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1 Beaverton World History- Latin America

The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914

by

The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 Cover

 

 

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Threshold

There is a charm of adventure about this new quest...
The New York Times

I

The letter, several pages in length and signed by Secretary of the Navy George M. Robeson, was addressed to Commander Thomas O. Selfridge. It was an eminently clear, altogether formal document, as expected, and had a certain majesty of tone that Commander Selfridge thought quite fitting. That he and the Secretary were personally acquainted, that they had in fact become pleasantly drunk together on one past occasion and vowed eternal friendship as their carriage rolled through the dark capital, were in no way implied. Nor is it important, except that Selfridge, a serious and sober man on the whole, was to wonder for the rest of his days what influence the evening may have had on the way things turned out for him.

His own planning and preparations had already occupied several extremely busy months. The letter was but the final official directive:

Navy Department
Washington, January 10, 1870

Sir: You are appointed to the command of an expedition to make a survey of the Isthmus of Darien, to ascertain the point at which to cut a canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The steam-sloop Nipsic and the store-ship Guard will be under your Command...

The Department has entrusted to you a duty connected with the greatest enterprise of the present age; and upon your enterprise and your zeal will depend whether your name is honorably identified with one of the facts of the future...

No matter how many surveys have been made, or how accurate they may have been, the people of this country will never be satisfied until every point of the Isthmus is surveyed by some responsible authority, and by properly equipped parties, such as will be under your command, working on properly matured plans...

So on January 22, 1870, a clear, bright abnormally mild Saturday, the Nipsic cast off at Brooklyn Navy Yard and commenced solemnly down the East River. The Guard, under Commander Edward P. Lull, followed four days later.

In all, the expedition comprised nearly a hundred regular officers and men, two Navy doctors, five civilians from the Coast Survey (surveyors and draftsmen), two civilian geologists, three telegraphers from the Signal Corps, and a photographer, Timothy H. O'Sullivan, who had been Mathew Brady's assistant during the war.

Stowed below on the Guard was the finest array of modern instruments yet assembled for such an undertaking — engineers' transits, spirit levels, gradienters, surveyors' compasses and chains, delicate pocket aneroid barometers, mercurial mountain barometers, current meters — all "for prosecuting the work vigorously and scientifically." (The Stackpole transits, made by the New York firm of Stackpole & Sons, had their telescope axis mounted in double cone bearings, for example, which gave the instrument greater rigidity than older models, and the introduction of a simplified horizontal graduation reading allowed for faster readings and less chance of error.) There were rubber blankets and breech-loading rifles for every man, whiskey, quinine, an extra 600 pairs of shoes, and 100 miles of telegraph wire. Stores "in such shape as to be little liable to injury by exposure to rains" were sufficient for four months: 7,000 pounds of bacon, 10,000 pounds of bread, 6,000 pounds of tomato soup, 30 gallons of beans, 2,500 pounds of coffee, 100 bottles of pepper, 600 pounds of canned butter.

The destination was the Darien wilderness on the Isthmus of Panama, more than two thousand miles from Brooklyn, within ten degrees of the equator, and, contrary to the mental picture most people had, east of the 80th meridian — that is, east of Florida. They would land at Caledonia Bay, about 150 miles east of the Panama Railroad. It was the same point from which Balboa had begun his crossing in 1513, and where, at the end of the seventeenth century, William Paterson, founder of the Bank of England, had established the disastrous Scottish colony of New Edinburgh, because Caledonia Bay (as he named it) was to be the future "door of the seas." Harassed by the Spanish, decimated by disease, the little settlement had lasted scarcely more than a year. Every trace of it had long since vanished.

Darien was known to be the narrowest point anywhere on the Central American isthmus, by which was meant the entire land bridge from lower Mexico to the continent of South America and which included the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Guatemala, Honduras, British Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, the last of which was still a province — indeed a most prized province — of Colombia. From Tehuantepec to the Atrato River in Colombia, the natural, easternmost boundary of Central America, was a distance of 1,350 miles as the crow flies, as far as from New York to Dallas, and there were not simply a few, but many points along that zigzagging land mass where, on the map at least, it appeared a canal could be cut. A few years before, Admiral Charles H. Davis had informed Congress that there were no fewer than nineteen possible locations for a Central American ship canal. But at Darien the distance from tidewater to tidewater on a straight line was known to be less than forty miles.

Because of the particular configuration of the Isthmus of Panama — with the land barrier running nearly horizontal between the oceans — the expedition would be crossing down the map. The men would make their way from the Caribbean on the north to the Pacific on the south, just as Balboa had. (Hence Balboa's designation of the Pacific as the Sea of the South had been perfectly logical.) The Panama Railroad, the nearest sign of civilization on the map, also ran from north to south. Its faint, spidery red line looked like something added by a left-handed cartographer, with the starting point at Colón, on Limon Bay, actually somewhat farther west than the finish point at Panama City, on the Bay of Panama.

