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

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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.

698 pages, Hardcover

First published June 1, 1977

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About the author

David McCullough

133 books9,767 followers
David McCullough was a Yale-educated, two-time recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize (Truman; John Adams) and the National Book Award (The Path Between the Seas; Mornings on Horseback). His many other highly-acclaimed works of historical non-fiction include The Greater Journey, 1776, Brave Companions, The Great Bridge, The Wright Brothers, and The Johnstown Flood. He was honored with the National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the National Humanities Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in addition to many other awards and honors. Mr. McCullough lived in Boston, Mass.

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5 stars
8,696 (43%)
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3 stars
2,945 (14%)
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178 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,776 reviews
Profile Image for Ellen.
7 reviews
June 27, 2017
My uncle recommended it. I had barely started it when we left on a cruise of the Panama Canal, sailing from LA. This book is a detailed, non-fiction account of France's selection of the canal site in Central America, the politics, diseases, intrigues, and construction of locks and "Big Dig".

I forgot all about the cruise ship activities and buried myself in this book. It awoke the "inner engineer" in me that I didn't know I had. I read it desperately night and day, hoping to finish before reaching the canal. Cruise ship stage shows? Nah! Cocktails with the captain? Forget it!

I did manage to finish the book before reaching Panama. Then I found that the travel across the Isthmus was as intense as the book itself. I couldn't bear to see particular shores of the canal floating by, anonymous and silent. Other parts were as thrilling as a fairy tale for the young. Upon reaching the Atlantic, I found myself in tears. That tells you how this book can change your outlook..even towards a body of water! A year later, the wonder is still with me.
Profile Image for Brian.
707 reviews354 followers
October 14, 2019
“Ideas too have their period of extrinsic incubation, and particularly if they run contrary to what has always seemed common sense.”

Fact is almost always more interesting than fiction, and history is full of a lot of interesting facts. David McCullough has proved this time and time again in his books. “The Path Between the Seas” is one of his best examples. The history of the building of the Panama Canal is one I knew nothing about and it is one hugely fascinating story. The 44 year span between the beginnings of the project to the canal’s opening is a great human drama, and it is true to boot!
The text is divided into 3 sections. Part One focuses on the French idea for the canal and their attempt at creating it. I knew nothing about this aspect of the Panama Canal. It is a grand story, with larger than life figures, ambitious schemes, and shadowy villains. It’s got it all, and it is edge of your seat reading. Part Two focuses on America’s taking over the project years after the French failed attempt. Part Three focuses on the completion of the project and some of the key players of that aspect.
There were many highlights for me in this text, but one moment was McCullough’s detailing of the Panamanian Locks on the canal. It had this reader in 2019 shaking his head in amazement at what engineers accomplished in 1911! As McCullough aptly writes, “They were truly one of the engineering triumphs of all time, but for reasons most people failed to comprehend.”
Someone in the time period wrote of the enterprise, “Strongly as the Panama Canal appeals to the imagination as the carrying out of an ideal, it is above all things a practical, mechanical and industrial achievement.” After reading this book you see just how much it is all of those things, and more!
Over 40 years after the project began, in an irony that only real life can produce, WW I officially starts on the same day as the first oceangoing vessel passes thru the canal.
“The Path Between the Seas” is one of McCullough’s better efforts. And he has not written a bad book. This is a tome worthy of such a monumental subject. I end this review encouraging you to read this book, and with a line from the text that sums it up. “Primarily the canal is an expression of that old and noble desire to bridge the divide, to bring people together. It is a work of civilization.”
Profile Image for David Putnam.
Author 18 books1,595 followers
March 21, 2020
This is a wonderful book. I read this book ahead of a cruise my wife and I took through the Panama Canal and was stunned at the massive under taking to accomplish this structure. This is a part of history I knew nothing about. How France went bankrupt trying to finish it, the huge numbers of people who died from yellow fever and the theories at the time of why. Fascinating.
At one point the author gives a list of what one surveying expedition took on the trip. For me the list is fascinating all on its own. For one; the hundreds and hundreds of extra shoes. Which seemed odd until you find out later the expedition ran out of shoes just a few miles in. The jungle ate them. If you like well-written history I highly recommend it.
David Putnam author of The Bruno Johnson series.
Profile Image for Jill Hutchinson.
1,480 reviews104 followers
September 19, 2021
Because of the Panama Canal, France was rocked to its foundation; Columbia lost its most prized possession (the Isthmus); Nicaragua (which was the first location considered) on the verge of becoming a world crossroads was left to wait for some future chance; the Republic of Panama was born; and the United States embarked on a role of global involvement.

Ferdinand de Lesseps proved that a canal could connect major seas/oceans and open them to commercial travel and wealth. As the "father of the Suez", he was a world-wide hero when the Suez Canal was completed and he turned his eyes to Central America to join the Atlantic and the Pacific. The first half of the book is dedicated to the French attempt which was a total failure. De Lesseps seemed to ignore that Suez was flat as a table top, covered in sand, had no mountains, and was hot but not humid. Panama was the total opposite and and stopped man at every turn. Additionally, Yellow fever and malaria which were rampant in Panama killed thousands of workers in an era when the causes of these diseases were unknown. Millions of francs were wasted/embezzled and De Lesseps company went bankrupt and scandal rocked France.

