From the Naval History and Heritage Command, Communications and Outreach Division
For our “lessons noted, lessons learned” historical journey today, we’ll start in the “seemed like a good idea at the time” file. For it was this date in 1870 that a captain with a crew of two ships set sail on an expedition to find the shortest distance between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean.
While the mission itself proved fruitless, the work completed proved so valuable that the Navy would spend the next several years surveying South America, the Caribbean Sea and beyond as ordered by the Hydrographic Office.
Beginning at the mouth of the Coatzacoalcos River in Mexico on Nov. 11, 1870, Capt. Robert W. Shufeldt set off to traverse the Tehuantepec route to see if an interoceanic canal could be built. If it could be done, then the United States would have the greatest ability to close off the Gulf of Mexico from invading ships by using Key West and the Tortugas as bases of operation. It was that advantage that made Mexico the top choice for a waterway route between the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico.
And it didn’t hurt that compared to a canal through Panama, having one in Mexico would shave off 1,350 nautical miles on a trip from New Orleans to San Francisco.
That strip of land known as an isthmus, only 120 miles wide, had already been surveyed by army and navy officers for railway communication. The hydrographic party, under the command of Lt. Cmdr. N.H. Farquhar on the screw steamer Kansas, started on the Atlantic side, with Capt. Shufeldt and his crew on USS Mayflower on the Pacific.
The Mexican government did its part in helping the expedition along by providing 600 troops to protect the two crews.
By Dec. 11, when the Farquhar crew reached the plains of Chivela, it was discovered there was no reliable means of water to feed the summit-level of a ship-canal.
Other problems surfaced when a pass turned out to be 318 feet higher than expected and again, finding a natural supply of water to feed the canal.
The Pacific side wasn’t without its issues, either. At Salina Cruz, the lagoon’s ocean bottom was constantly changing, which would require constant and deep dredging to accommodate ships.
The expedition left Mexico April 27, 1871 and arrived back in Washington May 25. Shufeldt reported the Coatzacoalcos River canal was practical from an engineering work, but the length, number of locks and the construction of a water supply to supply the canal made it too costly to consider. At that point, the isthmus of Panama was considered a more likely possibility, although that location did not provide the protection of the Gulf of Mexico the Coztzacoalcos Canal had offered.
While no passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic was created at this juncture, no good deed goes unpunished, as the saying goes. The work the expeditionary team performed provided valuable information, so it was determined hydrographic work would become part of the duties requested of naval vessels in time of peace.