E. L. (Elmer Lawrence) Corthell.

An exposition of the errors and fallacies in Rear-Admiral Ammen's pamphlet : entitled The certainty of the Nicaragua Canal contrasted with the uncertainties of the Eads ship railway online

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Online LibraryE. L. (Elmer Lawrence) CorthellAn exposition of the errors and fallacies in Rear-Admiral Ammen's pamphlet : entitled The certainty of the Nicaragua Canal contrasted with the uncertainties of the Eads ship railway → online text (page 1 of 5)
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! Rear-Admiral Ammen's Pamphlet




, 18 86.





Errors and Fallacies in Rear-Admiral Ainiiien's Pamphlet



It is to be regretted that an officer of high rank in the
United States Navy should descend to such undignified per-
sonalities as appear throughout the recent pamphlet of Rear-
Admiral Ammen, entitled " The Certainty of the Nicaragua
Canal contrasted with the Uncertainties of the Eads Ship

It is not the purpose of the writer to descend to such a
level in discussing this subject, but to point out briefly some
of the labored niisstatements and distortions of facts that
everywhere appear in the pamphlet mentioned. Its exten-
sive circulation in Congress, for the purpose of defeating the
Ship Railway bill, makes it necessary to point out the Ad-
miral's niisstatements.

The frontispiece of his pamphlet represents the American
Isthmus at Nicaragua as lately reconstructed to suit the plans of
Engineer Menocal, with its water level raised and extended
and its irregularities toned down by the contemplated canal
construction. The profile as given of the Tehuantepec Isth-
mus, however, shows nature in her wild state, unmodified by

sion of broad valleys formed by the Jumuapa, Sarabia, Malatengo, and
Chichihua rivers ; between these valleys there are extensive table-lands,
with no high or prominent dividing summit between them, but they are
interspersed with isolated hills and detached ranges from one to five hun-
dred feet in height, the whole forming an extensive interior basin, having a
gentle inclination towards the summit, and bordered on its eastern and
western sides by irregular mountain ranges, spurs of the main Cordillera
that runs through the entire continent, and which makes at this point one
of the most marked depressions to be found in its whole length. From
this basin the line passes through a valley formed by a stream called the
Pozo de Agua. to the plains of Tarifa, an elevated level plateau six miles
in extent. Crossing these plains, the line reaches the Portillo de Tarifa,
the lowest and also the most accessible of the many passes through this
general depression in the main mountain chain. From the Portillo de
Tarifa the line descends to the Pacific plains (reaching them 118 miles from
Minatitlan) by a uniform grade," [i foot in 100 feet, or 52-^ feet per mile ;
this is the maximum grade and there is only one place where it occurs]
: ' following a succession of valleys through the intervening foot-hills.
These valleys are generally narrow, having very abrupt slopes on their
sides. Fortunately, the line can be kept near the bottom of the valleys,
avoiding any difficult or questionable class of construction. The heaviest
excavations will be in cutting through spurs of the hill sides, or through
divides between adjacent valleys. Across the Pacific plains the line can be
given almost any desired direction, the surface being remarkably even and
uniform in character." * * * " Many varieties of valuable timber are
found, very durable in character, and suitable for either permanent or tem-
porary work in construction, throughout the entire line, with the exception
of about twenty miles at each end of it.

" Good building stone is found near the line at short intervals after
leaving the valley of the Coatzacoalcos river. Granite, limestone, sand-
stone and quartzite are among the varieties of stone available for purposes
of construction.

" The principal rock cuttings to be encountered near the summit will be
in a clay slate formation, limestone appearing at a lower elevation, and
granite in the higher ranges on each side of the line." * * * "A care-
ful instrumental survey of the bar at the mouth of the river shows that
there is at ordinary tide, fifteen feet of water over it. Surveys and
soundings made during the last thirty years give conclusive evidence that
this bar has changed very little during that time. Borings to the depth of
twenty-six feet encountered no other material than sand and clay, much
the larger portion being sand ; a stratum of clay was found at the bottom
of the borings. This bar has a striking resemblance to the bar at the
mouth of the South Pass of the Mississippi river, except that it has less
than one-fourth the distance across it, from twenty-six feet depth of water
on the inside to the same depth on the outside, and it can be deepened by
the same methods that gave such remarkable results at the mouth of the
Mississippi river."