President Teddy Roosevelt, as one might expect, was all in favor of the US taking over the building of the canal and pushed through legislation to develop a department to “lead the charge” and recognize Panama as an independent republic. They also bought all machinery and buildings which were deserted when the French left, and most of which was practically worthless. The politics of the situation were complicated and moved very slowly, as did the book at this point. The first boat to pass through the finished canal was a lowly cement boat, on August 15, 1915.

This book almost has too much detail which lowered my rating to four stars but even with the excess detail, this is still a fascinating story of one of the greatest single man-made efforts in history and changed the world’s commerce forever. Recommended.
Profile Image for Christopher Carbone.
91 reviews6 followers
July 15, 2009
Something very strange happens about 30% through "Path Between the Seas." For the first 1/3 of the book, the reader must trudge through pedantic descriptions of very trivial matters and a hodgepodge of boring discussions on all things nautical. Then, all of a sudden McCullough does something amazing: he reminds you that people- everyday ordinary people -really cared about the Panama Canal, what it could do and what it would mean. And when it nearly failed, even though we are talking about people who have been dead upwards of 70 years, you feel bad for them.

Its that empathy that is a true gift in this book.

APBtS is the story of three nations: a nation on the decline (France) a nation on the rise (the United States, and the land (Columbia/Panama) they had in common where there paths intersected so geometrically.

The story begins in the 1860s as France celebrates the completion of the Suez canal. It then is destroyed- almost literally -in a war with Germany. After its crushing, psyche-changing defeat, France decides to continue the war not on the field of battle (where it would have been destroyed again) but in the great works of the world- the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Suez Canal and finally the Panama Canal.

The French engage in a long struggle to bridge the gap between the oceans, and this stirs up a great sense of national pride that the lost war rendered silent before. Suddenly, men and women invest heavily in major corporations to get the canal built, for progress, and for France!

But as the book illustrates, France is not what it once was; they misjudge almost everything about the project- the time, the cost, the distance, even the route and how the canal will look. In time, France is entangled in one of the most celebrated failures in history.

But as the book points out, this is unfair. Yes, the French only built about 1/3 of the canal, but when the Americans did take over in 1903, the materials, buildings and work they had left was extremely well done. In fact, the author almost goes so far as to saty that had the French not done such a good job on the first 1/3, its possible the canal would never have been built.

Its here that the books truest strength lies: when describing how all the average investors in France took the news of the loss- there was basically crying in the streets and the market tanked because of France's despondency over its failure. It really was like Sedan all over again. You feel for these people- the struggled mightily and almost did the impossible. Yet at the same time, it clearly illustrated the illusory strength and resolve of France at this time. France was a nation on the decline and its inability to rationalize the Panama Canal, execute the plans, and face its challenges were all signs of a faltering people.

Enter the United States. Fresh off its one-sided thumping of Spain in the Spanish American War, the US was as energetic and bombastic as its "bully" President, Theodore Roosevelt. A nation on the rise, the US has men, supplies and an economy ready to tackle any problem, including building a canal for its own purposes.

The US not only decides to take over the canal project, but almost as an after-thought, helps stir up a rebellion in Columbia so that the nation known as Panama rebels and forms its own government. Thus, the US has a friendly ally to welcome their intervention and build the canal.

The book does a solid job describing the people, both the named principals and the relatively faceless masses of men who dug the canal. The book describes how the diseases of Yellow Fever and Malaria were tamed in Panama, and how these diseases were so feared.

The book culminates with the US sitting astride the two Oceans and doing a job many said could not be done. The first boat crossed the full length of the canal on August 3, 1914. On that same day, the United States was informed that Germany had declared War on France, thus starting World War I, and the ultimate "beginning of the end" for the old European powers.

The book has enormous slow points, including the monotonous descriptions of some mechanical processes that will bore i even the most ardent minutia fan. The book also spends too much time describing some of the more mundane travels and tribulations of some of the major players, which is not time well spent.

Still, PBtS makes you care about all these people and the true engineering marvel they created, how vast the area was, how immovable the obstacles were, and how great their accomplishment was.
Profile Image for Jay Schutt.
259 reviews90 followers
February 6, 2022
I have been interested in the Panama Canal since learning of it as a child. While in the Army, I was sent to the U.S. Canal Zone for 2 weeks of Jungle Operations Training before going to Vietnam and got to see the canal first-hand. The author, David McCullough, is one of my favorite historical writers. So, reading this book was a no-brainer. I was not disappointed.
The book is extensively researched and is detailed, to a fault, with all the information you would ever need to know about this monumental venture that lasted nearly 44 years.
From the first French effort that failed due to the overwhelming magnitude of the job required, disease and financial scandal. To the dramatic U.S. takeover of the construction from France and the ensuing political power plays. To the astonishing engineering feats and tremendous medical accomplishments overcoming yellow fever and malaria. This award-winning book tells of all the successes and failures of the thousands of men and women who took part in this epic enterprise.
The text of the book can be overwhelming at times. An abridged audio version is available and is nicely read by actor, Edward Herrmann.
Profile Image for David Eppenstein.
699 reviews152 followers
July 9, 2018
This is a tough book to rate. If you are a history nerd like myself then this book probably deserves the 4 stars that I have given it. However, if you are a more normal person and reader then this book would probably get three, maybe even two stars, because it can easily be mind-numbingly boring. The reason for this difference of opinion is almost certainly the length and the depth of detail. The book is 617 pages of text and I have to admit that 150-200 pages could probably have been chopped to make the book more readable. That being said I can't imagine a more thoroughly researched and detailed account of everything that went into building the Panama Canal.

