The origins of the Kinkaid Canal go back to Courtney Wymess, a mining engineer who had been hired by Kramer Associates, a transportation consortium founded in 1865. In 1866 Wymess offered the consortium two suggestions: a railroad across the southernmost section of the state of Chiapas, and a canal across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in central Chiapas. Both suggestions were rejected by K.A. President Bernard Kramer. Kramer raised the possibility of a canal through the New Granadan province of Panama, but Wymess convinced him that a canal through Guatemala, passing through Lake Hernandez and down the sea via the San Juan River, would be a better choice. Having agreed to Wymess' proposal, Kramer set about obtaining a concession for a canal from the Guatemalan government.
Kramer approached Senators Alberto Gomez and James FitzHugh, both of whom had received substantial monetary contributions from him in the 1863 Mexican elections. However, they were unable to persuade President Arthur Conroy to pursue negotiations with Guatemalan President Miguel Rubio. Kramer therefore set about removing Conroy from office. He opposed Conroy's proposed electoral reforms, and when the Continentalist Party caucus met to choose its presidential nominee for the 1869 Mexican elections, Kramer was able to gain the nomination for his chosen candidate, Senator Omar Kinkaid.
By the time Kinkaid was inaugurated in September 1869, Rubio had already granted the concession to build an interoceanic canal to a German consortium backed by King Frederick William V. Kramer's growing impatience caused him to bypass Kinkaid, and Kramer himself began funding a revolutionary movement in Guatemala led by Guatemalan Senator Vicente Martinez. Armed and funded by Kramer money, Martinez launched his coup on 9 March 1870. Within four days, Rubio had been overthrown, and Martinez had named himself provisional president. Kinkaid recognized the Martinez government on 16 March, and on 20 April Martinez signed over the canal concession to Kramer Associates.
Wymess quickly began work mapping out the proposed canal zone, which he completed in June. Three months later, the canal zone passed under the control of K.A. Kramer recruited a small private army to patrol the zone. In April 1871 Wymess established his headquarters at New Cordoba near the Pacific terminus of the canal zone, and as he began organizing surveys and work teams he confidently announced that work on the canal would be completed by 1 January 1874. However, Wymess underestimated the toll that disease and sanitation would take on his work teams, and work on the canal would not be completed until 1878. The following year, after Kinkaid's assassination, the canal was named after him.
In Mexico, meanwhile, Kramer's control over the government continued to grow until 17 September 1881, when he oversaw a coup d'etat that installed Benito Hermión as dictator. Kramer himself died seven months after the coup, and control over the company, the canal, and Hermión passed to his successor, Diego Cortez y Catalán. Cortez had no interest in politics, and was content to allow Hermión to rule Mexico as he wished, as long as he left control of the Mexican economy in Cortez's hands.
Cortez received a foretaste of Hermión's style of governance in October 1886. In that month, Hermión engineered a war with Guatemala, taking direct control of the country. Afterwards, Hermión forced Cortez to sell the Mexican government half-ownership of the canal, which was finally making a profit, at a very low price. With Mexican troops occupying the country, Cortez had no choice but to give in to Hermión's demand. By 1899, Cortez had become sick of sharing control of Mexico with a dictator. The last straw came on 2 April 1901, when Hermión converted his dictatorship into a hereditary monarchy by declaring himself Emperor of Mexico. With no prospect of an end to autocratic rule in sight, Cortez chose to engineer Hermión's ouster in October. Acting through a provisional government established by his employee Martin Cole, Cortez restored republican rule in Mexico in 1902.
Mexican control of the Kinkaid Canal was challeged during the Hundred Day War with France in 1914. In July, the French were able to sieze control of the Caribbean terminus of the canal. Within two weeks, however, Mexican and Guatemalan troops were able to dislodge the French force, which retreated inland to the hills of the Cordillera Chontaleña. French forces in Guatemala surrendered after an armistice between Mexico and France was agreed on 10 October. Mexico retained control of the Kinkaid Canal after Guatemalan independence was restored in the 1923 statehood plebiscite.
Japan made an unsuccessful attempt to sieze the Kinkaid Canal in the late 1940s during the Global War. The losses sustained there by the Japanese, along with equally unsuccessful attempts to invade Hawaii and Alaska, led to a de facto truce between Japan and Mexico in 1949.
Sobel's sources for the Kinkaid Canal are Wymess' Remaking a Continent: My Life and Works (Mexico City, 1892); as well as Herbert Clark's The True Story of the Kinkaid Canal (Mexico City, 1889); and Winston Revell's Wymess, Kramer, and the Big Ditch (New York, 1968).
This was the Featured Article for the month of January 2016.