David McCullough makes the epic story of the building of the Panama Canal come to life in a way that few authors could. Throughout the long history of tranportation across the Central American isthmus (first railroad, then canal) McCollough focusses on fascinating characters like the brilliant but enigmatic Frechman Ferdinand de Lesseps, who built the Suez Canal but whose career crashed and burned in Panama. McCullough's skill as a storyteller simply cannot be understated. The book will leave you with a true appreciation of just how Herculean an undertaking the canal was. This book is simply one of the best works of history to appear in the last quarter century.
David McCollough is a heck of a writer -- a fact I already knew from reading his wonderful biography Truman. His skill does justice to an epic story of recent times: the building of the Panama Canal.
This big book is necessary to tell a big tale. The effort to build the Path Between the Seas across the isthmus of Panama lasted from the 1870's through 1914. In a nutshell, first the French tried and failed to build a sea level crossing at Panama. This was in pursuit of a vision held by many national leaders in order to cut thousands of miles from the journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans. The Americans picked up where the French left off, and after a decade succeeded in creating a crossing using locks and a man-made lake.
What McCollough does so well is flesh out the above nutshell. It is a tale that would not be believed if written as fiction. The level of incompetence, misfeasance and malfeasance, wondrously peculiar personalities, engineering failures and brilliance, vision and size astound the reader and underscore how that age relied more upon enthusiasm, idealism and optimism in the pursuit of grand efforts than does our careful and measured era. The French followed the builder of the Suez Canal into the jungles of Panama. Tens of thousands of French families invested their life savings in the stock of a company that had no plans for the actual canal, very little good data of conditions on the isthmus, no idea of the amount of earth required to be removed, and no budget that would pay for the grand adventure. After spending the 1870's and 1880's mired in the jungle, losing tens of thousands (mostly black Caribbean workers -- the people who really built the canal) to disease and accident, raising increasingly more expensive capital in desperate gambles to stay afloat, the French effort collapsed. Shame, ignominy and jail awaited some of the project leaders. Their effort will amaze the reader -- that such an ill-conceived (that's too much of a compliment it wasn't even conceived at all beyond "we'll dig it -- viva la France!") undertaking could consume much of the savings of middle class France reminds one of how susceptible people can be to charlatans and swindlers.
Into the breach stepped Teddy Roosevelt. This story once again displays the Presidents immense force of personality, drive and integrity. Evidence strongly suggests he made a revolution in Panama to win that then Colombian province away from a country that could not come to terms with the United States on acquiring the rights to dig the canal. He then ensured, through the use of highly skilled and able administrators, that the organization, logistics, financing and authority existed to make what for years stood as the world's largest construction effort. Great credit for the actual building goes to several engineers and their staff -- many US Army engineers. The success also greatly rested on Col. Gorgas and his partially successful efforts to battle disease: yellow fever, malaria and a host of others that had cost upwards of 200 of every thousand the French employed a generation earlier.
McCollough brings scores of fascinating personalities to light. He tells of the financial and great political battles that attended all of the stages of the canal effort. The engineering and workings of the canal are simply and clearly laid out. The important efforts to improve sanitation and fight the mosquito borne diseases are succinctly explained. All of these elements are rendered interesting and tightly woven in this very good book.
"The Path Between the Seas" is narrative history at its best - the story of perhaps the greatest engineering feat of modern times. Writing in the clear and lucid style for which he is noted, historian David McCullough traces the creation of the Panama Canal from its earliest inception by the French in 1870, to its completion 44 years later by the United States.
McCullough skillfully weaves personalities and events together to create a powerful narrative replete with political intrigue, financial scandal, and triumph over tremendous adversity. The author first acquaints the reader with the leaders of the French attempt to build the canal - Ferdinand de Lesseps and his son, Charles, and Phillippe Bunau-Varilla, among others - and tells of the ultimate failure of their venture, and their disgrace due to financial scandal. McCullough then chronicles the ultimately successful American attempt to build the canal.
Here is seen the political intrigue (the U.S. backed Panamanian revolution against Colombia, with the complicity of President Theodore Roosevelt, Secretary of State John Hay, and Bunau-Varilla); the successful war against yellow fever and malaria, led by American doctor William Gorgas; and the organizational and engineering genius of two American Chief Engineers - John Stevens and Colonel George Goethals - which led to the completion of the canal in 1914.