The first half of the book is devoted to the French effort that started the Canal in 1880. Because the French effort was publicly financed most of the detail concerns all the financial schemes needed to keep this project moving ahead. Then there was the resulting legal actions that followed the French failure. While this was important information to know as the basis for the subsequent American effort I do believe that it was vastly overdone and could have benefited from serious editing. Following the French disaster you get Roosevelt's involvement and the theft of Panama from Columbia and the politics and schemes involved with that enterprise. The American effort is the heart of the book and probably what most readers are interested in learning. The book is no less detailed but this detail is more about the actual digging of the canal and how the project was approached by the succession of chief engineers. What you get from all of this is that the building of the Panama Canal was a lot more than a lot of digging in the jungle and it was. It was interesting to read about the successful endeavors of people in something other than a military or political event. Our history is more than bombs and bureaucrats, generals and diplomats. In the history of this canal you have innovative people from a variety of disciplines from medicine to engineering, from management to human resources and it was fascinating to read about their problems and the solutions they devised to solve them. But I will grant that much of the fascination a reader could have had from this book was diluted by the cumbersome length and depth of detail. I liked the book but it did stop the circulation in my leg more than once. LOL
1,093 reviews113 followers
January 2, 2021
Dig This!!

Back in 2015 I went to Panama and saw the canal. I am a traveler that prefers nature and human contact (not to mention food, drink and music) to technology, so I admit to being somewhat underwhelmed by the sights of the canal. Yeah wow, far out, pretty neat, etc. Wrong!! After reading this giant work on the building of the canal, I wish I had read its history before I went.

We start reading about the first, French effort to build the canal. Why did they choose Panama when other “paths between the seas” beckoned? How did they decide to finance it? What was the role of de Lesseps, the triumphant hero of Suez? And then we read of the disasters that followed—the disease, the challenging climate, the insistence on a sea-level canal when locks were the solution. McCullough goes into all sorts of interesting byways—like the fact that white men were never more than a small percentage of the workers during either the French or American attempts, most being from the black population of the Caribbean.

The French failed. Because they had financed the diggings with the money of a zillion stock holders, the bust really hit France. Their buildings, their machinery, their diggings all started to revert to the jungle. They had dealt with the government of Colombia because there was no such country as Panama, it being a state of Colombia. Certain people in America began to get the idea that America could build it—the young, energetic, ambitious country (add “racist” in here and you won’t be wrong). De Lesseps and some others lobbied for such a canal, mainly for the Americans to buy out all the French-owned rights, properties, and materials still in Panama. A Nicaraguan alternative loomed large for a long time, but at last, Panama squeaked through. But American efforts to clinch a deal with the Colombians fell through. Undeterred, the Yanks made an “arrangement” with some local Panamanians and lo and behold, Panama declared independence, we recognized it and a canal deal was finalized pronto. This did not go down well in Latin America. Especially since we demanded to control a ten-mile wide zone along the canal’s path.

The success of the American effort depended on conquering yellow fever, and to a lesser extent, malaria. McCullough gives plenty of attention to this. The first few years of American work were scarcely better than the French, but at last, thanks to medical advances and the realization that locks were the only way to go, the work started in earnest. From then, we follow the digging, the vast amount of earth removed, the various technical problems and triumphs, the racist divide between white workers and black, the conditions of work and life, and the various ups and downs of leadership. With over 1,400 reviews on here, I’m not going to get involved in details. Suffice to say that in modern dollars, the cost of the canal had to be over $447 billion plus many thousands of lives.

Though McCullough certainly does mention the local Panamanians, they are generally not part of the story for him. Over the years after the 1914 opening of the canal to traffic, there was a rising tide of opposition to American control and racist behavior. The colonialist position of the US became clearer and clearer and of course was used by those who opposed American policies in Latin America and the world. Just a year or so after the book was published, President Carter agreed to hand over the canal. About 20 years of joint control were followed in 1999 by complete control by Panama. I was told, back in 2015, that Panama was earning about ten million dollars a day from the passage of ships and a widening effort was underway. Panama was prospering and the canal operating smoothly.

The ships are charged by weight. Back in the 1920s, Richard Halliburton swam the whole canal over a few days. He weighed 140 pounds and so had to pay 36 cents! One of the thousands of interesting details.
Although 617 pages may seem a lot, I found that the book was so well-written and the topic so interesting that I went through it very smoothly.
Profile Image for Roy Lotz.
Author 1 book8,277 followers
August 10, 2021
Here is yet another masterful book by David McCullough. To be honest, I knew close to nothing about the Panama Canal before starting, nor was I particularly interested in it. But this book forms a kind of trilogy with McCullough’s books on the Brooklyn Bridge and the Wright Brothers—which I had greatly enjoyed—so I felt compelled to pick it up.

