- Paperback: 698 pages
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster (October 15, 1978)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0671244094
- ISBN-13: 978-0671244095
- Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.6 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Customer Reviews: 742 customer ratings
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #10,826 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 Paperback – October 15, 1978
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On December 31, 1999, after nearly a century of rule, the United States officially ceded ownership of the Panama Canal to the nation of Panama. That nation did not exist when, in the mid-19th century, Europeans first began to explore the possibilities of creating a link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the narrow but mountainous isthmus; Panama was then a remote and overlooked part of Colombia.
All that changed, writes David McCullough in his magisterial history of the Canal, in 1848, when prospectors struck gold in California. A wave of fortune seekers descended on Panama from Europe and the eastern United States, seeking quick passage on California-bound ships in the Pacific, and the Panama Railroad, built to serve that traffic, was soon the highest-priced stock listed on the New York Exchange. To build a 51-mile-long ship canal to replace that railroad seemed an easy matter to some investors. But, as McCullough notes, the construction project came to involve the efforts of thousands of workers from many nations over four decades; eventually those workers, laboring in oppressive heat in a vast malarial swamp, removed enough soil and rock to build a pyramid a mile high. In the early years, they toiled under the direction of French entrepreneur Ferdinand de Lesseps, who went bankrupt while pursuing his dream of extending France's empire in the Americas. The United States then entered the picture, with President Theodore Roosevelt orchestrating the purchase of the canal--but not before helping foment a revolution that removed Panama from Colombian rule and placed it squarely in the American camp.
The story of the Panama Canal is complex, full of heroes, villains, and victims. McCullough's long, richly detailed, and eminently literate book pays homage to an immense undertaking. --Gregory McNamee
The Washington Star David McCullough's history of this extraordinary construction job between the Atlantic and Pacific is everything history ought to be. It is dramatic, accurate...and altogether gripping.
The Washington Post Book World Solid, entertainingly written and fair-minded...McCullough unravels the complicated and sometimes deliberately obscured story that lies behind the Panama Canal.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt The New York Times A chunk of history full of giant-sized characters and rich in political skullduggery.
The New York Daily News In the hands of McCullough, the digging of the great ditch becomes a kind of peacetime epic...The book will absorb you...You won't want to put it down once you've started reading it.
Newsweek McCullough is a storyteller with the capacity to steer readers through political, financial, and engineering intricacies without fatigue or muddle. This is grand-scale, expert work.
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1) A French conglomerate began building the canal in the late 19th century. However, the enterprise and project failed due to a number of reasons including corporate corruption and theft, masses of canal workers dying from malaria and yellow fever, using too many contractors, and often using inadequate equipment.
2) The US government under Teddy Roosevelt's administration bought out the remains of the French company and helped Panama achieve their independence from Colombia.
3) Sewage and drainage systems were built in Panama City, Colon, and other settlements along the canal to prevent the breeding of mosquitoes in wells and other open water containers. In addition, living quarters in the towns were fumigated. This almost completely eliminated both yellow fever and malaria from spreading.
4) The construction of the Panama Canal was one of the first major international achievements of the United States as well as mankind.
5) Initially, Nicaragua was the desired site by name for the inter-oceanic canal. However, Panama won out due to a perceived threat of volcanoes in Nicaragua. Also, it was at first decided to build a sea level canal. However, the plans changed and a lock canal was built instead since it would be finished quicker and involve less digging.
The book is a long but informative read and includes a lot of both history and science.
What a story! What started out as a French enterprise, due to their success with the Suez Canal, it eventually lost traction. Despite its much ballyhooed beginnings, the project, the creation of a passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, became embroiled in charges of corruption, tarnishing the reputations of many otherwise respected Frenchmen. The chicanery that went on was truly jaw dropping. The project was ultimately abandoned by the French only to be picked up by the Americans years later, with President Theodore Roosevelt one of its most ardent champions.
How the canal came to fruition was definitely an eye opener. The problems encountered were monumental. The back door politics were the least of them.The health crisis in Panama that resulted in so many thousands of deaths over the years was certainly one of the most formidable obstacles. The ongoing battle as to the type of canal it should be was an issue for many years. Should it be a sea level canal or a lock canal?
