The Path Between the Seas

by David McCullough

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.


The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough is the story of the construction of the Panama Canal. The book was published in 1977 and received the National Book Award for History. The Path Between the Seas also received the Francis Parkman Prize, the Samuel Eliot Morison Award, and the Cornelius Ryan Award (for the best book of the year on international affairs).


McCullough helps readers understand why the Panama Canal project was so important in the first place. For hundreds of years, explorers had been hoping to find a way to cut through the waterway near South America in order to shorten the time it takes to pass between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. Such a project would also cut down on the journey time between San Francisco and New York. Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French nationalist who had helped build the Suez Canal, was chosen to lead the project to build the Panama Canal.

Work started on de Lesseps's project in 1881 with the backing of the French government. However, the plan was bankrolled by ordinary French citizens who were so excited by de Lesseps's involvement that they gladly donated personal funds. In fact, de Lesseps was so popular due to his success in building the Suez Canal that he was considered a national hero.

De Lesseps had great success building a sea-level canal in Suez, which was a relatively simple feat. Intent on using the same technology in Panama, de Lesseps made the decision to build this canal the same way. The problem? He had never actually visited Panama. Once the undertaking began in earnest, it became clear how ill-suited the environment in Panama is to this type of construction. In addition to the extreme differences in weather—including heat and humidity—insects and poisonous snakes presented difficulties, as well as malaria and yellow fever outbreaks that killed many workers.

Since de Lesseps had also demanded that the canal be built without any locks, laborers had no choice but to try to cut straight through the rock. It was only later that they realized what a Herculean task they had undertaken. After eight years of grueling labor, only one-third of the project was complete, and more than twenty-five thousand workers had died. De Lesseps was removed from the project, which sat idle for some time. The United States eventually interceded and finished the job, and the Panama Canal was finally opened in 1914.

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