The Path Between the Seas: how the Panama Canal was constructed


The classic, National Book Award-winning 1977 historical narrative by David McCullough on the Panama Canal’s construction called the Path Between the Seas was perfect reading material leading into, during and after my 10-day trip to the Central American country.

In large scale projects, preparing to do the work is often more important than doing the work. That was likely the biggest lesson I drew from the book, which chronicled a failed attempt by a consortium of French government and business leaders to build a sea-level canal and then a painful but ultimately successful American attempt that used locks and came at the heels of advancements in understanding how to deal with yellow fever.

I also drastically underestimated the magnitude the Panama Canal represented as an engineering and public health campaign. My previous ignorance to this period of human history is embarrassing.

As I often do when I read a book of relevance to leadership and history, I share my notes here.

  • p122: Drexel Morgan and Company helped issue stock for Panama Canal French attempt.
  • p 125: ‘pioneer capitalism’ and payment of the newspapers to get the right kind of coverage.
  • Why did French canal fail? The focus on a sea-level canal inspired by pride in Suez, which too few accepted was far easier to complete; a dry, talented but very rigid French engineering class that lacked the interest in improvisation that American engineers were known, and often critiqued, for having; and the sheer persuasion of a stubborn and misguided Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had not profited as he reinvested his money into the canal
  • p 132: great passage on Panama’s rainy season, which was unlike nothing French and American engineers had known
  • Yellow fever encouraged Louisiana purchase (141)
  • p 143: mosquito nets were ridiculed, instead to fight malaria, doctors said to try keeping bad air out
  • p. 156 French Panama dredges were built in Philadelphia
  • 1/10th of the project was done by French (p 181)
  • (198) Like something you might expect on Twitter today, someone falsely claimed de Lesseps was dead on the day the last bond was sent out and drove stock down. His shareholder meetings sound like he’s Steve jobs
  • (p. 207) Panama Canal fraud by French leaders was found out because anti-Semite journalist investigation (against capitalism)
  • (p 290) “An active go between will easily think he is the author of the messages he has to carry.”
  • (p 336) bias against “corrupt” Latin America fueled Columbia misunderstanding for wanting the French to pay for breaking its contract with bogota
  • P356: banau varilla said NYC Waldorf Astoria deserved to be the “cradle of the panama revolution”
  • (P413) Walter Reed, after whom the U.S. military hospital is named, led the breakthrough in understanding yellow fever.
  • (P417) Men who achieve greatness do not work more complexly, they work more simply
  • P418: the different kind of Mosquitos: yellow fever are house bred and were eradicated by getting rid of standing water. Malaria was different and more challenging.
  • P420 timing for Americans was so spectacular: at a time of science advancement to prepare the worksites for safer work void of the same kind of disease.
  • P449: the French ignored mosquito efforts, focused on the Panama Canal building but the malaria and yellow fevor were big obstacles
  • P466: Panama was the most costly, concentrated health campaign in modern history.
  • P470: it was a railroad problem first (after health)… So he hired a ton of railroad guys. –Earlier mention of taking three minutes to plan strategy if you only have 5 minutes to do something (BIG THEME)
  • P471: 24k men working from 97 countries
  • P472: Jim Crow railroad: gold and silver payment created divide, not black and white by race necessarily.
  • 473: good economy and bad yellow fever press made it hard to recruit
  • P 479: magnitude, not miracles
  • P488: Pittsburgh steel made the steel panama locks
  • P492: nov 6 1906 Roosevelt went to panama, first sitting president to make diplomatic trip.
  • (493) Roosevelt insisted on visiting panama at the height of the rainy season and seeing the quarters of black workers.
  • P508: Stevens leaves and replaced by army men (duty), and he never gets mentioned in Roosevelt’s biography
  • P537: company newsletter started productivity rivalries … Goethals, who took over for Stevens, spent Sundays hearing from any of his 40k men
  • P554: Goethals says after huge slide: “hell, dig it out again”
  • P556: tourists came to see the construction and development of American towns for workers (15k visitors in 1911, 20k in 1912, says a few pages earlier)
  • P557: classist and socialist
  • P560: staff perks, particularly for married to encourage roots and stability.
  • P574: no original record of black work force
  • P582: though different for nonwhite, overall still death rate by end of construction was lower than for anywhere in the United States
  • P586: sounds like gentrification
  • P595: canal supplied its own energy through water; could raise or lower a ship in 15 minutes
  • P596: lower a ship needed enough water for a major city’s daily water supply
  • P598: difference with French canal described
  • P599: General Electric Did major work like Pittsburgh and Wheeling West Virginia
  • P604: beauty in simplicity …finished a year early
  • P609: canal opened as world war began, which slowed initial use but then it exploded
  • P610: big numbers overall
  • P614: canal returned to “undiscovered country”

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