The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914

by David McCullough

Hardcover, 1977

Call number

972 M



Simon & Schuster (1900)


History. Technology. Engineering. Nonfiction. HTML:The National Book Award�winning epic chronicle of the creation of the Panama Canal, a first-rate drama of the bold and brilliant engineering feat that was filled with both tragedy and triumph, told by master historian David McCullough. From the Pulitzer Prize�winning author of Truman, here is the national bestselling epic chronicle of the creation of the Panama Canal. In The Path Between the Seas, acclaimed historian David McCullough delivers a first-rate drama of the sweeping human undertaking that led to the creation of this grand enterprise. The Path Between the Seas tells the story of the men and women who fought against all odds to fulfill the 400-year-old dream of constructing an aquatic passageway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It is a story of astonishing engineering feats, tremendous medical accomplishments, political power plays, heroic successes, and tragic failures. Applying his remarkable gift for writing lucid, lively exposition, McCullough weaves the many strands of the momentous event into a comprehensive and captivating tale. Winner of the National Book Award for history, the Francis Parkman Prize, the Samuel Eliot Morison Award, and the Cornelius Ryan Award (for the best book of the year on international affairs), The Path Between the Seas is a must-read for anyone interested in American history, the history of technology, international intrigue, and human drama.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member thornton37814
McCullough has written an outstanding account of the creation the Panama Canal, starting with initial discussions as to whether the canal would be located in Panama or Nicaragua, proceeding to the France's failed attempt to build it, America's discussion on its location and subsequent resumption of
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the French efforts, its construction and the headaches and triumphs that came with it. He's managed to make his narrative quite readable and withstand the test of time. There are a lot of things that I find interesting in the narrative. I found the parts detailing Gorgas' fight against tropical diseases fascinating. I also particularly enjoyed the glimpses into the cultural and social life of canal workers fascinating. He paints fascinating pictures of both Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. A very readable history of a remarkable feat in engineering!
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LibraryThing member hailelib
The Path Between the Seas was a great book about a very interesting subject - the building of the Panama Canal. With the successful completion of the Suez Canal many people were looking for a good canal route across Central America to connect the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. There were various
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proposals, some for the Panama Isthmus and others for Nicaragua, Then there were those who wanted a sea level canal and those who thought locks would be better. Having triumphed at Suez, Ferdinand de Lesseps became involved in the plans for a French attempt and because he believed that a sea level Panamanian canal was the best choice that was what the French company attempted. This effort finally failed and in the process brought down the French government and lost the investors' money.

Afterwards, the Americans began looking seriously at the idea of a Nicaraguan Canal financed by the government rather than by a private company. However, Theodore Roosevelt and some powerful Senators became convinced that Panama might be the better choice. After a great deal of backroom politicking, Congress approved the Panama route by a narrow vote. Meanwhile the Colombian government began dragging its feet and an impatient Roosevelt helped along the secession of Panama from Colombia.

Next came the construction, the triumph over yellow fever and a great reduction in deaths from malaria, visits by Roosevelt and Taft and the opening of the canal just as WWI was in its early stages. The photos and maps were helpful in picturing the progress of the canal as it was described in the text.

A really good book that I am very glad to have read. Recommended
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LibraryThing member cyderry
This epic story of the construction of the Panama Canal, "the greatest engineering feat of all time", begins with the struggles of the French plans with its shortcomings and ends with the success of the United Sates endeavors to cut a corridor from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

The details are
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tremendous telling how the French first decided to start the project after their success with the Suez Canal. The French were granted a concession by the Colombian government (then owners of Panama) to start the construction.

Lacking engineering expertise on the team and coupled with the difficulties with the terrain and malaria/yellow fever, the French were doomed to failure.

However, the US had its own issues with a preliminary project due to the political atmosphere. The US, with military recommendations pointing toward another site in Nicaragua, not Panama.

When Colombia rejected United States plans to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, the U.S. supported a revolution that led to the independence of Panama in 1903 who ceded control of the Panama Canal Zone to the US, which took over the Panama sites in 1904.

The efforts made in the next 10 years included the building of 4 dams and creation 2 man-made lakes. Research and studies have shown that even with today's technical advances, the construction couldn't have been any faster.

