Book Summary: The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough

My Personal Summary

This book is about the creation of the Panama Canal between 1870 to 1914.

During the 1970’s, several government groups surveyed both Panama and Nicaragua as potential routes for a canal to be placed.

The Suez canal that was completed in 1869 connected the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea opened up a much faster route from Europe to Asia and it was believed that a similar canal through Central America would offer much faster access between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

The French spent most of the 1880’s attempting to build a canal but ultimately failed due to being unable to conquer diseases like Yellow Fever, malaria, typhoid fever, and other diseases that ravaged the workers along with simply having equipment that wasn’t up for the challenge of excavation.

The project sat untouched for much of the 1890’s until the U.S. began work on it in 1904 and eventually completed it by 1914.

The Panama Canal remains one of the greatest engineering feats in all of human history.

Book Notes

  • The Suez Canal was built from 1859-1869 and connected the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, which offered the fastest maritime route from Europe to Asia. Before this was built, ships had to sail all the way around the southern tip of Africa to get from Europe to Asia by sea.
  • Many countries wanted to build a canal in the Americas to offer a faster way to get between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Up to this point, ships had to sail all the way around the southern tip of South America to get between the two oceans.
  • To put it in perspective: Traveling from New York to San Francisco by ship around South America took 13,000 miles, but building a canal through Panama would take only 5,000 miles.
  • In 1870, the U.S. Navy sent a large expedition to investigate and explore an area known as the Darien gap, an area filled with dense forests and swamps in Panama that was known to be one of the narrowest land areas between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and a potentially promising location to build a canal. The men sent on the mission completed the survey of the land successfully but were absolutely tortured by intense heat, mosquitos, sand flies, and the occasional scorpion.
  • Early on, many people thought Nicaragua would be the site of the canal because although it would require a longer distance over land compared to Panama, it was a shorter distance overall since it was closer to the U.S. and it was not nearly as treacherous as Panama, which had dense forests and swamps, extreme changes in elevation, and insects carrying diseases like malaria and yellow fever.
  • Ferdinand de Lesseps, a Frenchmen who lead the creation of the Suez Canal, called for a meeting of nations in 1879 to vote on the location and strategy for building a canal in Central America. After weeks of debate, the committee voted for a canal to be built at sea level in Panama. The total distance would be about 50 miles from one shore to the other.
  • In 1881, de Lesseps sold stock in a canal company that raised over $60 million in capital from a wide variety of investors mostly from France. This gave him the capital to fund the project that year.
  • In 1881, the first groups of workers began to hack a path through the forest with machetes and axes starting in Colón. They had to deal with poisonous snakes, pumas, jaguars and a variety of ticks, chiggers, spiders, mosquitoes and other stinging insects.
  • In Panama, it rains heavily during eight months of the year, which naturally makes working outdoors much harder.
  • Because of the brutal environment, only 10% of workers stayed for 6 months or longer.
  • Because of the intense heat and rain, most workers were usually drenched from rain and sweat and without any laundry facilities they often wore the same clothes for days at a time.
  • Many workers also died of malaria or yellow fever. At the time, it wasn’t known that these diseases were spread by mosquitoes so there were no screens on windows of any buildings, which would have reduced the rate of the disease spreading.
  • The city of Colón, where many workers first arrived in Panama, had no proper sewers or bathrooms. Garbage and dead animals were simply dumped in the streets and “rats of phenomenal size” roamed all over. Since yellow fever was known to thrive in filthy conditions, it’s no wonder why it was so widespread in Colón.
  • Incredible fact: it’s estimated that 20-50% of all workers who arrived in Panama during the early 1880’s died from malaria, fellow fever, small pox, typhoid fever, dysentery, and a number of other diseases that naturally spread in that type of environment where mosquitoes were rampant and drinking water was usually contaminated.
  • The hospitals became so full with sick patients in Panama that some bodies were literally just pushed down hillsides and buried beneath rubble because it was too cumbersome to take them to a hospital or give them a proper burial.
  • Interesting fact: Napoleon sent an army of 25,000 men to occupy Louisiana in 1801 but after a yellow fever epidemic wiped out thousands of the men including Napoleon’s brother-in-law, it is said that he became disenchanted with building an empire in the U.S. and this contributed to his decision to eventually sell the Louisiana territory to the United States.
  • Progress on the canal was much slower than anticipated by de Lesseps and his company, mostly due to diseases wiping out workers and the amount of land that needed excavated was much greater than they anticipated. By 1889, the company de Lesseps created had to be liquidated and all of the investors who bought shares in his company now owned nothing of value. He was eventually brought to court and charged for fraud and deception of investors by promising unrealistic timelines and providing inaccurate updates about the project. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
  • The French effort to build the canal was considered one of the largest failures (in financial terms) of the entire 19th century and the death toll was estimated to be 20,000 men during the course of 1880-1889.
  • In 1898, during the Spanish American War, the U.S. sent one of its largest battleships from San Francisco to help with fighting in Cuba. Because no canal existed in Central America yet, the ship had to travel 12,000 miles around the cape of South America instead of a potential 5,000 miles had a canal been in place. This made it clear to the U.S. government just how useful a canal would be to reduce the distance needed to travel between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Theodore Roosevelt, assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy at the time, wrote many letters to congressmen urging them to make building a canal a priority to ensure the U.S. as a global naval power.
  • In 1902, the U.S. congress voted by a count of 42-34 to pass the Spooner Act, which gave the U.S. the go ahead to purchase all assets from the French related to the canal including equipment, maps, and existing buildings and structures around the canal for $40 million and proceed to build the canal in Panama instead of Nicaragua.
