A friend recommended the book, The Path Between The Seas, by David McCullough, and I am thankful he did. The book is as much about the challenges associated with building the Panama canal, first by the French and later by the US, as is it a biography of the leaders needed to complete the monumental project. The initial tale describes the challenges that the French, the original diggers of the canal, encountered and ultimately led to their downfall. Similar to many complex problems, many contributing factors combine to limit progress and find solutions. This was the case in the French’s attempt but ultimately a key factor leading to France’s demise and abandonment of the canal project was De Lesseps’, the lead developer of the Panama Canal (and the successful developer of the Suez), inept leadership skills due to an inability to listen to those on his team. Conversely, the US building of the canal would likely not have happened had it not been for Teddy Roosevelt’s strong leadership and his manipulative steps taken to enable the Republic of Panama to formally separate from Colombia. Even for the US team, the project was extremely challenging and arduous spanning 12 years. Two of the three Chief Engineers, Stevens and Goethal, had to employ strategies to build morale and motivate the work force, while they battled harsh conditions, to ultimately get the work done.
There are times the book gets mired in the technical details of the building of the canal, but it includes many interesting tidbits:
- The US conducted extensive surveys of Nicaragua evaluating it as a potential site for the canal and almost went to war with Britain over the rights to Nicaragua land for the potential site.
- The canal opened six months early. A confirmation of the leadership and dedication of the those working on the canal.
- The US canal project was a clean project unlike when the French were attempting to build the canal. There is no evidence that corruption or even excessive profits were made by companies working on the canal. (One of these companies happened to be an unknown (at the time) and small engineering firm from upstate New York, General Electric)
- Stevens, one of the Chief Engineers that was instrumental in the building of the canal, has a pass named after him in the Pacific Northwest, Stevens Pass. Before working on the canal, he worked for the railroad and found this key pass for train travel in Washington state.
- Between 1904 and 1913, approximately 5,600 workers died due to disease or accidents.Many of these earlier deaths had been caused by yellow fever and malaria. Dr. Gorgas, who would later go on to be US Surgeon General, was relentless in his pursuit of eradicating yellow fever and malaria and is no small reason why the project was ultimately a success.
The Panama Canal is one of the world’s most amazing engineering feats and a true testament to American ingenuity. Visiting the canal was a special experience and reading this book in parallel with the visit made it that much more interesting.