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.
The details are 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
The book begins with the first dream of a Central American canal dream, and ends with the completion of 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!
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 interested in big men doing big things.
Some of the engineering and technical 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.