1939 3¢ Panama Canal
Issue Date: August 15, 1939
First City: U.S.S. Charleston, Canal Zone
Quantity Issued: 67,813,350
Printed by: Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Printing Method: Flat Plate
Color: Deep red violet
When Franklin D. Roosevelt approved U.S. #856, it marked the second time he had approved his family relative on the design of a U.S. stamp. Theodore Roosevelt had also been featured in the Presidential Series in 1938. Franklin and Theodore were fifth cousins, and Franklin’s wife Eleanor was Theodore’s niece. This time, Theodore was highlighted for his part in the building of the Panama Canal.
The 3¢ 1939 commemorative marked the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the project. Endorsed by Theodore, the Canal’s construction was led by Army officer and engineer George Washington Goethals. Goethals finished the canal in 1914 – two years before its projected target date. Both men are featured on U.S. #856.
Also seen on the stamp is the “Gaillard Cut” – an artificial valley dug through the continental divide. It was vital in linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and was regarded as one of the greatest engineering accomplishments of its era.
Franklin Roosevelt arranged for U.S. #856 to be officially issued on the deck of the U.S.S. Charleston, which was stationed in the Canal Zone.
Nicaragua Stamp Leads to Canal in Panama
At the beginning of the 20th century, Nicaragua and Panama were potential targets for a canal. The United States was negotiating with both countries for permission to build the canal, and the Nicaragua effort had the support of President Jose Santos Zelaya. However, in 1902, a Nicaragua postal stamp produced by the American Banknote Company featured Mount Momotombo as a smoking volcano.
Momotombo was effectively dormant and over 100 miles from the path of the proposed canal. Lobbyist William Nelson Cromwell, representing the group favoring a canal in Panama, planted a story in the New York Times reporting the eruption of Momotombo and a series of seismic shocks. As the U.S. Senate prepared to vote on which site to begin the project in 1902, Cromwell sent leaflets with the Nicaragua stamp and its smoking volcano to senators. That same year, a volcanic eruption in Saint-Pierre, Martinique, killed 30,000 people. Congress elected to build in Panama.