The statements made quite frequently by Admiral Ammen
that no actual location and profile have been made evidently
need no further discussion, nor do any of the arguments,
drawn from these misstatements, require further notice.


In criticising the Ship Railway Bill, Admiral Ammen says :
" There is, however, no mention in the bill of the maximum
toll rate upon which vessels would be transported, it might

be fixed at $4 and $8 per ton." " Neither Mr. Corthell in

his ' Scientific Solution,' nor Captain Eads in his bill gives
the intended rate of toll over his proposed Ship Railway."

An examination of the bill shows that authority is given
to the directors representing the United States and Mexican
Governments to reduce the tolls whenever the net income is
greater than ten per cent, on the capital of the Company,
which is limited in the bill to $100,000,000. If Admiral
Ammen and his co-projectors of the Nicaragua Canal are
correct in the estimates they have made of the tonnage
likely to use an Isthmian transit-way, it is apparent that,
under the provisions of the bill referred to, no unreason-
able tolls could be exacted from commerce. But, aside from
this, it is absurd to suppose that the Company would, even
if it had the power, impose such tolls as would drive com-
merce away from it. Certainly ten per cent, interest on the
amount invested is not an unreasonable return to the capi-
talists whose money goes to construct the work.

Speaking of the test load of 3,000 tons, (increased by
consent to 6,000, and the second year to 7,000 tons,) the
Admiral says : " His vessel may be constructed to weigh
2,900 tons, built expressly to make a land journey, with
a cargo of 100 tons ! " The transportation of a vessel with


only 100 tons of cargo would not be considered by the Board
of Engineers, under whose inspection the test must be
made, as answering the requirements of the law. The
purpose of the law is to demonstrate the practicability of
the work, and no one, unless his antagonism to the project
has entirely perverted his judgment, would suppose that the
transportation of a vessel, especially built for the purpose
and of much greater strength than ordinary vessels, with a
few bags of grain, or a few tons of iron as a cargo, would
authorize or receive the favorable certificate of the engineers
upon which is made to depend the Government guaranty.

In speaking of that clause in the bill which relates to
filing a certified copy of the Mexican Concession with the
Secretary of State of the United States, within three months
after the date of the passage of the act, Admiral Ammen
says : " The bill recites that a favorable concession exists,
the terms of which are to remain unknown to our legislators."
This is another grossly inaccurate statement. A certified
copy of the Mexican Concession has been in the hands of
the Commerce Committee of the House during all its dis-
cussions, and it and all papers relating to it have been at
their disposal. The minority report of the Committee gives
the Concession in full.


On page 5, Admiral Ammen makes the statement that a
war vessel would not float after being transported over the
Isthmus on the railway. This statement is in conflict with
the opinion of a host of the most prominent naval con-
structors and shipbuilders of the world, and as Admiral
Ammen could no doubt command a ship much better than
he could build one, and as he stands almost alone in his
opinion on the subject, his views are not likely to have very

much force. Among the many who differ with Admiral
Ammen on the subject may be included the names of Com-
modore Theo. D. Wilson, the present Chief Constructor of
the U. S. Navy ; Commodore J. W. Easby, late Chief Con-
structor U. S. Navy ; Mr. Nathaniel Barnaby, Chief Con-
structor British Navy ; Sir Edward J. Reed, late Chief
Constructor British Navy. These gentlemen have given the
most decided opinions in favor of the entire practicability of
transporting laden vessels on a railway.


Admiral Ammen refers to the " factitious presentation of
science in the ' Scientific Solution,' " and proffers some infor-
mation in regard to the harbors which is entirely erroneous.
He says: "The 'Scientific Solution' assumes that good har-
bors either exist, or making and maintaining them is a bag-
atelle, and the Eads' bill presupposes the fact that a good
harbor on both coasts is known to all men ; has the great
engineer lost his faith in his knowledge of the Jetty system,
or has he so solved it that it gives him no concern ? " The
facts in regard to the harbors are fully given in a paper pub-
lished by the writer about the first of January, 1886, en-
titled, " The Atlantic and Pacific Ship Railway." Careful
surveys, plans, and estimates have been made of these har-
bors, and their exceptional advantages for both maritime and
strategic purposes have been fully stated in several publica-
tions. The writer, having spent a month surveying the bar
at the mouth of the Coatzacoalcos river, and having had
some little experience in river and harbor hydraulics, is
perfectly confident that the plans for deepening this bar
from 15 feet, (not 13 feet,) now existing, to 30 feet can
be done at the estimated expense, which is not great. The
" harbor " subject is a very tender one with Admiral Am-