What a fascinating project and thoroughly enlightening story told by a master storyteller.
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LibraryThing member Stbalbach
I read this after recently hearing that Nicaragua is planning to build a new canal, with Chinese engineers, and wanted some historical context, why did the original canal end up in Panama? Given the option I went with the 8hr abridged version - the unabridged version is 35 hours. Even the shortened
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version seemed to drag in places so I'm content to have a lot of extraneous detail of the longer version set aside for another time. The abridgement is mostly seamless and at 8hrs as as long as many other full-length books. However I think reading the book (non-audio) in full, with time to absorb the text, would be rewarding given the depth of detail, but for the casual introduction this audio abridgement gets the main story and is not a disappointment as many abridgements can be.

The actual digging of the canal is the last third of the book, which is the most interesting due to the triumph of engineering. The rest of the book is face-palming hubris, boondoggle and misadventure - ugh. Utter incompetence and failure. It's also a history of the founding of Panama which is a story of American Imperialism in Latin America. This is my second McCullough book, Johnstown Flood remaining my favorite.
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LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
One might think that the historical retelling of the construction of the Panama Canal would be as dry and boring as five day old stale bread but David McCullough makes the process from start to finish fascinating. Being one of the seven man-made wonders of the world, the Panama Canal is an example
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of ingenuity, technology and sheer grit at its best. What is not as well known is all the controversy that surrounded the who, what, where, when of the project (everyone knew the why - sailing around Cape Horn was not only time consuming but it was also extremely dangerous. McCullough maps out every step of the process from the vision birthed in 1870 to the triumph of the first successful trial lockage of September 1913. From the French preliminarily attempts to the eventual success of the United States, every trial and tribulation is accounted for. The book version has wonderful photography while the audio version is entertaining for long car rides.
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LibraryThing member sergerca
It's McCullough, so of course it's good. However, nothing bores me more than diplomatic history and the better part of the first part of the book regards just that. I didn't realize the involvement of the French and all the back and forth between the countries involved. Once the USA actually began
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building the canal the books gets good. It is quite remarkable what was built there. Very interesting story.
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LibraryThing member santhony
Most people have limited education in the building of the Panama Canal. The sum total of my knowledge, prior to reading this book, was that Theodore Roosevelt fostered a revolution in the Columbian state of Panama in order to complete the work abandoned by the French. That disease and pestilence
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was rife in the region and that American technology and know how carried the day. Mostly correct, but woefully simplistic.

This book, written by the outstanding author, David McCollough, does an excellent job of tracking the canal project from its inception to completion, a story lasting about 35 years. The financial and political intrigue accompanying the French effort is captivating. The change of scenery (but with an equal amount of intrigue) to the American project breathes fresh life into the story. And what a story it is. It would be easy to attribute the ultimate success to superior American ingenuity and resolve, however, while this did indeed play a part, the impact of a national, government financed effort (as opposed to the privately financed French effort) coupled with huge strides in medical and mechanical technology in the intervening years probably was the most compelling reason for American success.

McCollough, in the course of the book, touches on virtually all aspects of both the French and American experiences, from scandalous financial dealings, back room political deal making, the strong decisive personalities involved and the social and cultural factors which played such a huge part in the project.

In reading this book, you began to develop an appreciation for the immense scope of the undertaking and the effort required to pull it off. The level of organization required in such an effort is almost mindboggling. It is difficult to imagine a project of equal magnitude (perhaps the NASA moon landings). I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in history. It should be required reading in all high schools.
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LibraryThing member bjscheuter
This is such an interesting book. I was planning a trip to Panama and was told to read this first. It was wonderful and helpful to understanding the character of Panama and the relationship between our country and the canal. I enjoyed learning the history of the canal and the struggles of the
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people and the amazing discoveries made while striving to build this canal.
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LibraryThing member Philip100
This is a very good book. I learned quite a bit about the canal I had not known. It was no surprise that public officials in those days were just as hard headed as they are today. I always enjoy reading David McCullough his storylines always flow and keep you interested in the subject matter. I
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would recommend The Path Between The Seas to all readers.
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LibraryThing member morryb
I keep waiting for a McCullough book to be less than a five star, but it just doesn't seem to happen, and it doesn't happen with this one. Path Between the Seas is another highly enjoyable read. I will say that it does start out a little bit slower than some McCullough's other books, but that may
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simply because he spends the first part of the book speaking about the French's attempt to build the canal and someone with more of an interest in French history may well enjoy it. The story does pick up at the end of this section when it goes into all the intrigue at the end of the canal project. The book is divided up into three parts. The first covers the French companies attempt to build the canal. The second covers when the Americans became very interested and then helped Panama win their independence. The third is the Americans start and completion of the canal. For someone who has not studied the canal before, it was the chance to learn a lot. I look forward TO reading more history books by McCullough
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LibraryThing member Bill_Masom
Very interesting and well written.

