Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Book review: The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough

Quick summary: Bad management. Bad politicians. Good engineers.
David McCullough, author of the famous biography on John Adams, is an amazing writer. He does a fantastic job of researching his subject and then tells the story in a mesmerizing way.

In The Path Between the Seas, Mr. McCullough breaks the story of the building of the Panama Canal into three stages. He starts with the first attempt, by the French. This ended in disaster. In the second stage of the story, America helped the Panamanians revolt against Columbia. Then McCullough concludes with the details of how the canal was finally built.

Reading about the French attempt reminded me of the manager from the Dilbert comic strip. So many decisions were made by people who had little expertise or knowledge. Estimates for the cost were almost pulled out of the air. Then sometimes these estimates would be divided in half, just because.

In 1879, a vote was taken to authorize the expenditures of funds to build a sea level canal, which would prove nearly impossible. Of the 74 who voted yes, only 19 were engineers and only one of them had been to Panama. It was not surprising that the French spent so much money and accomplished so little.

After the French fiasco, the project was dropped for a while. Then the Americans took up the challenge. I was surprised to learn that it was backing the Panamanian revolt that turned much of Latin America against the United States. Since the founding of the United States of America in the late 1700s, people to the south had looked to the US as an example in their struggles against European powers.

But President Theodore Roosevelt wanted a canal. He was upset that the Columbian government was slow to give him what he wanted. So this rough rider hinted to the Panamanians that they would be protected if they revolted. They revolted and President Roosevelt sent in the troops. Latin America came to distrust the big power to the north that would more and more would push its nose into their affairs.

In 1904, the US started building their attempt at a sea level canal. The design included a canal with a series of locks and a lake in the middle. This would save a huge amount of effort. John Stevens was put in charge. As a long time railroad man, he recognized the problem wasn’t so much digging a ditch problem, but a transportation problem of moving all the dirt. He spent time laying the foundation for moving the dirt. He put down heavier rails and placed orders for over a hundred locomotives with thousands of cars. Once this system was in place, the sea level canal become a reality.

This is a great book to read. I was fascinated to learn more about life in Panama and the world a hundred years ago. David McCullough makes the story of the canal a real page turner.

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