men, because of the total want of harbors at the termini of
the proposed Nicaragua Canal. What was once a harbor at
Greytown is now wholly destroyed. The San Juan river, to
the current of which was due whatever depth of water ever
existed at Greytown, long ago deserted its old bed, and now
discharges its waters, through the Rio Colorado, in Costa
Rican territory. There is a careful avoidance by Admiral
Ammen and his friends of all discussions of Nicaraguan har-


Those informed on the Isthmian question will be surprised
at the Admiral bringing forward the danger from earthquakes
to the Ship Railway ; it being well known that the greatest
prevalence and most marked results of earthquakes are along
the line of the Nicaragua Canal. The actual perversion of
facts, by quoting only a part of a statement made by Rear-
Admiral Shufeldt, on page 106 of the latter's report, is espe-
cially marked. The following, on the same page, but omitted
by the Admiral, will show how he has perverted what Shu-
feldt said on this subject :

"The singular freedom of this region from volcanoes, both active and
extinct, and, in consequence, the less probability of violent earth-
quakes, is certainly an important consideration in favor of the Isthmus of

The Admiral brings up another objection, which was
brought forward by him three years ago and then refuted, as
to the prevalence of high winds on the Tehuantepec Isthmus.
He says :

" Were it to be conceded that earthquakes were exceptional, or that were
they to occur they would do no more harm to the vessel than would be
done ' to the load of hay passing over a stony road,' another difficulty pre-
sents itself in the ' northers,' of which Shufeldt makes mention on page

" 'The northers that are so common in the winter season, never bring
with them rain as they generally do on the Atlantic slope and on the table-


lands, but instead clouds of dust and drifting sand are caught up by these
violent winds, and are driven across the plain in a southerly direction, and
finally fall in the Pacific Ocean.' "

The following paragraph from the report of Mr. Van Brock -
lin, who, as before stated, has spent several years on the Isth-
mus, is sufficient proof of the absence of destructive tornadoes :

"By reason of the peculiar topographical formation of the Isthmus, there
is an almost constant interchange of air currents between the two oceans.
The direction of such winds as are prevalent, coincides very nearly with
the line of the railway. The very frail construction of the principal por-
tion of the houses on the Isthmus, covered as they are with large and high
palm roofs, extending beyond, and generally separated from their walls,
the exposed places in which many of them stand, and the absence of any
evidence of injury to them, induces the belief that very strong winds are
unknown on the Isthmus."

(See also the recent letter of Mr. Van Brocklin, page 31,
and that of Mr. Thayer, page 33.)

This statement agrees with the observation of the writer, and
of other engineers who have remained there any length of


On page 8, the Admiral speaks of the excessive rainfall on
the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, saying : "I may add of rainfalls
of 23 inches in as many hours." If he intends by these words
to convey the impression that 23 inches of rain falls in 23 con-
secutive hours, the statement is a misrepresentation as regards
any part of Mexico, and shows the Admiral's ignorance of the
conditions existing at Tehuantepec. The actual gauging of the
rainfall shows the total for one year to be about 100 inches
near Minatitlan, the Gulf terminus of the railway. The record
at Nicaragua shows an annual downpour of 102 inches, with
nearly 6 inches in one day. The railway has the advantage
of being built above the floods, while the canal must be under-
neath them.



