zone, is a model town compared with the adjoining City of Panama.”

“In fact, for a government definitely committed to the capitalistic order, Uncle Sam comes perilously near to operating a perfect socialistic system in the Canal Zone.”

However, we can recall, Franck and Lanks found no Socialist School for the Redemption of the Proletariat in the Canal Zone. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

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