They were to measure the heights of mountains and the depths of rivers and harbors. They were to gather botanical and geological specimens. They were to take astronomical observations, report on the climate, and observe the character of the Indians encountered. And they were to lose as little time as possible, since the rainy season — the sickly season, Secretary Robeson called it — would soon be upon them.

Six other expeditions were to follow. A Presidential commission, the first Interoceanic Canal Commission, would be established to appraise all resulting surveys and reports and to declare which was the chosen path. The commission would include the chief of the Army Engineers, the head of the Coast Survey, and the chief of the Bureau of Navigation. Nothing even remotely so systematic, so elaborate or sensible, had ever been attempted before.

But the Darien Expedition was the first, and the fact that it was to Darien, one of the wildest, least-known corners of the entire world, was a matter of extreme concern at the Navy Department. Sixteen years earlier, in 1854, well within the memory of most Americans, an expedition to Caledonia Bay had ended in a disaster that had the whole country talking and left the Navy with a profound respect for the terrors of a tropical wilderness. What had happened was this.

In 1850, Dr. Edward Cullen, an Irish physician and member of the Royal Geographical Society, had announced the discovery of a way across Darien by which he had walked from the Atlantic to the Pacific several times and quite effortlessly. He had been careful to mark the trail, Cullen said, and at no place had he found the elevation more than 150 feet above sea level. It was the miracle route everyone had been searching for and the story caused a sensati

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lukas, August 12, 2014 (view all comments by lukas)
"The creation of a water passage across Panama was one of the supreme human achievements of all time, the culmination of a heroic dream of four hundred years and of more than twenty years of phenomenal effort and sacrifice. The fifty miles between the oceans were among the hardest ever won by human effort and ingenuity, and no statistics on tonnage or tolls can begin to convey the grandeur of what was accomplished."
Since it is the centennial of the opening of the Panama Canal, I picked up this book on the history of its building written by the acclaimed historian David McCullough, who has written books on Truman and John Adams.
Exhaustively researched, it is also a little exhausting in, coming in at over 600 pages. But it is well worth the effort and the length is justified by the epic subject. It is a compelling story that touches on history, politics, race, medicine (the fight against mosquito borne disease, engineering, capitalism, and man's dauntless task to conquer nature, among other things. I had no idea that the French started the canal, one of many things I learned from this book. Not exactly beach readings, this is an informative, sweeping, and ultimately triumphant story of one of the great engineering feats of the 20th century or any century for that matter.
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sks2, January 1, 2012 (view all comments by sks2)
This is a wonderful work of research and skilled writing, describing the construction of the Panama Canal, between 1870 and 1914. It chronicles both the failed French effort, as well as the successful American effort at what was then (and still is) one of the largest and most costly engineering projects of all time. The book is just crammed with interesting anecdotal information, political intrigue, personal accounts, original photography, etc. If you enjoy reading about historical events in great detail, then this is a book for you! 600 or so pages, so prepare for a couple of weeks worth of reading…
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OneMansView, November 16, 2008 (view all comments by OneMansView)
This book is a highly informative account of the entire history of the contemplation and building of the Panama Canal involving many nations across several decades. The difficulties facing any entity, private or public, considering building an Isthmus-crossing canal were unbelievable: the sheer complexity of the canal design; the volume of earth to move and the size of the structures to build; the huge and multi-dimensional labor force; the tremendous earth-moving machinery required and its effective usage; the magnitude and difficulties of coordinating all the work; the decimating impact of yellow fever and malaria on the work force; and the logistics of supplying an obscure part of the world. In addition, the political maneuverings involving the governments of France, the US, Columbia, and Panama and any number of lobbyists during several periods were crucial in deciding the location and type of an Isthmus-crossing canal, as well the decisions to proceed. The debate of whether Panama or Nicaragua was most appropriate for a canal was waged repeatedly with final decisions being made on little more than a coin-flip.

Personalities are very important in the author’s story. He scarcely conceals a predisposition to the belief that brilliant and appropriate men will eventually rise to meet the most difficult of challenges. Perhaps surprising to most readers is that the first attempt to build a canal across Panama was made by a private French conglomerate led by the charismatic aristocrat and entrepreneur Ferdinand de Lesseps in the 1880s. While his dominating personality persuaded many to undertake the huge risks of building a canal in Panama, his complete lack of technical competency and his tendency to ignore and conceal serious problems, thus deceiving investors, were factors in the collapse of the French effort after a near-decade of prodigious but ultimately futile efforts. What was to be a triumph of French ingenuity turned into bitter recriminations, with jail time being served by a few scapegoats.

