I first heard about The Path Between The Seas – The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914 – by acclaimed historian author David McCullough, when Bill Gates recommended it on his reading list.
As the title indicates, this book is about the colossal that was the undertaking of the Panama Canal construction, between the years of 1870 to 1914:
The creation of the Panama Canal was far more than a vast, unprecedented feat of engineering. It was a profoundly important historic event and a sweeping human drama not unlike that of war. Apart from wars, it represented the largest, most costly single effort ever before mounted anywhere on earth. It held the world’s attention over a span of forty years. It affected the lives of tens of thousands of people at every level of society and of virtually every race and nationality. Great reputations were made and destroyed. For numbers of men and women it was the adventure of a lifetime. Because of it one nation, France, was rocked to its foundations. Another, Colombia, lost its most prized possession, the Isthmus of Panama. Nicaragua, on the verge of becoming a world crossroads, was left to wait for some future chance. The Republic of Panama was born. The United States was embarked on a role of global involvement. In the history of finance capitalism, in the history of medicine, it was an event of signal consequence. It marked a score of advances in engineering, government planning, labor relations. It was a response to Sedan, a response to the idea of sea power. It was both the crowning constructive effort, “The Great Enterprise,” of the Victorian Era and the first grandiose and assertive show of American power at the dawn of the new century. And yet the passage of the first ship through the canal in the summer of 1914—the first voyage through the American land mass—marked the resolution of a dream as old as the voyages of Columbus.
It all started with a letter from the Secretary of the Navy back in the 1870:
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 Self ridge thought quite fitting…Navy Department Washington, January 10, 1870 Sir: 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…
President Grant was the first one to have the vision on the value of such a canal, particularly to the US:
The President of the United States at this juncture was Ulysses S. Grant and it was he, the year before, who had instructed Admiral Ammen to organize the series of expeditions-“practicaI investigations,” he called them. Grant, despite his subsequent reputation as a President of little vision or initiative, was more keenly interested in an isthmian canal than any of his predecessors had been. He was indeed the first President to address himself seriously to the subject. If there was to be a water corridor, he wanted it in the proper place—as determined by civil engineers and naval authorities-and he wanted it under American control. “To Europeans the benefits of and advantages of the proposed canal are great,” he was to write, “to Americans they are incalculable.”
The first part of the history of the canal was dominated by one man – Ferdinand de Lesseps:
Viewed in retrospect, de Lesseps’ life stands out as one of the most extraordinary of the nineteenth century, even without the Panama venture. That he of all men of his time should have been the one to make “the miracle” happen at Suez is in itself miraculous. Suddenly there he was. Known after 1869 as “The Great Engineer,” he was no such thing. He had no technical background, no experience in finance. His skills as an administrator were modest. Routine of any kind bored him quickly.
His ambitions were altruistic:
“At any time he could have sold his precious concession and realized a fortune, but this he never did; his driving ambition throughout was to build the canal, ”pour le bien de l’humanite.”
However, neither he nor the people around him listened to the contrarian opinions who had valid concerns:
It was later that same day that another of the French delegates, one who had had nothing to say thus far, came to the front of the auditorium to deliver the most extraordinary pronouncement of the entire congress. A man of genius stepped forward then and there, in fact. although no one, not even de Lesseps, perceived this. He was Baron Godin de Lepinay—Nicholas-Joseph-Adolphe Godin de Lepinay, Baron de Brusly—a small, bearded aristocrat who was a chief engineer with the Corps des Ponts et Chaussees…His solution was what Philippe Bunau-Varilla would call the “Idea of the artificial Nicaragua.” Incredibly and tragically, the delegates paid him no attention. The Americans dismissed the plan as ridiculous. Menocal could hardly bring himself to mention de Lepninay’s name in his report on the congress. Ammen referred only to the “plan,” in quotes, as an illustration of the extremes some of the French had gone to in an effort to rescue the Panama route. Had the delegates reacted differently, had they taken de Lepinay seriously, the story of the canal could have turned out quite differently.
One of the major challenges with the work at Panama and differences between it and the work at the Suez:
The point he does seem to have stressed—the great lesson to be learned from his experience—was that everything, every them, had to be brought to Panama, including the men to do the work. The Panamanians themselves would be of no use. The poor were unused to heavy manual labor and were without ambition; the upper classes regarded physical work as beneath their dignity. There would be no home-grown labor force to count on, no armies of Egyptian fellahin this time. Labor had to be figured like freight, very expensive freight. Then every pick and shovel, every tent, blanket, mattress, every cookstove and locomotive, had to be carried by ship across thousands of miles of ocean. De Lesseps could count on Panama to provide nothing but the place to dig the canal.
