The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal by David McCullough

  1. McCullough’s master story-telling skills are evident through this epic tale of the construction of the Panama Canal
Key Takeaways
  1. Apart from Great Wars, the building of the Panama Canal was the largest, costliest effort attempted anywhere on Earth
  2. A vision of cutting through Central America to connect the Atlantic and Pacific had been around since the 1500s but it wasn’t until the late 1800s that it became feasible. This would not only be a boon to global commerce but help America assert itself as the Western Hemisphere’s superpower
  3. The success of the Panama Railroad in the 1850s showed glimpses for how much demand there was (mostly from the California gold rush and other trade) and paved the way for the canal some 30 years later. A gap found in the mountains and the proof that the sea levels were not too different made the project more realistic. The construction was brutal due to disease, poisonous animals and an impossibly thick jungle and there are estimate that that 6-12,000 died throughout its construction. Nicaragua was a competing pass between the oceans and was originally funded by Cornelius Vanderbilt. Selfridge was the first American to explore Central America for plausible routes and although he failed, determined it must be Panama
  4. The two oceans came closer together at The Gulf of San Blas that at any other point in Central America
  5. The French were the first to take a crack at building the canal and it was Ferdinand de Lesseps who led the effort. De Lesseps had gravitas due to his ability to get the Suez Canal built due to his friendship with the new Viceroy of Egypt. He had no rank, no office, didn’t represent any group, defied financiers and people with technical ability but spurred enthusiasm and belief in the project – an original entrepreneur with no desire for money but wanted to improve the world
  6. Although there were many geographic and technical reasons not to build the canal in panama, de Lesseps had such standing and influence due to success at Suez that he was able to overcome great opposition and get the project passed. The project was estimated to cost $240m and take 12 years to build. The stock issue was a great disaster but didn’t dissuade de Lesseps one bit and was able to raise most of the money from French investors alone. His trip to Panama and healthy return brought massive enthusiasm for the project from the French population. The stock issue for La Compagnie Universelle ended up being the largest in history as the undertaking was to be the most expensive and audacious attempted thus far in human history. It ended up becoming a matter of national pride for France and Panama became synonymous with a fantastic investment in France. De Lesseps success at Suez gave him great influence over the crowd and his building it up blinded people to the immense difficulties that lay ahead
  7. The project turned out to be way more expensive and take way longer than was originally planned so a bond issue had to be made in France. De Lesseps built the hype and got hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen to sell what few possessions they had in order to buy more stock and bond. However, unfortunately, the minimum amount needed to keep the company afloat was not raised and they had to declare bankruptcy. This was one of the world’s largest and most painful financial failures, bringing ruin to hundreds of thousands of common citizens and later brought bankruptcy to France as a whole and toppled the government. Ferdinand’s son, engineer Eiffel, Hertz and many other highly esteemed men behind the Panama Canal were brought to trial and many were financially ruined. The French effort went bankrupt after spending about $285m and losing an estimated 20k lives due to diseases and accidents, financially ruining over 800k French investors. De Lesseps, his son, Eiffel and others were prosecuted and found guilty of misappropriating funds
  8. Teddy Roosevelt became president after William McKinley was assassinated. He truly brought in the 20th century and had mass, nationwide appeal. Teddy had a vision for the US as a global, commanding power and the canal which breached the Atlantic and Pacific was the surest way to get there
  9. Nicaragua seemed like the US’ choice for where to build the canal but Teddy Roosevelt changed it to Panama last minute. Bunau Varilla was a French soldier and engineer who greatly influenced Teddy’s decision to build in Panama instead. The decision was passed in the Senate in 1903 and was heavily influenced by the engineer’s insistence on Panama rather than Nicaragua. America was going to buy the land from Colombia but thought they were trying to screw the US so they instead planted revolutionaries in Panama and let them know that they’d have the backing of the US if they were to overthrow the Colombians who were currently in charge of Panama. Panama soon declared independence and the US recognized them as a nation and gained the rights to build and indefinitely administer the Panama Canal Zone and its defenses
  10. Teddy Roosevelt changed the treaty with Panama so that the US would act as the sovereign and would hold the zone in perpetuity rather than leasing it for 100 years. Bunau Varilla signed the treaty in 1903 along with Hay without truly understanding the changes he had agreed to. He thought the US would cease protecting Panama if they did not immediately ratify but Teddy was so set on Panama that this was unlikely
  11. Malaria and yellow fever killed so many people that they made a concerted effort to figure out how to stop or at least stem the diseases. They made slow but considerable progress and determined that mosquitoes were the culprits and went through great lengths to limit the amount of mosquitoes and their access to sick patients. Gorgas was head of sanitation and was vital in this effort and after two years nearly eliminated the mosquito-spread tropical diseases
  12. The Americans eventually came to understand better than the French that the construction of the canal was essentially a railroad problem (to transport the dirt away from the site). They hired and promoted men with a lot of railroad experience. John Frank Stevens was a self taught engineer who had built the Great Northern Railroad with James J. Hill. He took over from Wallace and bypassed much of the stifling bureaucracy by going directly to Teddy with requests, drastically speeding up the process
  13. Roosevelt visited Panama in 1906 to see the progress and became the first president to leave America while in office
  14. George Washington Goethals was named chief engineer by Teddy in 1907 in order to oversee the administration and supervision of the construction after Stevens stepped down. McCullough argues that Goethals should receive the majority of the credit for the successful construction of the Panama Canal – ahead of schedule, below budget and with no bribery or kickbacks
  15. The canal was an engineering feat for the ages. The locks were the largest by far, taller than all but a handful of buildings in modern day New York. The scale of materials used, especially steel and concrete is pretty much unsurpassed even today. The scale of everything is hard to even imagine. They utilized the flow of water to power generators, allowing the locks to power themselves. Though the steel and cement manufacturing was vital, General Electric played the most important role in building and installing all the electrical equipment and power generators
  16. The Panama Canal was the embodiment of the power of the United States at this time and showed how far the industrial revolution had taken it
  17. The only issue with the canal have been consistent landslides but given the scale and grandeur, this is a minimal problem. It worked almost perfectly from day 1
What I got out of it
  1. I didn’t appreciate the scale and effort that went into building the Panama Canal. The war on mosquitoes and tropical diseases was also interesting to learn about. Geopolitical relations and events in Central America and how this effort affected them, how expertly the canal was built so that even today it works pretty much flawlessly, how big of an impact the initial failure had on the French economy and how much Teddy Roosevelt championed this effort