The Path Between the Seas

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2323

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...

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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 published a book blaming the “800,000 Jews in France” for the collapse. Clemenceau came under suspicion, and de Lesseps and his son were arrested. The subsequent sentence of fine and imprisonment was never carried out.

With the fortunes of the canal project at this low point, the volume moves into Book Three, “Stars and Stripes, 1890-1904.” It commences with a quotation from Kipling, “The universe seemed to be spinning around and Roosevelt was the spinner.” Theodore Roosevelt’s arrival at the White House, says the author, signaled the most dramatic shift there since Andrew Jackson was President. Declaring that “No man ever had a better time being president than Roosevelt,” McCullough traces Roosevelt’s conviction that America’s “Manifest Destiny” demanded a canal. He had been a close student of Captain Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power upon History (1890), which argued that “National greatness and commercial supremacy are directly related to supremacy at sea.” Roosevelt had seen the theme confirmed in the race of the battleship Oregon around the Horn following the blowing up of the Maine in Manila, to take part in the Battle of Santiago Bay. As soon as he took the oath, he asked John Hay, author of the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty, to remain his Secretary of State, and his first message to Congress dealt with the building of an interoceanic canal.

Negotiations between Colombia and the United States began at once, but amid great difficulty, ending in the acceptable terms that Colombia would accept a payment of $100,000,000 in gold and an annual rental of $250,000, which, we are reminded, was about what the Panama Railroad was paying. In addition, the United States was to pay the reorganized Panama Canal Company for rights, concessions, tools, and the partly completed ditch.

Meanwhile the Department of Panama had elected Manuel Amador Guerrero as president, but almost immediately he was deposed and exiled by a sudden revolution. Following Latin American tradition, he organized a revolutionary junta to help regain his office. Proponents of the Panama route saw this junta as a means of getting what they wanted, especially in case Colombia refused to agree or was slow or greedy in its demands. Therefore, when Amador came to the United States, there were many who listened to his requests for help. The author comments that Roosevelt’s humor would have been tickled had he known of the secret conniving around him. Finally Amador started home with a new constitution, a proclamation of independence, and the belief that he would have North American assistance if needed to keep flying the new Panama flag he had wound around his body when entering his country. Now, what one senator called “the most remarkable revolution I have ever read about in history” was about to begin. Brilliantly and vividly, relying on the 1913 U.S. publication Resolutions of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives, McCullough records the complicated succession of events.

On November 2, the U.S.S. Nashville reached Colón Harbor, on the Atlantic side, supposedly bringing the promised help. As the author records the events, Colonel Shaler, a burly American railroad man, had ordered all rolling stock of the Panama Railroad across to Panama City (on the Pacific side) as part of the conspiracy. Now he offered to transport the Colombian troops on the Atlantic side across to the Pacific, but lacking cars, he offered to send General Tobar and staff in a special train, with the troops to follow as soon as he could get cars. With the officers aboard getting nervous, he pulled the signal cord and sent the special train on its way.

At about the same time, Amador had gone to the Colombia Cuartel de Chiriqui in Panama City and by promising $65,000 in gold to the commander, Esteban Huertas, and fifty dollars in silver to each soldier, he had bought their loyalty. To much cheering, the success of the revolution was being announced in Panama’s plaza just as Tobar’s train pulled in. The soldiers promptly marched their former officers away to prison. The only casualty occurred when a shell shot from an offshore loyal gunboat killed a sleeping Chinese and a donkey before the ship was driven off by cannon from shore fortifications now gone over to the Republic. Meanwhile, Captain Eliseo Torres, on the Colón side, had no news of events across the isthmus. When ordered to surrender, he refused until he had consulted with his superiors in Panama, so Shaler made up a special conveyance to take him under parole across the isthmus, after his anger had been assuaged by a handful of gold coins for himself and silver pesos for his followers.

At the sight of cheering crowds in Panama and the new flag flying over the government buildings, and after some words with his imprisoned general, Torres saw that resistance was useless, and he and the prisoners made the rail trip once more, reaching Colón just as the U.S.S. Dixie, supposedly with four hundred marines aboard, was entering the harbor. That sight, with promised payments of $10,000 to $50,000 apiece for officers, and open barrels of silver coins in the plaza for common soldiers, persuaded them all to board the S.S. Cartagena, Bogotá-bound. At noon on November 6, 1901, the United States recognized the new republic and the revolution was over, although McCullough comments “without the presence of the U.S., the new Republic would not have lasted a week.” He credits the dynamic solution of the Panama question to Washington.

Much remained to be done and details of subsequent action are included in the two hundred pages of Book Three, “The Builders, 1904-1914.” Turnover of the French Company property to the Republic did not occur until November 11, 1904, when “the choicest region of Colombia” went to the use of the United States. The rest of McCullough’s account tells what the U.S. government got and what they did with it.

McCullough’s explanation of United States success in Panama was the American application of modern medical science, their ability to improvise, their methods of financing, and the size of their mechanical equipment. When James Stevens was appointed Chief Engineer of the project, the first thing he did was to send for William Gorgas, who had rid Havana of yellow fever. Fever was his great foe, so Gorgas arrived to start fumigating and killing rats. Then Stevens tripled his working force, selecting blacks from Barbados, Martinique, and Guadeloupe, who were not so lazy as the original Jamaicans. Shipments of Basques from Spain also arrived, given free passage to Panama, wages of $187 a month, and, after five hundred working days, a free return trip home. For them he provided improved living conditions and offered better food, as well as band concerts and football fields for their entertainment. He ordered gigantic equipment from the United States to be assembled on the site. The author also provides ten pages of comment on the new uses of electricity, and tells of the founding of the General Electric Company to supply parts. With no models to copy, the men improvised what they needed with the new kinds of steel, already in use in the new auto industry. McCullough’s account of the size and weight of the canal locks is breathtaking.

Six months before contract date, the canal was completed, and we read of the passage of the flag-decorated tub through the first locks without a hitch; finally on August 15, 1914, the ocean-going S.S. Cristobal traversed the system. McCullough laments, however, that this spectacular feat was overshadowed in the press by war news from Europe. However, the canal was done; the Americans had scored a triumph. The total cost, including sums paid to Panama, Colombia, and France, was $350,000,000, with an additional $25,000,000 indemnity paid to Colombia in 1921 for loss of territory.

Because of World War I, only two thousand vessels used the canal during the first year, but in July, 1919, a fleet of thirty-three ships bound home from the war passed the locks in two days. By 1916, when channel lighting was installed, ships could use the canal day and night at the rate of one per hour, and in 1972 nearly seven thousand ships with a million tons in cargo sailed from ocean to ocean.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 43

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.

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