David McCullough’s exhaustively researched tome, The Path between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914, is on par with all of his great works. McCullough is best known for in-depth research of singular events, including The Great Bridge; 1776; Truman, The Jonestown Flood; and others. McCullough writes with great insight, humor, and elegance that even over 500 pages, it’s still a pleasure to read.
As I read this book, I realized I had absolutely zero knowledge of the building of the Panama Canal. The initial involvement of the French, the French and American political scheming of where the Canals should be built and the type of Canal, how the Canal would be funded, who would be in charge of the construction, and more.
There is absolutely no way for us to imagine the unfathomable physical and engineering size of this project without statistics, and David McCullough provides plenty. The amount of dirt that is moved, the number of dynamite blasts, the number of people killed during the construction, and the number killed by yellow-fever, malaria and other diseases. There is no shortage of statistical information to provide the reader with an in-depth understanding of what it took. Though, some may think the statistics themselves overwhelm the book.
One of the great lessons I learned from the book was that “necessity is the mother of invention.” The Panama Canal was based on a grand idea by people with great personal and political ambition. However, they had no idea of the true cost to construct, the engineering challenges and perils, the human toll it would take, and the brute required to build the Canal. In all these cases, the people who were committed to the project created new methods of excavation, developed new methods to transport the excavated dirt, discovered the cause of (and way to cure) yellow fever, and created new methods to expedite the laying and re-laying of train tracks to speed the construction. There’s no better way to understand this than to compare the pace of construction in the early years versus the later years (and McCullough gives us great comparison for this).
This book is the longest one to date on my list of books. While some parts were difficult to get through as the continued description of the excavation and political intrigue did become a little trite at times, and my engineering knowledge is quite limited, it does fall in the category of my great interest of reading non-fiction books on a singular topic, such as on the building of the Hoover Dam, the construction of the national highway system, and 1776 (also written by McCullough). For those of you with similar interests, this definitely needs to be added to your list.