Even though McCullough has 600 pages, he is quite pressed for space and time, as he has to tell the story both of the French’s failed venture and the Americans’ successful one. In terms of the amount of money spent, the manpower needed, the technological challenges, and even the casualties, the project was more akin to fighting a war than anything else. And like many wars, a great deal of human folly was involved.

The French were defeated by the isthmus. The brilliant but hubristic Ferdinand de Lesseps, full of confidence after completing the Suez Canal, doomed this venture with his insistence that they build a canal of the same type—one at sea-level, with no locks. It is a tragic story, beginning with grandiose dreams, involving many unnecessary deaths, and ending with lots of people bankrupt and several in prison.

The Americans scarcely had an easier time. There was a major challenge at virtually every stage. First, there was the political challenge of getting Congress to back the canal project, which meant agreeing where to put it. (A sizable contingency wanted to make the canal in Nicaragua.) There was the other political challenge of getting Colombia (which controlled the isthmus at that time) to agree to the venture. This was effected by fomenting a revolution and helping to create a new, more amenable, country: the Republic of Panama.

An enormous challenge was illness. Counting the French and the American years, over 25,000 workers died during the building of the canal. When the Americans came in, scientists and doctors had only recently discovered that mosquitos could transmit disease—yellow fever and malaria, specifically—something that many laypeople still refused to believe. And Panama was very rich in mosquitoes. Herculean effort was thus spent by the Americans in fumigating, clearing brush, and eliminating standing water, which substantially reduced fatalities.

There was, of course, the engineering challenge, requiring millions of tons of soil to be removed, gargantuan locks to be built, and the largest dam (Gatun Dam) in the world to be constructed, which would in turn create the world’s largest artificial lake. But the biggest problem of all was logistical—coordinating the massive workforce, providing housing, food, and medical care, procuring the many types of supplies, and keeping the work on track. Many otherwise capable people failed at this task. As much as anything, then, this is a book about leadership styles.

McCullough manages to describe all of this, making a potentially dry and unwieldly story into something compelling and dramatic. Not bad for a book about digging a big trench.
Profile Image for Howard.
1,284 reviews80 followers
September 15, 2021
4.5 Stars for The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 (audiobook) by David McCullough read by Edward Herrmann.

This was really interesting. I thought I knew a lot about the project, but there was many things that I learned. Like, it came really close to being built in another Central American country. I had no idea that there was a plan B for where it could be built.

The author does a great job of explaining everything that went into the planning and construction by the French and the Americans. He really tried to put it into perspective. This was an enormous undertaking that kind of got over shadowed by World War I.
Profile Image for Joy D.
2,067 reviews239 followers
July 2, 2023
History of the building of the Panama Canal, including the debate about its location, construction of the railroad, initial failed attempt by France, the US involvement, engineering challenges, depiction of the many diseases, hardships endured by the workers, and much more. It is structured chronologically in three segments. The first includes the scouting of the site and describes the failed privately financed French project, the second covers the interest of the Americans and Panama’s independence, and the third includes the start and completion of the canal. I enjoy the way David McCullough takes a comprehensive approach. He includes the personalities of the main players, the politics behind decisions, financial considerations, vast improvements in medical treatments over the course of the project, and the technological advancements that facilitated overcoming several former obstacles. It encompasses the entire time frame (1870-1914). It immerses the reader in a past time period and highlights the many cultural differences. It shatters a few myths. It felt a little too detailed at times, but I am not sure what I would have left out. Overall, I found it fascinating.

Profile Image for Jessica.
Author 28 books5,678 followers
October 11, 2017
My whole life is a lie! My favorite palindrome is BOGUS. I mean, sure, it's still a palindrome, but it's just not true!



There wasn't "a" man, there wasn't even "a" plan. There were like, a dozen men, all with various plans! It was almost built in Nicaragua! The one guy with a decent plan from the beginning was ignored and his plan sat unnoticed in a file somewhere, while the rest of them ran around, killing thousands of workers and then shrugging and going back to the drawing board when that didn't work.

The French started it, failed terribly, lost thousands of men (and women) to malaria and yellow fever, and then went bankrupt. Teddy Roosevelt, in classic Teddy Roosevelt style, went after it but couldn't decide (and frankly didn't care) where to build or how, he just wanted a canal built, and some of the glory (if not all).

The whole situation was, frankly, a clustercuss and it's amazing it got built at all. It's quite fascinating reading, and I had no idea about any of it.

But it's also rather dry reading, and in the middle section McCullough assumes you know all about Latin American politics of the time. I don't know about Latin American politics of TODAY, let alone 1905. There's an endless parade of names, and literally everyone is described as being broad-shouldered and with a mustache, and it was impossible for me to keep track of them. There is a revolution for Panamanian independence (which I did not know they didn't have) and I could not keep track of who was on which side. The US totally meddled (of course) and I wasn't sure if they were on one side, or both, and which side would be better.