And to some extent that past experience seemed to hurt the French more than it benefited them:
But at Panama the French had to improvise—or rather they had to go by. Virtually everything had to be learned by trial and error, and their chief difficulty as time went on was the fearful cost of their errors. The experience at Suez was little help. Probably they would have been better off in the long run had there been no Suez Canal in their past. For despite all de Lesseps told the press and his public, Panama had only one advantage over Suez: the distance to be covered. Everything else at Panama was infinitely more difficult. Panama was an immeasurably larger and more baffling task than Suez, just as Godin de Lepinay had warned.
Tropical diseases that was affecting workers was one of the most difficult challenges that the construction team had to deal with:
The toll in human lives was growing ever more ghastly, unlike anything anyone had foreseen, except possibly Godin de Lepinay. Eighteen eighty-five was to be the worst year. Probably more people died then than at any other time during the French regime. In the years to follow, the ravages of yellow fever, malaria, typhoid fever, smallpox, pneumonia, dysentery, beriberi, food poisoning, snakebite, sunstroke, were only a shade less appalling. Ordinarily on the Isthmus, yellow fever came and went in cycles of two to three years. Now, unaccountably, it never went away and there was not a thing anyone could do. Malaria, ever present as always, remained the deadliest killer.
The difficulties drew insurmountable and brought the French operations to its knees:
It was a reporter for Le Figaro, arriving at de Lesseps’ home just ten minutes after the vote in the Chamber, who told him how the vote had gone. De Lesseps turned dreadfully pale, the man wrote afterward, and could only whisper, “It is impossible! It is shameful!” The pallor and the loss of words were but momentary, however. Instinctively the old reflexes responded. He was in motion again. issuing statements, talking of new schemes. The company was in wreckage, the government had turned its back-, the long battle was ended and he had been crushed. It was Sedan again for France, yet he refused to accept that—he was incapable of accepting that…The official end came on February 4, 1889. In accordance with a desire formally expressed by shareholders in the original company. the Tribunal Civil appointed a liquidator. The Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique was no more.
What followed is one of the largest scandals to rock the French society:
It was nearly three years later when the Panama scandal broke wide open, rocking France to its foundations. Between times, the great Universal Exposition of 1889 had been staged beneath Gustave Eiffel’s gargantuan tower, and French political life went along little changed from year to year, one ministry succeeding another, despite the flaming oratory, despite the Boulanger crisis. General Boulanger, “the strong man,” having sat out his chance to seize power, having escaped to Brussels with his adored mistress, Madame de Bonnemains, had also, soon after her death, shot himself at her graveside. Panama, to be sure, had remained a major topic. Some 800,000 French men and women had been directly affected, the savings of entire families had utterly vanished. People who could ill afford to lose anything had lost everything. Still, no panic had been touched off when the company went under. There were no demonstrations in the streets May 15, 1889, the day the liquidator ordered that the work be halted on the Isthmus. Instead, shareholders submitted their grievances by formal petition, in polite, written pleas for redress through government action. Tempers cooled; rumors of fraud and political payoffs were denied or discounted or simply grew stale. When the liquidator established a special committee to go to Panama and estimate the cost of finishing the canal, many shareholders actually took heart, convinced that the government was about to rescue them.
It was a bitter ending for the de Lesseps family as well:
With family and friends and in all the remaining years of his life, Charles refused to speak of Panama. “He would not talk about it,” recalled an adoring nephew, “never, never, never, never.” And in the view of those who knew him best, he was regarded no less than ever as the most honest and admirable of men. The Suez company had kept him on its hoard of directors even during his time in prison. “He was a very honorable man, you know, the old-fashioned sort of thing,” the nephew would say…Charles had been with his father at the end. It happened the year following Charles’s release from the hospital. Madame de Lesseps and the rest of the family were also present and death came very quietly for the old adventurer. He died at La Chesnaye, in his second-fl-floor bedroom facing south, late in the afternoon on December 7, 1894, three weeks after his eighty-ninth birthday. The body was taken up to Paris by train for burial in Pere Lachaise Cemetery. There was no grand funeral procession; there were no crowds at the graveside services, only the family, a representative of the Societe de Geographic, one very old boyhood friend, and the directors of the Suez Canal Company. The Suez company paid all the funeral expenses. In the eulogies the word “Panama” was never mentioned.