The middle third of the book is devoted to the politics of the US taking on the task of building a canal and the support of the US of the Panamanian coup in 1903. Powerful interests led by Sen John T. Morgan supported a Nicaraguan canal but President Theodore Roosevelt threw the weight of his office behind, what he considered to be the more practical alternative, Panama. An enigmatic Frenchmen, part of the de Lesseps effort in Panama, Philippe Bunau-Varilla not only was persuasive during that period but coordinated the Panama takeover. Though the US quickly came to terms with Columbia over the loss of Panama, that flexing of American power rankled for years in Latin America.

The last section of the book is an amazing story of the completion, with substantial alteration, of the original French canal. After some lackluster appointees were replaced and administrative structures streamlined, serious advancement of the project began. Again, very talented individuals were key to the progress. Dr. William Gorgas was able to implement a country-wide program of eradicating mosquitoes, the carriers of yellow fever and malaria. John Stevens, a veteran of railroad design, in his role as chief engineer undertook a vast improvement of the infrastructure of Panama, such as housing, sewerage, and water supply, greatly improving the well-being of the labor force and also devised a means of non-stop digging and movement of dirt. The author suggests that Stevens’ efforts were perhaps most important for the project’s completion, yet he is largely forgotten because he prematurely resigned. His successor, George Goethals, though rather aloof, proved to be an equally able administrator and saw the Panama Canal through to its completion in 1914.

The story told is complicated with many considerations and individuals involved. However, at times, almost too much detail is provided – too many names, too many physical descriptions of people. The luminous personality of de Lesseps gets excessive attention, as well as the political intrigue in France and the US. It was not the author’s intent to write an exposition on canal building; the approach is far more social, political, and economic. It’s impossible to read this book without coming to realize the sheer audacity and improbability of building a canal across Panama, especially one hundred years ago.

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Product Details

ISBN:
9780671244095
Preface:
McCullough, David
Author:
McCullough, David
Publisher:
Simon & Schuster
Location:
New York :
Subject:
History
Subject:
Modern - 20th Century
Subject:
United States - 20th Century
Subject:
Central America
Subject:
United States - 20th Century (1900-1945)
Subject:
Panama canal
Subject:
Panama Canal (Panama)
Subject:
Panama Canal (Panama) History.
Subject:
Latin America - Central America
Subject:
General History
Subject:
World History-Central America
Subject:
Panama Canal, making of Panama Canal, Creation of Panama Canal, National Book Award winner, passageway, Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, feats of engineering, Gold Rush, Walter Reed, George Washington Goethals, Ferdinand de Lesseps
Copyright:
Edition Description:
B102
Series Volume:
1998-206554
Publication Date:
January 1978
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
61 bandamp;w photos t-o
Pages:
704
Dimensions:
9.25 x 6.12 in 30.17 oz

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The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 Used Trade Paper
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Product details 704 pages Simon & Schuster - English 9780671244095 Reviews:
"Review" by , "A chunk of history full of giant-sized characters and rich in political skullduggery."
"Review" by , "McCullough is a storyteller with the capacity to steer readers through political, financial, and engineering intricacies without fatigue or muddle. This is grand-scale expert work."
"Synopsis" by , Winner of the National Book Award

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Truman, here is the national bestselling epic chronicle of the creation of the Panama Canal. In The Path Between the Seas, acclaimed historian David McCullough delivers a first-rate drama of the sweeping human undertaking that led to the creation of this grand enterprise.

The Path Between the Seas tells the story of the men and women who fought against all odds to fulfill the 400-year-old dream of constructing an aquatic passageway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It is a story of astonishing engineering feats, tremendous medical accomplishments, political power plays, heroic successes, and tragic failures. Applying his remarkable gift for writing lucid, lively exposition, McCullough weaves the many strands of the momentous event into a comprehensive and captivating tale.

Winner of the National Book Award for history, the Francis Parkman Prize, the Samuel Eliot Morison Award, and the Cornelius Ryan Award (for the best book of the year on international affairs), The Path Between the Seas is a must-read for anyone interested in American history, the history of technology, international intrigue, and human drama.

"Synopsis" by , From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Truman, here is the national bestselling epic chronicle of the creation of the Panama Canal. In The Path Between the Seas, acclaimed historian David McCullough delivers a first-rate drama of the sweeping human undertaking that led to the creation of this grand enterprise.

The Path Between the Seas tells the story of the men and women who fought against all odds to fulfill the 400-year-old dream of constructing an aquatic passageway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It is a story of astonishing engineering feats, tremendous medical accomplishments, political power plays, heroic successes, and tragic failures. Applying his remarkable gift for writing lucid, lively exposition, McCullough weaves the many strands of the momentous event into a comprehensive and captivating tale.

Winner of the National Book Award for history, the Francis Parkman Prize, the Samuel Eliot Morison Award, and the Cornelius Ryan Award (for the best book of the year on international affairs), The Path Between the Seas is a must-read for anyone interested in American history, the history of technology, international intrigue, and human drama.

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