"The Path Between the Seas" is more than just the story of how the Panama Canal was built; it is a well researched, historically accurate, and at the same time lively and highly entertaining account of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Highly recommended!
on March 5, 2002
I hold a personal interest in the Canal as I have just visited it and am a direct descendant of Col. David Gaillard one of the American engineers of the Canal, and all everyone in Panama told me was to read Mr. McCullough's account of its creation. As a history major in school, I read many great and many bland histories; this book ranks in as one of the most captivating books I have read, fiction or non-fiction. Even if one does not have any previous interest in the Canal, after the first pages you will become hooked. McCullough writes with such elegant prose and interesting humor, that the story unfolds like a Victorian novel. From the incredible cast of characters (from Ferdinand de Lessups to Teddy Roosevelt), the intrigue, the conspiracies, the romance, the quest for one of Man's greatest achievements explodes into an incredible book that will keep the reader thinking about the Canal for years to come...and will compel the same reader to venture to this tropical country and view the incredible "8th Wonder of the World" himself.
on June 2, 2010
Definitely an extremely well-researched and well-written tome but about three-quarters of the book is about the politics and planning prior to the actual building of the canal. If that's what you are looking for, I'm sure you will enjoy it. I was hoping for more discussion of the creation of the canal community and the engineering of the canal and locks. A lot of reading to get to that portion of the book. Additionally, I think the book would have been served better with more maps and diagrams of the canal.
Also, keep in mind that the book was written in the mid(?)-70's so the history from the past thirty years is not included. A minor point, I know, but perhaps worth mentioning.
on March 17, 2002
McCullough is a master of the English language. This was my first non-biography of his and though it was very entertaining, it was not quite as captivating as his John Adams or Truman. The book is divided naturally into the French effort and the American effort, with ample interlocking references. Fleshing out the individual principal characters is McCullough's strong suit, and as always, they seem to come alive in this book. Research is complete and lends just enough detail without becoming too tedious. The book seems to end rather abruptly, but then again that seems to be historically accurate, as much of the fanfare was lost in the European conflict that had erupted just as the Canal was opened. In any case, this is a job well done and a book worth reading.
on August 9, 2000
I found Mr. McCullough's book about the building of the Panama Canal to be well written, extra-well researched, and highly entertaining! I would recommend this book to anyone who truly wants to know what it took to build such an engineering marvel. Having lived in Panama twice and visited on many occasions, I can attest to the fact Mr. McCullough's book is THE SOURCE for accurate information on the canal and it's builders (both French and American efforts). I would also recommend purchasing the NOVA video, which Mr. McCullough narrates, called "A Man, A Plan, A Canal, Panama". He even quotes out of his own book on screen! I've never read a book so intricately and fastidiously researched. MUST READING for the true Canal enthusiast.
on April 22, 2006
The Panama Canal represents one of the great battles between man and nature and is truly one of the wonders of human achievement, especially when one considers the technology available at the time it was built. The Path Between the Seas chronicles the many difficulties faced, as well as the men and the scientific advances that eventually overcame those challenges.
Ultimately this is more of a history lesson than an engineering textbook. While McCullough does an admirable job of describing the massive excavation operations, that is but a small part of what occurred during the 44-year period the book covers. McCullough grants the reader an insider's view of the "revolution" that created the independent nation of Panama and paints a vivid picture of what life was like during the construction period. He also brings attention to the individuals who played a major role in the eventual success of the endeavor, from the men who governed the canal zone to the physicians who discovered, and virtually eradicated, the causes of some of the worst tropical diseases of the time. The book includes a number of maps and photographs that help illustrate the narrative.
Interestingly, much of the book takes place far from Panama. Shortly after the close of the Civil War the United States and other powers began surveying Central America with an eye towards building a canal there. In a time before satellites or aircraft this proved to be a demanding and deadly undertaking. Despite the relatively short distance across the Isthmus at Panama, this was not the only location considered for a canal. In fact, Panama was widely considered to be the wrong place to build the canal. An abundance of back-room deals and propaganda campaigns had to take place in both France and the United States to turn a Panama canal into a reality.
The Path Between the Seas is a well-written book that I would recommend to others with the caveat that this is a long, densely packed book that is likely to appeal primarily to those with a strong interest in history.
on October 12, 1999
I cannot say enough good things about David McCullough. "The Path Between The Seas" is my third McCullough book ("Mornings on Horseback" and "Truman") and is a masterpiece. "The Great Bridge" is next on my list.
So riveting is David McCullough's account of the construction of the Panama Canal, that it is one of the few works of nonfiction outside of the sciences that I have read twice. He chrnoicles a mesmerizing saga of despair and triumph, starting with Ferdinand de Lesseps disastrous attempt at building a sea level canal through the disease-infested jungles of Panama. The second half covers the American effort at building the Panama Canal, a project as grandiose as developing the atomic bomb or landing men on the moon. McCullough describes the groundbreaking work of Dr. Gorgas' team of doctors and nurses in combatting malaria and yellow fever; their success made possible the canal's eventual completion by U. S. Army engineer George Goethals. While McCullough does a splendid job in providing facts and figures with his graceful prose, he also excels in recounting the lives of many of the prominent figures associated with the Panama Canal's construction. For example, McCullough describes General Goethals' substantial role after the United States' entry into World War I and his subsequent work as the first chief engineer of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Indeed, if there is a hero in this saga, it most certainly has to be General Goethals. Along with McCullough's history of the Brooklyn Bridge's construction, this has to rank as one of the most spellbinding tales written about American technological ingenuity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.