Monday, October 14, 2013

The Path Between the Seas, by David McCullough

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

Before reading The Path Between the Seas I knew very little about the Panama Canal other than the location, that the French started the project and failed, and it is the source of one of my favorite jokes in Arsenic and Old Lace: crazy Uncle Teddy "digging the canal" in the basement. I've always wanted to take a trip through the canal and I like reading histories, so I've been looking forward to this book for a while. As usual, McCullough doesn't disappoint.

It took nearly 45 years to build the canal, starting in 1870. There were several competing routes, but the French decided on Panama as the best place to make the cut. They had just successfully completed the Suez Canal and were considered the natural choice for bridging the Americas. Unfortunately as it turns out, digging across a desert at sea level does not take the same skills or technology as bridging a mountainous jungle region in the tropics. The death rate was astonishing in the early days. "Of every one hundred new arrivals at least twenty died, and of those who survived, only about twenty were were physically strong enough to do any real work." In about a decade, the estimates are as many as twenty-two thousand died. Disease was the main killer, as the world had yet to discover that mosquitoes carried malaria and yellow fever; in fact, the cause was so misunderstood that the legs of hospital beds were all placed in shallow bowls of water to protect against ants. If patients didn't have a serious disease when they entered the hospital, the odds were enormous they would before they left. The death toll was only one of several problems the French faced, though; poor engineering plans and irresponsible financing combined to guarantee the failure of the French effort. The only realistic remaining nation that could accomplish the feat was the U.S.A.

America didn't simply come in, pick up where France left off, and finish the canal, though. The US wanted a route across Nicaragua, and instead of a canal had wild plans such as hoisting ships out of the water and hauling them across Mexico on railroad cars. Obviously this isn't what eventually happened, but the story of what did is utterly compelling. Panama declaring independence from Columbia is just one of the momentous events of the era, and even knowing how it all ends I had a hard time putting the book down. As with all of McCullough's books, this is thoroughly researched, well-written, and highly recommended.

First Sentence:
The letter, several pages in length and signed by Secretary of the Navy George M. Robeson, was aggressed to Commander Thomas O. Selfridge.

No comments:

Search This Blog