In reference to the practicability of constructing and haul-
ing ships over a railway, a question which seems to be un-
solved in the mind of the Admiral, it is proper to say that
as the Ship Eailway Company agrees to construct its railway
and put it into successful operation before the guaranty
asked for attaches, the question as to whether it is practic-
able to build and operate it is one of little importance to the
Government. The report of the House Committee on Com-
merce contains the following :

" It is apparent that under the terms of the guarantee the question as to
whether a ship railway is practicable is one with which the United States
Government has very little concern. If any part of the guarantee was to
take effect before final completion of the work, the question of the practic-
ability of the project would be a vital one ; but inasmuch as the capitalists
who advance the money to construct the road assume all of the engineering
risks involved in its construction, and inasmuch as it must be practically
demonstrated to be a success before the Government becomes liable to pay
anything, the question of practicability is one to the consideration of which
it is really unnecessary for Congress to devote itself. In this connection,
however, it is but proper to say that in the opinion of the most able and
well-known engineers, naval architects, and shipbuilders of the world the
construction of a ship railway at Tehuantepec, in accordance with the
plans which have been submitted to them by Mr. Eads, is entirely prac-
ticable. Indeed, many of these experts go much further than this, and de-
clare that a railway is preferable to a canal, first, in the economy with
which it can be constructed ; second, in the facility with which it may be
enlarged when commerce demands its enlargement ; third, in the economy
with which it can be operated, and, fourth, in its ability to transport ves-
sels with greater rapidity and less delay."


On page 9, the Admiral says : " Of the many recommenda-
tions of the railway in the ' Scientific Solution ' there is not
one of a railroad engineer.' 1 The following are the names of


a few American civil engineers and railroad managers of
the highest standing, who have carefully examined the
subject and have pronounced the ship railway entirely
practicable : Genl. William Sooy Smith, Henry Flad, H.

D. Whitcomb, C. Shaler Smith, T. C. Clarke, O. Chanute,
late chief engineer of the Erie Railway ; Richard P. Mor-
gan, Jr., a railroad expert of Illinois, and formerly one of the
State Railway Commissioners ; Clemens Herschel, of Bos-
ton ; Charles Paine, past president of the Am. Soc. Civil
Engineers ; Col. H. F. Douglass, chief engineer Baltimore
& Ohio R<R. Extension to New York ; Jas. B. Francis, of
Lowell, Mass., past president of the Am. Soc. Civil Engineers ;
Thos. C. Keefer, C. M. G., member Inst. C. E., London, Vice-
Prest. Am. Soc. C. E.; Robt. H. Thurston, G. Bouscaren,

E. T. Jeffery, general manager Illinois Central R.R., and to
these we could add twenty or thirty more who have also
expressed by letter their unqualified faith in its success.

But not alone among engineers is found numberless be-
lievers in the practicability of the Ship Railway. The Ad-
miral will find scores of them in the Navy. The writer refers
to a few of them, in addition to the two already mentioned,
who have expressed themselves as confident that war or mer- .
chant vessels may be transported over land with safety on a
properly constructed railway : The late Captain Edward Hartt,
U. S. Naval Constructor ; Mr. F. L. Fernald, U. S. Naval Con-
structor ; Commander N. H. Farquhar ; Rear-Admiral R. W.
Shufeldt, U. S. N.; Rear Admiral S. P. Carter, U. S. N., and
many younger officers of the Navy.


On page 11 occurs the following sentence : " Despite of
this assertion, the argument of our great Eads abroad that a
canal was impracticable, and the obstruction for years by the


railway interests of Great Britain, the Manchester Ship Canal
is now in progress of construction." In this sentence are
two misstatements. First, Mr. Eads did not argue that the
Manchester Ship Canal was impracticable ; and, second, it is
not as yet under construction. Mr. Eads appeared before
the Committees of Parliament and proved that if the lower
ten miles of the canal was located as proposed in the middle
of the estuary of the Mersey, the works would rapidly re-
duce the tidal capacity of the estuary and ruin the Liverpool
docks, and destroy that port. The Committee, after hearing
Mr. Eads, rejected the bill unanimously, although it had been
reported upon favorably by two previous Committees.

During the hearing, Mr. Eads suggested, in answer to a
question of the Queen's Counsel for Manchester, that these
ruinous results would not occur if these ten miles were lo-
cated along either margin of the estuary. The plan was thus
modified, and the bill for its construction has since been ap-
proved by Parliament.


On the same page occurs the following :

" Section 2 of the Eads Ship Railway bill actually proposes the right to
substitute canalization over any sections of his route deemed desirable by
him, without requiring any stated rate of speed, or stating what the depth
and prism of his canal would be ! This effectually disposes of the pre-
tension of speed across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec." " But this

proposed canal system of Captain Eads establishes the fact that he is aware
that on these marshy and unsolid grounds a solid foundation for a Ship
Railway could not be made save at an enormous cost, and then with very
uncertain result, whilst the cost of excavating a canal prism would not be
great, and would involve no doubtful result, except as to water supply and
the establishment of necessary surface drainage."