It was, to be blunt, a hard slog, reading wise. The last 200 pages though, with actual canal building and descriptions of the living quarters and amenities at the work camps, were more my jam.
Profile Image for Rob.
Author 4 books29 followers
October 12, 2015
Probably no one writes more complete – and exhaustive – histories than David McCullough. In “The Path Between the Seas,” one of his earlier works (1977), McCullough guides you through the political, financial, and engineering intricacies of building the Panama Canal, a modern wonder of the world. It’s a fascinating read, especially if you enjoy history, politics and geography. The opening of the canal – and control – allowed the United States to maintain a two-ocean navy, and provide security for some of the important sea lanes affecting world commerce. Taking nearly fifty years to build, at the turn of the twentieth century it was the largest, costliest single effort ever mounted anywhere on earth. Thank Teddy Roosevelt for completing the project; thank Jimmy Carter for giving it away.
Profile Image for Nick Borrelli.
376 reviews384 followers
March 13, 2017
You wouldn't think that a book detailing the creation of the Panama Canal would be an exciting and quick read. Well, you'd be wrong! I love David McCullough, I think he is flat-out the best biographer out there as well as being one hell of a history author. 1776 is my favorite book about the American revolution. The Path Between the Seas had me so interested in geology, Central American politics, jungle wildlife, topography, stuff that I would never have thought I would be interested in. It's not simply a story of the Panama Canal, it is a story of everything that multiple countries and governments went through to bring this grand project to fruition. Amazingly well-written, but I expect no less from Mr. McCullough.
Profile Image for Colleen Browne.
304 reviews67 followers
November 1, 2017
I wasn't sure whether to award 4 or 5 stars to this book until I realized that my withholding a star had more to do with me than the book. In his typically lucid prose, McCullough wrote a complete history of the building of the Canal. The research was impeccable; the book deserves all the accolades it received. From the disastrous French attempt at building it to the American struggles and finally success, the reader is given the full story. The egos involved always meant that there would be conflict and the breadth of the project meant that the engineers designing it would need to be exceptional and what they did. Those in charge had to be able to manage large numbers of people, and with the exception of Wallace, they pretty much did.

What I found a bit difficult to get through was all the information on the methods that were used but I realize that this is an important part of the story. McCullough also focused on the blacks who did most of the work, were paid the least and received almost no credit for what they did. As the media covered the story as it unfolded, the public was kept apprised of the methods that were employed to make the rate of disease drop dramatically. What wasn't mentioned or cared about was that while the rate of disease dropped exponentially among whites, it remained high among blacks and very little notice taken of that. McCullough referred to the system that was put in place under the Americans as a caste system.
All in all, the book was very educational and worthwhile. Building the canal was a monumental feat and McCullough gives it its due.
Profile Image for George.
802 reviews85 followers
February 21, 2015

“The United States had a mandate from civilization to build the canal, he [Theodore Roosevelt] told Congress on January 4, 1904…”—page 387

Reading very much like an eighth-grade textbook— pedantically packed with a densely detailed, confusing, and virtually meaningless litany of facts, figures, names and dates—especially the first two-thirds of David McCullough’s behemoth, THE PATH BETWEEN THE SEAS: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914 presents a serious challenge to slogging on.

It’s not until page 411, Book Three, The Builders 1904-1914, that the story begins to get really interesting; when, with rough-riding Teddy R. leading the charge, the Americans sashay to the rescue. And then it becomes an engaging tale of the epic struggle of man, mind, might, and machine against nature, climate, topography and disease. We know who the eventual winners were.

Recommendation: (1) Forget everything I’ve written here; (2) remember that this is David McCullough we’re talking about; and (3) read some of the many five-star goodreads.com reviews on which to base your ‘to read’ or ‘not to read’ choice.

“The creation of a water passage across Panama was one of the supreme human achievements of all time, the culmination of a heroic dream of four hundred years and of more than twenty years of phenomenal effort and sacrifice.”—page 619

NOOKbook edition, 731 pages (624 pages, before Acknowledgments and Notes)
Profile Image for Deacon Tom F.
1,853 reviews147 followers
September 27, 2021
Probably the definitive book on the Panama Canal. The amount of in formation is mind boggling.

370 reviews21 followers
August 4, 2022
Audible credit 28 hours 46 min. Narrated by Nelson Runger (B)

Just Wow! This is another great history by David McCullough, and again, he leaves no stone unturned. Fascinating tisten. So many surprises behind the building of the Panama Canal. Three notes on the American building project that I don't believe will ever be repeated: first, it was completed earlier than expected; second, it cost less than projected; third, there has never been any hint of graft or corruption associated with the building project or managers.
Most of McCullough's long books are narrated by Nelson Runger, and I've learn to increase the speed to be able to enjoy his narration.
Profile Image for Judy.
1,667 reviews26 followers
May 1, 2015
It takes a lot of slogging through statistics to read this book, which is what you expect from David McCollough. At times the story gets mired in a lot of detail that I'll never remember. However, I did enjoy the book and what I learned that I think I'll keep. My biggest criticism is the lack of maps. What I learned:

1. The French were the first to attempt a canal across the isthmus in Central America. This was due to the unflagging zeal of Ferdinand de Lesseps, who was instrumental in the building of Suiz canal. The company failed, but did build a railway across the isthmus, which was later a factor in the United States decision to select the same route.
2. What is now panama was a part of Columbia, and uncharted jungle.
3. Medical science did not know what caused the deadly yellow fever. But several dedicated doctors and scientists determined that there are three types of mosquitos, and only one is responsible for the spread of the fever.
4. Some in the United States congress and other influential people, namely Theodore Roosevelt, favored a canal route through Nicaragua. (See why I wanted more maps!).
5. Many people, some not even directly connected with the canal project influenced the Panamanian overthrow of the Columbian government and formed a new government of Panama. The U.S. government was implicated in that junta, partly by presence of warships off the coast.
6. The scope of the task is incomprehensible for me. The canal made and broke many who were instrumental in the building--and I mean physically, mentally and emotionally.
7. No one knows how many died in either attempt, though in the U.S. period, some statistics were kept. Yellow Fever was somewhat controlled, yet hundreds still died from that, malaria and accidents.