What I liked the most about it was the fact that it really illuminated the French history of the canal, something I didn't know much about.

Also, it really made an effort to understand the personalities that were tied to the canal.

Excellent book if your at all
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interested in big men doing big things.
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LibraryThing member stuart10er
A lengthy but detailed work on how (and why!) a canal was attempted by the French and then completed by the US in Panama. There is very little looking forward in this book. How is it still relevant (the canal)? What are the implications of the canal going back to local contract? Lots of unanswered
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questions looking to the future, but this is a great overview on why we did it in the first place.
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LibraryThing member dickcraig
Read this while in Panama. A great history of the building to the Panama Canal
LibraryThing member LarrySouders
This is a wonderful new exploration of the building of the Panama Canal. A great natural history of Panama. A political thriller and a deeper look into the suffering of the people who constructed this grand canal.
LibraryThing member kaulsu
Wow. What an undertaking, to say the least. This was an incredibly long book to listen to--over 35 hours. But I knew that I would finish it by listening to it while I drove and thereby finish it,

The book begins with the first dream of a Central American canal dream, and ends with the completion of
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that canal. It may sound straightforward and obvious, but it was anything but,

My next cruise should be through the canal...but I may only be wishing. After all. I went through it in 1968. More than many!
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LibraryThing member FKarr
history of the building of the Panama Canal; esp. informative of early, European attempts; not particularly technological; much focus on hindrances and human achievements to overcome them
LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
David McCullough, as the subtitle spells out, here tells of the "creation of the Panama Canal," a tale spanning the first surveys in 1870 a few years after the American Civil War to the opening in 1914 just before the first World War. The tale had world dimensions I was unaware of before reading
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the book. As McCullough put it in his Preface: Because of the Panama Canal one nation, France, was rocked to its foundations. Another, Colombia, lost its most prized possession, the Isthmus of Panama. Nicaragua, on the verge of becoming a world crossroads, was left to wait for some future chance. The Republic of Panama was born.

This doorstopper of over 600 pages is divided into three parts, and each really is a book onto itself, with plenty of surprises. The first part, "Vision" deals with the French chapter in the building of the canal; I had never known that France was involved. It continues to amaze me how much French and American history is intertwined. The French attempt to create the canal was headed by Ferdinand de Lesseps, who was credited with building the Suez Canal, and McCullough paints him as a mix of con artist and visionary. By the time France's almost decade-long effort ended, over 20,000 workers on the canal from directors to laborers had died, primarily of malaria and yellow fever, over 287 million had been spent, and the French government had fallen over scandals involving the financing of the unfinished canal. In the next section, "Stars and Stripes Forever," we turn to a new century and the American chapter, and there we get a tale of intrigue, conspiracy and gunboat diplomacy starring Theodore Roosevelt. Finally in "The Builders" we get the story of how the canal was completed and opened. Although marred by a "rigid caste society" and "color line" on the American-governed canal zone, it's a mostly inspiring, even heroic tale, at least when it comes to the accomplishments in engineering and medicine. The story of Colonel William Crawford Gorgas, the doctor who largely wiped out yellow fever and greatly diminished malaria in the canal zone, saving thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of lives, is what stood out to me in that section.