This statement is doubtless due to a want of knowledge of
the facts upon the part of the Admiral. In the concession
this means a channel, and not a canal, between the Laguna


Superior and the Pacific. As a canal will cost about six
times as much per mile as a railway, it would only be
resorted to where the railway cannot be constructed. As
the Lagoon on the Pacific side will be one of the termini of
the railway, some work will have to be done in the nature
of canalization to deepen and improve it, and this is the
only work of the kind proposed.

In 1881, before any surveys had been made by us except
to examine the passes through the central division, it was
contemplated to locate the northern terminus on the Uspan-
apa, a large tributary on the right bank of the Coatzacoalcos ;
and fearing that within a few miles of the former the ground
would prove marshy, a provision was put into the ship rail-
way bill, then pending, providing for a canal through such
portion as might prove unsuited for a railway. Further ex-
aminations led to tht? abandonment of that route and to the
location of the line on the othvr x/VA; of the Coateacoaleos river.
From the northern terminus at Minatitlan to the Lagoon, 134
miles distant, not a single foot of marshy or even doubtful
ground is encountered, and no canal whatever is needed.


On page 12 the Admiral charges the writer with making,
without any excuse, unreliable statements in regard to the
rate of travel in the Suez Canal. What the writer stated
was this :

" In the Welland Ship Canal the speed is one mile per hour, and the
same on the North Holland Ship Canal to the port of Amsterdam. (In-
ternal Commerce U. S., 1885, p. 494.)

" In the Suez Canal the most important ship canal in the world the
time required to pass through, one hundred miles, was fifty hours, in
1884, or at a rate of ttvo miles per hour. The average time of an un-
disturbed passage, in 1884, was 38^ hours. About 25 per cent, of the
distance is through deep lakes, and 40 per cent, through shallow lakes,
only 35"*p er cent, being through dry excavations. The speed by regulation


is limited to five knots, but this is a dangerous one for steamers, for they
are liable to run aground. From 1870 to [883, eleven per cent, of all ves-
sels went aground.

" It was stated in evidence before the Canal Committee of Parliament
that in 1882, the passage of ten ships through the canal would choke it.''

The time of passage referred to is the total time required
to pass through the canal, including the frequent groundings
and delays by darkness and by waiting for other vessels to
pass. The writer refers for confirmation of his statement to
the " Maritime Canal of Suez," by Professor J. E. Nourse,
U. S. N.; to a paper recently read before the Austrian Society
of Engineers and Architects, in which it is stated that " the
time of an undisturbed passage in 1884 was 38-J- hours, while
the total average, since opening the canal, is 41 hours 22
minutes" In that paper it is further stated : " The long time
in passing the canal is a serious objection. The maximum
speed allowed is five knots per hour. This and the time lost
in the turn-outs makes the trip a long one." Reference is
also made to the testimony of Mr. F. R. Conder, (who is a
canal advocate,) taken before the Parliamentary Committee,
June 21, 1883, page 127 of the report. Reference is also
made to Vol. Ixvi, p. 194, Proceedings of the Institution
of the Civil Engineers of Great Britain, where Sir Charles A.
Hartley says that the greatest speed through the lakes, where
there is open and deep water, is, however, reduced to such
an extent in the canal proper as to make the average through
the entire canal less than five miles an hour, in Avhich state-
ment he refers to effective steaming, that is, the speed when
the steamer is actually in motion.


On page 13 of his pamphlet the Admiral quotes the writer
as saying of the Nicaragua Canal :

" The most complete and careful estimate of the cost of this work, made
by Major McFarland, United States Engineer, is $140,000,000, with labor
assumed at $1.00 per day."

The Admiral adds :

" Mr. Corthell knows even better than the public that Major McFarland's
' estimate,' if it may be called by that title, was not on the line of the

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Online LibraryE. L. (Elmer Lawrence) CorthellAn exposition of the errors and fallacies in Rear-Admiral Ammen's pamphlet : entitled The certainty of the Nicaragua Canal contrasted with the uncertainties of the Eads ship railway → online text (page 1 of 5)