What I didn't learn that I want to know is the story behind the U.S. relinquishing control of the Canal in the 1990s. I'll need to read further on that, but suspicion it has something to do with reparations. But if the U.S. hadn't built it, who knows when or what country would even try.

Well if you've read this far, congrats. This is mostly for me to organize my thoughts. But I don't advise this book if you aren't an avid history reader.
Profile Image for Luisa Knight.
2,823 reviews808 followers
May 28, 2023
A thorough history of the French endeavors and American accomplishment of the Panama Canal as only McCullough can do!

Ages: 14+

Cleanliness: has a couple mild swear words. The word “N*gger” is used twice. Mentions drinking, saloons, bars, smoking, and gambling. Mentions brothels and prostitution. It is recalled that one prostitute was “voluptuous and capable.” Mentions one or two affairs that married people had or were speculated to have had.

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Profile Image for J.M. Hushour.
Author 6 books207 followers
November 2, 2019
As a once-aspiring academic, I likely thought such works of popular history such as these were merely things to sniff at, something for the public palate. Now as a disparager and dismayer of all things academic, I see McCullough's work as some of the finest history-writing you're likely to encounter. Why? Because it is fun to read and, most especially, easy to read. Popular works of history such as this do much to repair the damage that overly analytical, PoMo academistry has wrought on the diffusion of the past to the present, by making history unpalatable, distant, and wretched.
Luckily, we have shit like this. MC's book is a joy to read, for all its 600 pages, I never once felt strained or about to have diarrhea out of sheer exasperation. This is a great topic, too, one of the great non-military-focused engineering projects of history. MC does full homage and honor to the entire process. You'll be surprised to find that the Yanks and Teddy Roosevelt don't appear on the scene until you're halfway through the book! The first half is taken up with the French start on the canal, de Lesseps, the resultant failure and the resultant political fallout, which is just as fascinating as when the Americans show up. There are great sections on the foiling of disease (malaria and yellow fever, especially), and I think those parts are probably my favorite. The American portion of the canal's construction takes up the latter third and is probably the less interesting section. The engineering of the "independence movement" in Panama by Americans and French is hilarious in retrospect despite all the denials and should serve as a fine example of crass American intervention. Here comes my only quibble, there are only brief and obligatory-feeling discussions on the workers themselves and the severity of the work. Most of the laborers were black and although treated sympathetically here it would've been nice to hear more about them. Criminally, there is barely any mention of the Panamanians themselves! Save for a small section near the end, but taken as a whole, it doesn't necessarily detract from the work, which is more about the construction itself. But, still...
Profile Image for Thomas.
768 reviews177 followers
July 14, 2014
I read this book in Sept. 2012, prior to taking a cruise thru the Panama canal. It is an excellent book giving the history of the first proposed canal, during the California 1849 gold rush to the French start and failure and then to the US completion of the Canal.
Profile Image for Brian.
618 reviews6 followers
April 3, 2008
This book tells the complete story of the building of the Panama Canal, beginning with the French efforts from 1870 to about 1889, and then continuing with the U.S. completion from 1902 to 1914. I found the parts describing the actual building of the canal (by both the French and the U.S.) to be the most interesting parts of the book. I was much less interested in the political machinations dealing with the U.S. - Columbia negotiations and the U.S. assistance in the creation of the Republic of Panama.

The devastation of men by Yellow Fever and Malaria, particularly during the entire French efforts, was absolutely incredible and heart-breaking as well. Early U.S. failure to obliterate these diseases using treatments by Dr. Gorgus that were nearly guaranteed to work (and eventually did) was frustrating.

For me the most interesting part of the book was the description of the construction methods used in the completion of the canal locks. A close second to this was McCullough's explanations of the role of General Electric in the electro-hydraulic system used to operate the locks and the movement of boats through the canal. Reinforced concrete, a relatively new construction material and one for which no design codes existed, was used simply because it was the right material for the job. The lack of design standards and guidelines did not hamper the engineers designing the myriad of concrete structures needed for the locks. I wonder if this same thing (i.e., the widespread use of an unproven material) could happen today? Also, by 1910, electric power was still a new technology. Nevertheless, the electrical engineers did not hesitate to design the system appropriately and successfully.

I think engineers will enjoy this book more than non-engineers, but it is still a fascinating story for almost everyone.
Profile Image for Erik Graff.
5,030 reviews1,166 followers
April 28, 2013
David McCullough is a safe bet for popular history. He writes well, ambling along from the main thread of his story--here, the building of the Panama Canal--to include illuminating historical background and biographies of the principals.