This is my first book by David McCullough, a Pulitzer-Prize winning author, and after this I'd certainly read more of him. It's not only well-written and comprehensively sourced, but especially after having read a lot of histories and biographies lately, I was impressed that McCullough didn't try to smooth out the complexities and the ambiguities in this story--that there are conflicting sides and some mysteries may never solved. McCullough conducted interviews "with the descendents and friends of many of the central figures in the book" and consulted "more than four hundred books, one hundred different newspapers, magazines, technical journals and notebooks, company reports, bulletins, contracts, meteorological records, maps, surveys, boxes of press clippings, scrapbooks, photograph albums." I found the first part a bit slow, but the book picked up for me the further I got into the tale, and found the last part fascinating. He certainly made the era and personalities in his story come to life and ably explained the technical sides of the endeavor. I learned a lot. I can hardly ask for more out of a work of history.
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LibraryThing member Whiskey3pa
Thorough, engaging and readable. Walks the reader thru the panama from the earliest treaties to completion. The book seems very even handed in its treatment of the events and the players. Recommended reading.
LibraryThing member cmbohn
Themes: Exploration, engineering, trade, disease, politics
Setting: Columbia and the part which became Panama, France, Washington DC

I listened to this one on audio at it was very absorbing. McCullough does his usual thorough job at exploring all the aspects of the canal. It wasn't quite up to the
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job he did on John Adams, but it was much better than The Great Bridge.

Sorry for a rather perfunctory review, but I'm a little under the weather and I keep putting it off. To sum up, I learned so much with this book. Lots in here about the history of the canal, about the French and their involvement, none of which I knew before. Then we get on to the Americans and their entry into the area. I had heard some of this before, especially about the yellow fever, but it's covered in better contest here. Great stuff. Highly recommended at 4.5 stars. Now I would love to see the canal in person, especially to get a peek behind the scenes.

Oh, and about the narration - great job. He got all the various accents - French, West Indies, Irish - just right, and kept the story interesting. The only thing I didn't like was a little unpleasant surprise - "This book was abridged by..." Dang! Now I want to read the unabridged book, but I will probably wait a bit. I'm counting it anyway, as it was 18 hours or something like that.
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LibraryThing member oldman
The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough is the history of the Panama Canal, the political, economic and engineering challenges faced by the French, then the Americans. As with most books by David McCullough I have read the story of how this of the feat was accomplished contained enough facts
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to authenticate the story, but also enough information about the major players to give a flavor of the events.

A synopsis of the story is available. What I enjoyed most about McCullough's rendition of the story is the description of the personalities involved and, even though much indecision about the type of canal continued up until it was finally finished, there was never a doubt the canal would be built.

I will give this book 4/5 because much of the book was focussed on the political events and I was more interested in the engineering aspects of the story.
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LibraryThing member Mwsberg
Given as a Christmas book. For a person who does not read history this is a great book. I have read it several times. Enjoyed the tie in to railroad engineering in the US, Mr. Stevens. Also enjoyed the discussion of the impact of the failure of the French construction on their stock market. A
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friend later got it signed by the author in the hall of a hotel in TX.
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LibraryThing member linedog1848
I have yet to read a David McCullough book I didn't love. Yet, I seem to be approaching his catalogue in ascending order of weight (with the exception of the Johnstown Flood, which I have not yet read). It takes a few months of staring at a book this size and finishing up my lighter reading
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(avoidance) to finally tackle it, but as with The Great Bridge, I was glad I did. It took me not quite a month, I think, to finish The Path Between the Seas.

The book was in three sections: the scouting and the years of the French project, the political wheeling-and-dealing and fomenting of Panamanian independence to bring the isthmus and the project into the American sphere of influence, and the years of the United States' directed work and completion of the canal.

The first section was a little thick on back-room politics, but the adventure story of the scouting parties and the surveying, as well as the building of the railroad were phenomenal. The unbelievable misery, pestilence, and death during the French years were horrific but was a story very well told. The first section gets 4 stars.

The second section seemed to drag on a bit for me, with lots of back-room politicking and intrigue. It was all interesting, it was all relevant, and all of it gave context to the rest of the story so that the other sections were made better by its inclusion. Still, it was a little bit of an effort to plough through. The second section gets 3 stars for pleasure, with another 1/2 added for relevance. 3.5 stars for this section.