In retrospect, the root causes of failure for de Lesseps was as follows:
The root sources of his downfall had been apparent since the Paris congress of 1879: the insistence on a sea-level passage through country he knew nothing about, the total disinterest in conceptions other than his own, the refusal to heed voices of experience, the disregard for all data that either conflicted with or that appeared to vitiate his own cherished vision; but none of these would have mattered greatly had it not been for that extraordinary ability to inspire the loyalty and affection of individual human beings at every social and intellectual level. From the technical standpoint the tragedy hung on the decision to cut through at sea level, to make another Suez Canal. Such a task at Panama was simply too overwhelming, if not impossible. The strategy did not suit the battleground. The handwriting had been on the wall a good three to four years before the money was gone. With the equipment then available, even a lock canal of modest dimensions would have been an enormously difficult and costly task. But had he and his technical advisers decided to make it a lock canal even as late as 1886. at the time of his second tour of the Isthmus, there probably would have been a French canal at Panama, death, disease, jungle, geology, costs, and de Lesseps’ advanced age all notwithstanding. The size of the locks being contemplated would have made the canal obsolete in relatively little time, but the canal would have been built. As for any possible complicity on his part in the less-than-noble practices that went on behind the scenes, there is no real mystery. He was neither innocent nor a simpleton. He was involved in bribing the press, in the Herz compact, indeed he was the one who crossed that line at the very beginning at the time of the first successful stock issue.
However, he laid a foundation and the needed infrastructure for the future work:
It can also be said, and with certainty, that nothing whatever would have been attempted or accomplished at Panama had it not been for Ferdinand de Lesseps, a point missing from the postmortems of the 1890’s, largely since the actual work itself had been either forgotten or was assumed to be utterly without value. In France, as Andre Siegfried observed, no one seemed to recall that Panama had had anything to do with the building of a canal. “In the end one almost believed that The many had hardly done anything at all in the isthmus . .” The money, declared The Times of London, was “as clean gone” as if it had been sunk in the North Atlantic. Nobody talked of the hospitals that had been built, the offices, storehouses, and dock facilities, the living quarters and machine shops; the maps, plans, surveys, and hydrographic data that had been assembled; the land that had been acquired or the Panama Railroad. And the fact that more than 50,000,000 cubic meters of earth and rock had been removed from the path of the canal, an amount equal to two-thirds of the total excavation at Suez, was virtually forgotten. All had been in vain was the prevailing, unchallenged attitude; the defeat of the old pioneer had been total.
It was then up to Roosevelt to provide his vision for the Panama canal:
Roosevelt, however, looked upon the canal quite differently than de Lesseps had, differently, in fact, than nearly everyone. It was very well for others to talk of it as the dream of Columbus, to call it a giant step in the march of civilization, or to picture as de Lesseps so often had its immeasurable value to world commerce. Roosevelt was promoting neither a commercial venture nor a universal utility. To him, first, last, and always, the canal was the vital-the indispensable—path to a global destiny for the United States of America. He had a vision of his country as the commanding power on two oceans, and these joined by a canal built, owned, operated, policed, and fortified by his country. The canal was to be the first step to American supremacy at sea.
His approach nevertheless was not without controversy:
And Roosevelt’s ultimate response to the Panama situation was to become the most disputed act of his career largely because it appeared to be an act of such violent impulse, an expression of what even many of his strongest admirers saw as an arrogant, nearly infantile insistence on having things his way and plunging ahead heedless of obstacles or consequences. To some observers there seemed something unpleasantly appropriate about the fact that his recreational passion at Sagamore Hill that summer of 1903 was the so-called point-to-point “obstacle walk,” the one rule, the only rule, being that the participant must go up and over, or through, every obstacle, never around it. He was invariably the leader on such escapades, followed by a band of excited children, perhaps a stout-hearted guest or two.
On the role of the US, in Panama’s independence:
Without the military presence of the United States—had there been no American gunboats standing off shore at Colon and Panama City— the Republic of Panama probably would not have lasted a week. Rear Admiral Henry Glass, for example, would conclude after a careful appraisal of the republic’s capacity to defend itself that at the very most six hundred men might have been furnished with adequate arms. Taft, on his first visit to Panama a year later, would describe its army as “not much larger than the army on an opera stage.” Colombia, had it had free access from the sea, could have landed several thousand veteran troops on both sides of the Isthmus, just as the conspirators themselves had appreciated from the beginning. As it was, a Colombian selves had appreciated from the beginning. As it was, a Colombian through the Darien wilderness, but ravaged by fever, they gave up and turned back.