This is a very well-researched book with a wealth of detail. As times, the details and names of so many players was initially overwhelming, especially in the first half of the book. I found the second half the more interesting portion of the book. The skullduggery that resulted in Panama seceding from Columbia and becoming an independent nation was pretty astonishing. Teddy Roosevelt truly spoke softly but carried a big stick. The backstory of the eradication of the root causes of malaria and yellow fever was most interesting. The conditions in which the workers lived was also of interest, as a Jim Crow type of caste system existed, a practice consistent with the times and was probably instituted to satisfy the Southern members of Congress who had involvement with the project. Most of the black workers came from the surrounding Caribbean islands, with the bulk of them coming from Barbados, during the oversight of the project by the Americans.
With everything that happened during its creation, it is truly a miracle that the Panama Canal came to fruition. I look forward to traveling through it, immersed in its history, as well as the story of the blood, sweat, and tears that went into this monumental engineering feat. It will make my trip that much more interesting.
Top international reviews
It does start a bit slowly, and it's well to remember that this was McCullough's first major book, published over thirty years ago. Some of the earlier bits could do with a bit of editing; names are introduced without explanation, and a quick look at the index confirms that the person is not mentioned again. But as the story gathers force, it becomes irrisistable.
These days we take the Panama Canal for granted. I doubt that one person in a hundred has any idea what a colossal undertaking it was. Even with modern technology, it would still be an awesome feat. The people responsible for digging it were all larger than life, and McCullough's great virtue is bringing them back to life. Ferdinand de Lesseps, who created the Suez canal, emerges as a vain obsessive with very little understanding of civil engineering, but with an unmatched talent for selling his dream to countless small investors, who eventually lost everything. His insistence on a sea-level canal--which many engineers realised was all but impossible--was the main problem. Ironically, the solution that the Americans eventually settled on was proposed by a French engineer at a conference arranged by de Lesseps to secure backing for his company. But then, no one paid it the slightest notice.
This is a huge tale, encompassing high and low politics (including the Panamanian 'revolution' made in the USA), and a whole host of remarkable characters. Characteristically, McCullough puts things into a reasonable perspective: even though black labourers (almost all British subjects) were paid far less than whites and lacked commissary privileges, the Americans still paid them far more than they could earn at home, and they got medical care of a high standard. He includes a touching account of a black labourer with typhoid whose life was saved by the dedication of white American nurses who clearly cared a lot for him.
But the struggle against nature is the most fascinating part of the book. Inevitably, the project languished when it was run by managerial types. It only came to life when it was managed by men who knew their trade. The photographs of the Culebra cut (the biggest earth-moving job in history) stagger the imagination. This is just the book to read whenever you despair of the human race.
I knew the Panama Canal would fit into this category but I did not know just what a stupendous achievement it was to defy the terrain, the monsoon rains and the deadly diseases to build it until I read this book. Not only is the creation of the canal fascinating but many of the characters involved in it, not to mention the deceptions, self-delusion, skulduggery and an almost bloody civil war in Panama.
In my view David McCullough know exactly how to write about history. He does his research, obtains his facts and statistics and moulds them into a cohesive and eminently interesting history.
The Panama Canal is a stupendous achievement and so is this book.
The initial but ultimately abortive French attempt to build the canal occupies the first part of the book. The central part deals with the events that were key to ultimate USA success in completing the project, covering medical research that identified the mosquito as the vector of the deadly yellow fever and malaria, and the bloodless coup that separated Panama from Colombia, enabling the US to quickly conclude the necessary legal agreements to control 'The Zone' and commence work. Railway buffs are likely to enjoy this book, since the Panama railroad was a key player in almost all parts of the drama.
The last part of the book describes the massive US investment in equipment, dollars, manpower and infrastructure that eventually succeeded in completing the Canal. If you are interested in people management, then the descriptions of the interplay between Washington politicians (with President Roosevelt a central figure) and project staff in Panama will provide you with a number of case studies.
A large book that does not seem to be a heavy read at all and rewards the reader throughout.