The story of the canal is at once impressive, from the engineering standpoint, and depressing, as one of the many sordid chapters of US imperialism. McCullough details how we "engineered" the creation of a puppet Panamanian state along with a canal in his account.
363 reviews65 followers
May 19, 2018
McCullough book about the Panama Canal shows the hubris of De Lesspes who was the brilliant builder of the Suez Canal through sand but failed miserably in Panama as he had never even been to Panama and thought you could build a canal in a jungle.
The hardships endured by the people who did finally build the can were unbelievable with malaria, rock slides and oppressive heat.
Profile Image for ALLEN.
553 reviews121 followers
September 16, 2018
While I did not enjoy this one q-u-i-t-e as much as David McCullough's TRUMAN, I still enjoyed it very much. A glorious book about one of the most difficult jobs this country has ever undertaken -- building the "trans-Isthmus" canal in the early Twentieth Century. See how the French company that had built the Suez Canal was a shoe-in for this one but just wasn't up to the task -- and how American muscle (Bucyrus steam-shovels, for example), planning and problem-solving (particularly in the matter of Yellow Fever) finally got the job done. The kind of book that is utterly factual, yet makes you proud to be an American. David McCullough includes the background of domestic politics President Theodore Roosevelt had to struggle against to get the Canal funded (U.S. trunk railroads were opposed to the project, for instance). The author really knows how to tell a story compellingly yet with utter factuality. Highly recommended no matter what part of the globe you're from.
Profile Image for Elisa.
470 reviews66 followers
December 28, 2015
Tan titánico como el tema que aborda, este libro es sorprendentemente ligero de leer.

David McCullough tiene un estilo de escribir que recoge lo más importante de las personas y los hechos sin hacerte sentir que te está dando un listado de cosas pero tampoco sin distraerte con detalles que no son fundamentales para entender a las personalidades y situaciones de las que se desprendió una de las construcciones más impresionantes que haya hecho la humanidad.

Considerando el alcance y las dimensiones de la accidentada y complicada historia de la construcción del canal de Panamá, el autor logra que pases de página como si estuvieras leyendo una novela. Junto con el recuento de cómo nació y se concretó la idea de este camino que literalmente unió al mundo, hay pequeñas biografías de los jugadores elementales, como Ferdinand De Lesseps, Phillipe Bunau-Varilla, Theodore Roosevelt y George Gethals, entre muchos otros. Fueron tantos los actores que intervinieron en muchas áreas de especialidad que es una confirmación del talento de McCullough el que deje una impresión tan clara de cada uno de ellos, al resaltar las cualidades y defectos profesionales y personales que impactaron directamente en este proyecto.

Para apreciar de lo que trata este libro y para apreciar el libro en sí, lo único que hay que hacer es leerlo. Súper recomendable.
Profile Image for Michael Burnam-Fink.
1,505 reviews229 followers
January 12, 2019
David McCullough ably captures the grand spirit of the age in this book about the Panama canal. For centuries, men had dreamed of a canal through the American isthmus, which would elimate the fraught passage around Cape Horn, opening up the riches of the Far East and the Pacific Coast to traditional Atlantic powers.

The first man to seriously attempt a canal across the isthmus was Ferdinand de Lessup, builder of the Suez Canal and an entrepreneur par excellence. In the wake of the bitter defeat of the Franco-Prussian War, the elderly yet hale Lessups, and his eternal optimism for the canal, represented a possibility for a new France. Thousands of ordinary Frenchmen and women invested their savings in his canal company.

But Lessups, for all his reputation and energy, scorned technical matters. He had decided on a sea level canal at Panama, and manipulated his board into backing him without a thorough survey or solid plans. His company leaped into action, assuming that "men of genius" would arrive to meet challenges as they arose, just like at Suez.

There were definitely men of genius among the French, but they couldn't meet the challenges of the canal. Yellow fever began to slay men, first by the scores and then by the thousand, including the entire family of the local director. The Culebra Cut, the most critical part of the canal, slid continuously. Everything had to be imported to Panama, from massive dredges to Jamaican laborers, and the money ran out. The collapse of the French Panama Company destroyed Jessups reputation and nearly brought down the republic. Work stalled for decades.

Until the unlikely, almost accident figure of President Theodore Roosevelt. Americans had long favored a Nicaraguan canal, closer to the United States and with a more pro-American government. However, the Nicaraguan route was relatively long and twisty, and in a complex series of international intrigues, Roosevelt's administration bought the remains of the French company for $40 million (a song, relatively speaking), and fomented a revolution in Panama, when the Colombian government balked.

The American canal project succeed because it lead with medical hygiene, including a massive anti-mosquito campaign based on recent breakthroughs in epidemiology, as well as a cadre of tough railroad managers. The canal was essentially a matter of rail transport, of moving spoilage from the cut to dump piles as efficiently as possible. The French effort broke down continuously. The American effort was a well-oiled machine.

McCullough covers the grandeur of the effort, as well as it's darker side. There was a color line in Panama stricter than any Jim Crow law, where white Americans had every luxury and the best of healthcare, and the mostly black labor force from Trinidad and Tobago had comparatively high death rates and no amenities. The scale was monumental, from the cut to the the 1000 foot locks. The Panama Canal was the largest engineering project in history, a masterpiece of technological sublime. This book is the proper marker of its origins and place in history.
112 reviews9 followers
July 17, 2013
A couple of weeks ago, I was discussing my recent string of books chronicling enormous engineering projects (“The Great Bridge,” the World’s Fair part of “The Devil in the White City” and now “The Path Between the Seas”) with my friend Paul, and as I relayed the sacrifices made and the years dedicated by the men behind these works, Paul remarked, “Dude, can you imagine dedicating your life to building a f*cking bridge?” On many levels, this insight is full of wisdom. The engineers who undertook these feats traded friends, family, free time and any semblance of a normal life* to build these things and they did so without any hope of financial windfall beyond a very unspectacular salary. These guys would make the worst movie protagonists ever. Facing a choice between wealth and the girl, they choose Option C: massive feats of excavation. Thank God Brian Flanagan didn’t make a similar choice; Cocktail would have been a terrible bore.

