David McCullough ’s “The Path Between The Seas” is a fascinating account of one of humanity’s greatest engineering achievements, the creation of an artificial water way across The Isthmus of Panama, providing easier passage between the world’s two great oceans than ever before. Early in the work, David McCullough establishes...
David McCullough’s “The Path Between The Seas” is a fascinating account of one of humanity’s greatest engineering achievements, the creation of an artificial water way across The Isthmus of Panama, providing easier passage between the world’s two great oceans than ever before. Early in the work, David McCullough establishes the historical precedence for this dream, commenting that since medieval times there had been European monarchs such as Charles the first of Spain who had set their sights on just such a feat. The work’s first two books deal with the ill-fated effort by a French aristocrat, Ferdinand de Lesseps, to dig a canal.
He paints a vivid picture of the obstacles the French faced, such as the obvious barriers of geography and hostile wildlife, as well as the human challenges posed to the French by a large and unruly work force compelled to do what was nearly impossible in appalling conditions. The author acquaints readers with the obstacles inherent in digging a canal, so plans of engineers such as Charles Dingler come across as ludicrously ambitious, and the project’s upper management is exposed for its callousness at the casualties that soon mounted among the work force.
Following French failure, McCullough’s third book describes the origins of American interest in the project, first drawing on congressional records to provide a uniquely detailed portrayal of the Panamanian revolution before moving on to consider the build itself. His account of this whole process is rich with irony. He notes, for example, how the canal intended to revolutionize international trade, but the goal of bringing nations closer together was a product primarily of America’s imperialistic urges, of a nation keen to establish itself at the center of the world, to outdo the recently completed Suez canal and lay claim to the only water way between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
In describing the calculated and practical approach of chief engineer Stevens and the innovative medical thinking of Dr. William Gorgas, McCullough demonstrates a clear contrast between the American process and that of the French. In terms of how workers were treated and equipped, as well as in how the project was administrated, he gives a distinct impression that the Americans had studied French failure closely and had adjusted their plans accordingly.
One of the strengths of his account is his handling of the personalities involved, especially of the three presidents, Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson, who, though radically different as presidents and as people, were instrumental in bringing about the canal’s completion. Accounts from workers, bosses, and others involved in the project give the work a flavor that balances out what at times were overwhelmingly detailed descriptions of the political wheeling and dealing behind the project. In the closing chapter of his work, McCullough provides readers with a sense of how revolutionary the canal has proved to be by providing statistics on how much shipping has been able to take advantage of the route in the years since it was opened in 1914.