The Path Between the Seas

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by David McCullough

It was fascinating to read of all the false starts, disease, and natural disasters that turned this project into a debacle for the French, who after much effort and a great deal of corruption, sold their rights to the Americans. Did you know that it was almost the Nicaraguan Canal instead of the Panama Canal.


As always, David McCullough pulls us into the narrative and writes about all the colorful characters involved in this historical event! The most colorful of all, Theodore Roosevelt, could be said to be the man who finally made it happen, but many others worked bravely and battled the intense heat and prevalent disease to build this great man-made waterway that did connect two oceans!

Teddy builds the canal?!

Teddy builds the canal?!

The French obtained the rights to dig the canal from the Colombian government and began excavation in 1881 under the direction of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the man who built the Suez Canal. However, they were plagued with seasonal floods and mudslides, which caused major setbacks. The biggest problem was tropical disease such as malaria and yellow fever, it the cause of which was not known at the time. Thousands of workers and engineers died before the connection between mosquitoes and these maladies was proven.

In the end, scandal and corruption led to the collapse of the French canal company, La Société internationale du Canal interocéanique. A second company also failed and the land and equipment sold to the U.S. government for 40 million dollars in 1904.

One man who stood out as an unsung hero was Army doctor WIlliam C. Gorgas who had worked in Havana to eradicate yellow fever after the Spanish AMerican War. In Panama, Gorgas got little cooperation and received much scorn before he was vindicated in his idea that yellow fever was carried by a certain strain of mosquito.

Dr. William C. Gorgas

Dr. William C. Gorgas

“As chief sanitary officer on the canal project, Gorgas implemented far-reaching sanitary programs including the draining of ponds and swamps, fumigation, mosquito netting, and public water systems. These measures were instrumental in permitting the construction of the Panama Canal, as they significantly prevented illness due to yellow fever and malaria (which had also been shown to be transmitted by mosquitoes in 1898) among the thousands of workers involved in the building project.”( “Contagion, Tropical Diseases and the Construction of the Panama Canal, 1904-1914”. Harvard University.)

The canal was opened in 1914, but not before a revolt was provoked and Panama was declared independent from Colombia, allowing  American control of the canal.


If you are interested ind the technical side of the project, look to Wikipedia to read about the system of dams and locks that allowed the water level to be raised and lowered and for ships to pass through. The digging of the Culebra cut through the continental divide (110 meters high, solid rock!) was an amazing task in itself!

A comprehensive history and entertaining tale!