*Actually, forget semblance. Some of these clowns got themselves killed. RIP John Roebling. Gone, but not forgotten.

…and yet, I think I kind of get it? As I read about the accomplishments of the men who built the Panama Canal, I found myself inspired. All the reward they needed came from the satisfaction of overcoming staggering adversity to build something tangible, along with the power and prestige that came from driving such an endeavor. It all just struck me as noble. Economically, this makes no sense; spiritually, I think it does.

My feeling on this matter is no doubt due in large part to the storytelling prowess of David McCullough. Just as in The Great Bridge, McCullough breathes life and humanity into the building of the Panama Canal, which, told by a lesser historian, could easily have been a dry recounting of a series of spectacular events. He does an especially nice job of describing the oppressive atmosphere in Panama, and the challenges posed to the French, and eventually the Americans as they tried to conquer that unforgiving jungle.

The only reason this gets 4 stars as opposed to McCullough’s more typical 5 is that I thought he spent a little too much time focusing on the non-canal-building parts of the process. From Ferdinand de Lesseps and the catastrophic failure of the original French Canal Company, La Société internationale du Canal interocéanique (not brought down by brevity, I dare say), to the eventual American acquisition and aid to the Panama Revolution, it felt like 80% of the book was complete before significant construction really got underway. I understand this was intentional, both because that’s what actually happened and because it highlights the incredible struggle involved with these projects before shovel even hits ground, but I felt it dragged at times.

Interestingly, my favorite part of the book was only tangentially related to the canal itself. I found the story of Dr. Gorgas' all-out war on mosquitos and the yellow fever and malaria that they cause to be completely enthralling. I think it’s because his solution was so horribly inelegant. Once he accepted the premise that mosquitoes carried these diseases, he basically said, “Alright, screw it. I’m just going to kill all the mosquitoes. In the jungle. In Panama.” It makes me giggle even saying it. How brash do you have to be to have that plan?! And yet, with incredible diligence and attention to detail, he basically pulled it off. Amazing.

I recommend this book to everyone who likes David McCullough (which I claim should just be everyone who can read) and especially to anyone who enjoys engineering projects on an un-matched scale. In fact, I think this (or maybe The Great Bridge) should be made mandatory reading for all college engineering students. I, for one, have never been more inspired to get out and build something. Anyone know if they need an Air Separation plant in Panama?

(One final thought: I would give a hefty, hefty sum to see one of those google earth slideshows of the Panama Canal as it was built. You know, the ones that always show glaciers melting and things like that. It would be incredible. I’m entertained just by looking at old maps of Panama and then comparing them to satellite photos today. It’s not even remotely close to the same place. If we invent a time machine anytime soon, I think going back and launching a satellite to take these pictures should be the first thing we do. Alright, at least top five.)
Profile Image for Brahm.
481 reviews54 followers
August 25, 2020
3.5 stars rounded down.

I found this book at the intersection of two interests; Pulitzer-prize winning authors (McCullough won two for biographies of Truman and John Adams) and audiobooks narrated by Grover Gardner. Turns out Nelson Runger was the narrator and he was very good, although I had to listen at 1.3x speed as anything slower seemed ridiculously slow.

This was a fascinating and informative book and if it sounds like something you'd enjoy, you probably would enjoy it! For me personally some aspects were a book-reader mismatch which is why I rounded down to 3 stars:

1. No common human narrative - the history of the Panama Canal spans several decades and many countries (primarily France and the USA). The result is that there is no consistent "cast of characters" McCullough can return to, which makes it a harder to stay connected with the material.

2. Not as much of an engineering focus as I'd hoped. The first 5/6ths of the book had some construction and design details, but much of it was politics and medicine (lots of great information about fighting malaria and yellow fever). But I'm an engineer and I wanted some technical details, and these were blasted through in the last few chapters.

Two (of many) highlights:

1. The medical stuff, which I did not expect at all. The first major construction problem to solve was yellow fever as it kept killing workers. This book had a ridiculous amount of detail of the biology of mosquitoes and yellow fever, and how the disease was virtually eliminated from Panama, and how this was seen (by some; others had to be convinced) as a pre-requisite to construction.

2. The canal was built by railroaders: after the French project failed and the USA picked it up, a career railroader (forget his name) was put in charge, and staffed the project with more railroaders. These folks know logistics, throughput and infrastructure, and had the canal completed ahead of schedule. Example: excavation efficiency was measured by time when shovels were still (not digging or swinging), and they were only still when there was no rail car to dump the muck into. The railroad was essentially used as a conveyor belt system for people and materials, and removing waste was seen as the primary bottleneck to finishing the project.

Overall a good book!
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