  • In the end, many senators voted for Panama because it would be cheaper and require less overall construction compared to Nicaragua. There was also some fear of the 14 volcanos in Nicaragua (compared to zero in Panama) that posed a potential threat at any point in the future to erupt and damage the canal.
  • Interesting Fact: The payment of $40 million from the U.S. to France was the largest payment made between two countries in history up to that point, with the next largest ones being the $7.2 million the U.S. paid to Russia in 1867 to acquire Alaska and the $15 million the U.S. paid to France to acquire the Louisiana Territory in 1803.
  • However, Panama was a province owned by Colombia at the time and the Colombian government proved to be difficult to work with on the canal project. Tensions increased in 1903 and locals in Panama revolted against the Colombian government and declared independence. The Republic of Panama was established and president Roosevelt sent ships down to Panama to defend against and potential retaliation from Colombia.
  • “Without the military presence of the United States – had there been no American gunboats standing off short at Colón and Panama City – the Republic of Panama probably would not have lasted a week.”
  • Panama then granted the U.S. the exclusive rights to build a canal on their land in exchange for $10 million and a $250k annual payment.
  • Before beginning work on the canal, the U.S. had learned from the French that tropical diseases must be brought under control if there was any chance of completing the canal and not having thousands of men die.
  • William Gorgas was appointed as head of sanitation after he successfully was able to rid Havana, Cuba of yellow fever in 1901. During that time, it was discovered that a specific species of mosquito spread the disease. The way to eliminate the spread was to eliminate the mosquito itself from the region. This particular mosquito laid eggs only in clean water near or in buildings where humans lived because they preferred to feed on humans. Knowing this was extremely helpful since, at the time, people in Panama commonly put dishes of water around plants and around the legs of hospital beds to prevent umbrella ants from climbing on them. This turned out to be a perfect breeding ground for mosquitos. The key to eliminating the mosquitos was to eliminate all possible fresh containers of water around buildings where they could lay their eggs. Even all containers indoors had to be covered. Amazingly, this was basically all it took to eliminate that particular species of mosquito and thus yellow fever from a given area.
  • The species of mosquitos that carried malaria, on the other hand, were much less picky about the type of water they would lay eggs in and female mosquitos could lay up to 200 eggs every ten days, which meant the population of this particular mosquito was much larger.
  • In 1904, when the U.S, finally began work on the canal, they had the advantage of the 30 million cubic yards that had already been excavated by the French. Much of the French equipment that had been left abandoned in the region was also still in working condition. Unfortunately, the 7-man canal commission put in charge of the work was wildly inefficient and a brand new 7-man commission had to be put together in 1905. Chief engineer John Wallace was also fired and John Stevens, a man with an impressive construction background in railroads, bridges and tunnels, was hired in his place.
  • Although many people still doubted that yellow fever was transported by mosquitos, Dr. Gorgas was given full control of the sanitation work and through his tactics of eliminating fresh water sources for the mosquitos to lay eggs and through having running water installed in all major Panamanian cities and thus removing the need for water containers to transport water everywhere, yellow fever was eliminated in the area by the end of 1905.
  • John Stevens had two insights that the French did not – he knew the Panama railroad must be in excellent working condition so that men and supplies could be transported reliably and he knew that they needed to use the largest equipment humanly possible for excavation, unlike the French who used a haphazard collection of equipment of varying sizes.
  • Stevens had the railroad line completely overhauled and double tracked to allow transportation of heavier equipment. He also had a new telegraph and telephone system installed.
  • Workers from a total of 97 different countries came to work on the canal but the majority of workers came from the tiny island of Barbados. Although the working conditions in Panama were treacherous, they pay was significantly higher than any man from Barbados could earn in his own country so the trade off was worth it.
  • Interesting Fact: To boost morale among workers, John Stevens has baseball fields built and established a league for workers to play in. Although money for building fields wasn’t in the budget, he charged it as a sanitary expense.
  • In 1906, the canal commission voted to build a lock canal instead of a sea-level canal because it was deemed to be safer and cheaper and it could be completed 10 years faster than a sea-level canal. The plan was to build a dam to create an artificial lake – Gatun Lake – that would span 164 square miles and be roughly in the center of Colón and Panama City. The idea is that three locks would be used to raise boats to the level of the lake, the boats would cross the lake, then three more locks would be used to lower the boats back to sea level and allow them to exit into the ocean.
  • In November 1906, president Theodore Roosevelt visited Panama to see the construction work himself. He purposely chose to visit during the peak of the rainy season because he wanted to see Panama at its worst.
  • Roosevelt famously posed for a picture on a 95-ton steam shovel, the main tool that was used for excavation and one that could dig about 3-5 times more dirt compared to the equipment used by the French.
  • In 1907, George Washington Goethals replaced John Stevens as chief engineer after Stevens wrote Roosevelt a letter expressing his discontent with his position and the work being done.
  • In total, 61 million pounds of dynamite was used in the excavation of the canal. Hundreds of men were killed from premature explosions and one worker was quoted as saying “the flesh of men flew in the air like birds many days.”
  • All of the locks for the canal were powered by electricity, which had just become a feasible technology in the late 1890’s. General Electric was responsible for creating nearly all of the electrical devices required for the canal.
  • The canal was finished in 1914.
  • Today, all ships pay $1.08 per cargo ton to pass through the canal, regardless of which country they’re from. The average toll per ship is about $10,000, which is one tenth of what it would cost to instead travel around Cape Horn on the southern tip of South America.
  • The Panama Canal has gone down in history as one of the greatest engineering feats in human history.

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