The final section was writing on par with The Great Bridge. Perhaps the absence of a language barrier, or simply that it's closer to home, made the story of the American years in the Canal Zone really come to life. The enormity of the work, the brilliance and character of the leaders (Gorgas, Stevens, Goethals, in particular) came leaping out in this section. What giants! While earlier sections had certainly portrayed T.R., Taft, DeLesseps and others as giant personalities and characters, the heroes in the final section were written in a way that truly made them read as great on a mythic scale. Though not necessarily a sign of good history to have mythic heroes as characters, this was a book of a project on a mythic scale, but its story was told through the people who were there, so it was in this section--the section where the characters came out as superhuman--that the mythic scale of the project hit hardest for me. The last section gets 5 stars +

On balance, I enjoyed The Great Bridge better, but this was VERY well worth reading.
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LibraryThing member dypaloh
Qualities that built the Panama Canal: nerve; persistence; dynamic energy; imagination; ambition; propaganda; deception; desire for power.
Pleasantries involved in its building: yellow fever; malaria; typhoid fever; smallpox; pneumonia; dysentery; beriberi; food poisoning; snakebite; sunstroke.
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McCullough captures it all.

Two events were pivotal in making the canal’s construction a success. The first was acquiring the right to build it. The second was dealing with yellow fever, the most horrifying of those “pleasantries.” Success in both helped assure U.S. emergence as a world power.

The venture’s imperialist character wasn’t unappreciated at the time even though Theodore Roosevelt impatiently insisted “our government was bound by every consideration of honor and humanity . . . to take exactly the steps we took.” Those steps included violating our treaty with Colombia, aborting negotiations to modify or replace the treaty, and deploying the U.S. military to help effect the taking of Panama from the Colombians.

After acquiring the right even to build the canal, challenges remained that were gigantic. An essential matter was disease, especially yellow fever. By the time the canal became an American project, scientists had established as fact that yellow fever’s source was a specific mosquito. Then, as now, men with power distrusted scientists and dismissed their consensus: “The Isthmian Canal Commission…did not seriously entertain the notion that mosquitos could be the cause of yellow fever or malaria.” The head of the Canal Commission called the theory “balderdash.” Governor Davis thought it a “wild” idea. Chief Engineer John Wallace believed “good health on the Isthmus was nothing more than a question of personal deportment.”

As someone might tweet today, or have telegraphed back then: SLEAZEY SCIENCE LIES. MOSQUITOS?—FAKE NEWS BITES!!!

Roosevelt realized the news was not fake after listening to his friend, Dr. Alexander Lambert, who told him, “Smells and filth, Mr. President, have nothing to do with the malaria or the Yellow fever. You are facing one of the greatest decisions of your career…If you fall back upon the old methods…you will fail…If you back up [U.S. Army physician] Gorgas and his ideas…you will get your canal.” TR’s decision to follow Gorgas defeated the yellow fever scourge that frightened workers most. The incidence of malaria fell dramatically too, an even more important victory for the project.

There is much else of outstanding interest in David McCullough’s history of the canal, particularly his recounting of the previous French effort that American engineers in Panama concluded was heroic. I won’t tell more except to comment about the final chapter. In it McCullough shows in great detail what happens when a ship passes through the canal, not skimping on technical aspects of how the locks work, what must be done on the ship, etc. It’s just the sort of thing to blunt my interest. But here, after living with the canal for some 600 extraordinary pages, I could not have been more engaged by his descriptions. By this I mean to say, The Path Between the Seas is a great book.
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LibraryThing member BurlingtonReader
A great narrative about the building of the Panama Canal. For me, McCullough can be slow at times but the information he provides is terrific. A must read.
LibraryThing member LynnB
I've become a real fan of David McCullough's writing. He has a rare talent for writing history like few can. The Panama Canal didn't seem like an interesting topic when I began, but by the end I was astounded at the stories behind this enormous undertaking.

Some of the engineering and technical
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aspects went a little beyond my understanding. I found the most interesting parts to be about the medical challenges and the blend of politics and technical expertise that went into choosing the site for the canal and whether or not to build it “a niveau”

In my work, I've seen aspects of major projects such as pipelines and the creation or expansion of national parks. There are so many aspects to such projects and Mr. McCullough really shows the multiple issues and interests involved in building the canal, as he did for the Brooklyn Bridge. Some of the highlights for me were: the medical challenges, the kinds of society that developed in Panama, the role of the Canal in Panama's independence revolution, the French investment scandal and the “cult of personality” surrounding de Lesseps.
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