Reviews ...

"Pathway  Between The Seas"

 ... Review of book by David McCullough on creation of the Panama Canal

Review by Jim Driscoll

Several thousand people were clustered along the rims of the lock walls to witness the tug Gatun approach the Panama Canal Gatun Locks for the first trial lockage, on September 26, 1913.

I spent this past summer reading the book "Pathway Between The Seas", written by Pulitzer prize-winning author and popular literary figure, David McCullough. The book was actually published some 25 years ago and is six hundred and fifteen pages long, covering forty-four years of the Panama Canal history from 1870 to 1914.  For those individuals who enjoy "bigger than life" people and events and appreciate the human drive in working to overcome almost impossible challenges, I highly recommend this unforgettable story of people, politics, engineering triumphs - and a medical miracle to add to the mix.

The French government and its ranking engineers, buoyed by the tremendous success in constructing the Suez Canal put all their finances, skills and energies towards preparing and building the Panama Canal. It was an interesting and complicated series of events that ultimately brought disaster to the project and the principals. There were certainly more real heroes, near heroes and perhaps scam artists than a reader could keep track of. I felt some sympathy for the disgraced leaders, including such well-known names as: Georges Clemenceau, Alexandre Eiffel, the deLesseps family and a host of other participants.

While the French venture at Panama ultimately failed, the undertaking was not without valiant efforts and remarkable individuals. For example, Jules Dingler, the first chief engineer, gave everything to the project. Tragically, everything included the loss of many members of his beloved family, who died along with hundreds of others from the dreaded yellow fever.

The year 1899 marked the official end of France's nearly 30 year struggle; however, the French influence would continue through the enduring presence of Phillippe Bunau-Varilla, the "envoy extraordinaire" who has to rank as one of the most fascinating and tenacious players in assuring the final success of the building of the Panama Canal.

The American participation in the Panama Canal journey is one marked by a series of political maneuvering and subsequent medical and engineering feats that were epic in scope. We find out, for example, how close we came to choosing Nicaragua instead of Panama for the project; the battle over whether the canal should be constructed at sea-level (similar to the Suez Canal) or a series of locks; the quiet revolution in which Panama gains its independence; the victory over malaria and yellow fever by the imperturbable Dr. William Gorgas; and the mammoth job of clearing the canal and constructing the hydraulic locks.

Throughout all the critical political and diplomatic battles, we find the powerful hand of President Theodore Roosevelt, who managed to steer, and perhaps arm twist, the Congress and the Panama Canal Committee in a manner which ultimately assured the final success of the project.

And what a series of parties were planned to truly celebrate this amazing accomplishment which was officially completed on August 15, 1914!

But, sadly, other events were taking shape at about the same time, which marked the beginning of World War I. It's just as well; the book, delightful as it was - was just long enough.


(Editor's note: photos were copied from the Panama Canal Museum Website -
Other interesting sources are:

October 4, 2002

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