This intervention in international affairs did not come without some long-term impact:
The damage done to American relations with Colombia, indeed with all of Latin America, was enormous, just as John Tyler Morgan had prophesied. As an American minister at Bogota, James T. Du Bois, would write in 1912, the breach worsened as time passed: By refusing to allow Colombia to uphold her sovereign rights over a territory where she had held dominion for eighty years, the friendship of nearly a century disappeared, the indignation of every Colombian, and millions of other Latin-Americans, was aroused and is still most intensely active. The confidence and trust in the justice and fairness of the United States, so long manifested, has completely vanished, and the maleficent influence of this condition is permeating public opinion in all Latin-American countries, a condition which, if remedial measures are not invoked, will work inestimable harm throughout the Western Hemisphere.
The handover of the project between the French and the US was uneventful:
In the morning of May 4, 1904, and to the Panamanians, who adored ceremony and celebration, who remembered Cathedral Plaza festooned with palm branches and French flags, who remembered parades and banquets and Ferdinand de Lesseps prancing on horseback, it was a terrible disappointment and most unbecoming to the occasion. At 7:30 A.M. Lieutenant Mark Brooke met with half a dozen American officials and a duly authorized representative of the Compagnie Nouvelle at the company headquarters on the plaza, the old Grand Hotel…The transaction occupied no more than a few minutes. Scarcely anyone other than those present was aware of the event. Lieutenant Brooke had not even thought to invite President Amador. Having shaken hands with the Panamanians and the French officials, the young officer raised the Stars and Stripes to the top of the hotel flagpole.
A key for success for the US was the progress they made in combating the tropical diseases:
But while a drastic reduction of all disease was considered essential in the long run, yellow fever had to be the immediate objective. To rid the Isthmus of yellow fever, Gorgas remarked, would be to rid it of fear.
Also their approach to this engineering challenge was a paradigm shift to that of the French:
In more abstract terms, in terms of pure professional problem solving, Stevens’ greatest contribution was the basic vision of the excavation of the canal as a large-scale problem in railroad freight. As conceived by Stevens, the Panama project was simply one of moving unprecedented tonnage—dirt—by railroad with the least possible wasted motion.
Despite it having been completed after his era, Roosevelt is still credited as being the one the one behind its establishment:
None of this made much difference, however. Nor ought there ever be any question as to the legitimacy of the Roosevelt stamp on the canal. His own emphatic position was that it would never have been built but for him and it was a position no one tried to dispute. To Goethals, “The real builder of the Panama Canal was Theodore Roosevelt.” It could not have been more Roosevelt’s triumph, Goethals wrote, “if he had personally lifted every shovelful of earth in its construction.
The advancement in hydraulics through the Panama Canal were equally as impressive:
The fundamental element to be reckoned with and utilized in the locks—the vital factor in the whole plan and all its structural, mechanical, and electrical components—was water. Water would lift and lower the ships. The buoyancy of water would make the tremendous lock gates, gates two to three times heavier than any ever built before. virtually weightless. The power of falling water at the Gatun spillway would generate the electrical current to run all the motors to operate would generate the electrical current to run all the motors to operate canal, in other words, would supply its own energy needs. No force would be required to raise or lower the level of water in the locks (and thus to raise or lower a ship in transit) other than the force of gravity. The water would simply flow into the locks from above—from Gatun Lake or Miraflores Lake—or flow out into the sea-level channels. The water would be admitted or released through giant tunnels, or culverts, running lengthwise within the center and side walls of the locks, culverts eighteen feet in diameter, as large nearly as the Pennsylvania Railroad tubes under the Hudson River.
The historical accomplishment was short-lived due to the start of World War I:
There were editorials hailing the victory of the canal builders, but the great crescendo of popular interest had passed; a new heroic effort commanded world attention. The triumph at Panama suddenly belonged to another and very different era.
On a concluding and inspirational note:
Once, in a paper addressed “To the Young Engineers Who Must Carry On,” Stevens said something with which all of these remarkable men would assuredly have agreed-for all that had happened to the world since Panama. His faith in the human intellect and its creative capacities remained undaunted, Stevens wrote. The great works had still to come. “I believe that we are but children picking up pebbles on the shore of the boundless ocean. . . .”
If you are interested to see the Panama Canal in action, here is an excellent time lapse video on it.
A highly recommended read, whether your interests are in the area of history, politics, engineering, medicine or project management.