The Path Between the Seas

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Product of Pittsburgh and Yale University, David McCullough began his writing career with Time and the Heritage Publishing Company. After his first book, The Johnstown Flood (1968), he completed The Great Bridge, declared worthy of the “Greatest Bridge in the World” and winner of many awards; then he tackled the Panama Canal. McCullough opens his history of the Canal by introducing Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, who, after completing the Suez Canal, was looking for another project to occupy his men and material. A passageway between the Americas had interested men since medieval times, and the French engineer was not inhibited, as Charles I of Spain was, by a confessor who warned him, “What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” Nor did the common belief that the Pacific would pour through the ditch into the Atlantic deter him. The author remarks that the cost of working in the tropics did not frighten de Lesseps either, in spite of the report that the Panama Railroad for the gold seekers of 1847 cost one laborer for every railroad tie put down. Instead, he found records of the number of dead—from six to ten thousand—and of the total cross ties put down—74,000—to disprove the report. (McCullough continually interposes such interesting items; he tells, for example, the story of how the thrifty Railroad Company sold these dead bodies to Medical Colleges around the world, thereby accumulating enough money to build their hospital in Colon.) Next, de Lesseps held an international conference in Paris in 1879, where the delegates decided that the most efficient type of canal was one operated by locks, with the entrance located where Balboa started his explorations of the tropics in 1510, rather than at the more popular Nicaragua site. When the experts estimated the cost of the project at four hundred million francs, de Lesseps wasted no time; he ordered his company to begin selling shares to Frenchmen eager to repeat their gains from Suez investments, and headed for America to begin work.

De Lesseps’ first task was to mark off a right-of-way fifty miles long and four hundred feet wide across the Isthmus. It was a formidable task. First, he faced a different sort of terrain from the flat area of Suez, making it necessary to unlearn much that the engineers had learned in their earlier dig. The laborers were faced by new dangers, including three species of poisonous snakes in the lush underbrush: bushmasters, coral snakes, and the deadly fer-de-lance. The climate also opposed him. He found that in the so-called dry season (mid-December through April), the four o’clock shower came so regularly that people could tell time by it. The rain poured down like a shower bath for an hour, then abruptly cleared to let the torrid sun come out and create a humid atmosphere unknown in Suez. Disease was rife. McCullough quotes a later director who identified three kinds of fever in Panama: malaria, yellow fever, and cold feet. De Lesseps could soon understand how yellow fever had helped the Haitians win their independence and discouraged Napoleon enough to persuade him to sell off Louisiana.

But de Lesseps persisted, though the funeral train departed every evening with a load of cadavers for the cemetery on Monkey Hill, Panama, and survivors clamored to go home. In spite of all hardships, on July 4, he saw the completion of his road across the Isthmus, and prepared to send his laborers in with their picks and shovels.

The author refuses to blame the French Company for the inadequacy of tools provided; he refutes the story that ten thousand snow shovels were shipped into a location where snow has never fallen, insisting that the laborers were provided with the best equipment available at that time. The shovels, only a thousand of which were ordered, were good quality flat steel shovels of proven efficiency.

McCullough begins Book Two, “The Period of Confusion” with an account of de Lesseps’ forced return to Europe to protect his Suez Canal from the British during the trouble with Egypt. He left his son Charles and another inexperienced engineer, Jules Dingler, in charge of what was called “the largest and most ambitious task the world had ever known.” Dingler composed a master-plan and ordered bigger machinery and more laborers; his plan called for the digging of forty-five million metric tons just to slope back the sides of the ditch—more tonnage than the total excavation in Suez.

From 1880 to 1885, canal work showed little progress, plagued by a fire that consumed much of Colón and some of the machinery being imported, and by the revolt by a disgruntled Haitian, Pedro Prestan, who was quickly defeated and hanged. These events were all part of the circumstances which the author blames for giving France a bad reputation in canal building. Canal shares dropped in value, and owners hurried to sell out. All this is narrated in the chapter “Downfall,” which ends with the return to France of several Directors, and with Bunau-Varilla’s rise to Director. De Lesseps also returned to France to float a lottery, under rumors that he had changed his mind in favor of locks for the canal, and was very ill. Someone sent telegrams to mayors of French cities announcing his death, a rumor he had to scotch by returning to America, this time to accompany the Statue of Liberty given by France to the United States. But all this was of no use. On February 4, 1889, the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique declared bankruptcy. Panic and chaos followed; eighty thousand Frenchmen had lost all their savings. The National Chamber convened amid many accusations; one anti-Semitic writer even...

(The entire section is 2323 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Atlantic. CCXL, July, 1977, p. 85.

Christian Science Monitor. July 23, 1977, p. 23.

Library Journal. CII, May 15, 1977, p. 1184.

New York Review of Books. XXIV, July 14, 1977, p. 41.

New York Times Book Review. June 19, 1977, p. 1.

New Yorker. LIII, June 20, 1977, p. 118.

Newsweek. LXXXIX, June 13, 1977, p. 96.

Saturday Review. IV, June 11, 1977, p. 38.