Book: The Path Between the Seas

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

Author: David McCullough
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

The building of the Panama Canal was one of the most grandiose, dramatic, and sweeping adventures of all time. Spanning nearly half a century, from its beginnings by a France in pursuit of glory to its completion by the United States on the eve of World War I, it enlisted men, nations, and money on a scale never before seen. Apart from the great wars, it was the largest, costliest single effort ever mounted anywhere on earth, and it affected the lives of tens of thousands of people throughout the world. Here in all its heartbreak and eventual triumph the epic adventure is brought vividly alive by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of such books as The Johnstown Flood, The Great Bridge, Truman, and John Adams.

Filled with vivid detail and incident, The Path Between the Seas is not only a fact-filled account of an unprecedented engineering feat; it is also the story of the people who were caught up in it—some to win fame and fortune, others to have their reputations and even their lives destroyed. For many it was the adventure of a lifetime, an adventure whose like will never be seen again. Out of it came a revolution, the birth of a new nation, the conquest of yellow fever, and the expansion of American power.


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

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