There is a charm of adventure about this new quest... The
New York Times
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 Selfridge thought quite
fitting. That he and the Secretary were personally acquainted, that they
had in fact become pleasantly drunk together on one past occasion and
vowed eternal friendship as their carriage rolled through the dark
capital, were in no way implied. Nor is it important, except that
Selfridge, a serious and sober man on the whole, was to wonder for the
rest of his days what influence the evening may have had on the way
things turned out for him.
His own planning and preparations had already occupied several extremely
busy months. The letter was but the final official directive:
Navy Department Washington, January 10, 1870
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...
The Department has entrusted to you a duty connected with the greatest
enterprise of the present age; and upon your enterprise and your zeal
will depend whether your name is honorably identified with one of the
facts of the future...
No matter how many surveys have been made, or how accurate they may have
been, the people of this country will never be satisfied until every
point of the Isthmus is surveyed by some responsible authority, and by
properly equipped parties, such as will be under your command, working
on properly matured plans...
So on January 22, 1870, a clear, bright abnormally mild Saturday, the
Nipsic cast off at Brooklyn Navy Yard and commenced solemnly down
the East River. The Guard, under Commander Edward P. Lull,
followed four days later.
In all, the expedition comprised nearly a hundred regular officers and
men, two Navy doctors, five civilians from the Coast Survey (surveyors
and draftsmen), two civilian geologists, three telegraphers from the
Signal Corps, and a photographer, Timothy H. O'Sullivan, who had been
Mathew Brady's assistant during the war.
Stowed below on the Guard was the finest array of modern
instruments yet assembled for such an undertaking - engineers' transits,
spirit levels, gradienters, surveyors' compasses and chains, delicate
pocket aneroid barometers, mercurial mountain barometers, current meters
- all "for prosecuting the work vigorously and scientifically." (The
Stackpole transits, made by the New York firm of Stackpole & Sons,
had their telescope axis mounted in double cone bearings, for example,
which gave the instrument greater rigidity than older models, and the
introduction of a simplified horizontal graduation reading allowed for
faster readings and less chance of error.) There were rubber blankets
and breech-loading rifles for every man, whiskey, quinine, an extra 600
pairs of shoes, and 100 miles of telegraph wire. Stores "in such shape
as to be little liable to injury by exposure to rains" were sufficient
for four months: 7,000 pounds of bacon, 10,000 pounds of bread, 6,000
pounds of tomato soup, 30 gallons of beans, 2,500 pounds of coffee, 100
bottles of pepper, 600 pounds of canned butter.
The destination was the Darien wilderness on the Isthmus of Panama, more
than two thousand miles from Brooklyn, within ten degrees of the
equator, and, contrary to the mental picture most people had, east of
the 80th meridian - that is, east of Florida. They would land at
Caledonia Bay, about 150 miles east of the Panama Railroad. It was the
same point from which Balboa had begun his crossing in 1513, and where,
at the end of the seventeenth century, William Paterson, founder of the
Bank of England, had established the disastrous Scottish colony of New
Edinburgh, because Caledonia Bay (as he named it) was to be the future
"door of the seas." Harassed by the Spanish, decimated by disease, the
little settlement had lasted scarcely more than a year. Every trace of
it had long since vanished.
Darien was known to be the narrowest point anywhere on the Central
American isthmus, by which was meant the entire land bridge from lower
Mexico to the continent of South America and which included the Isthmus
of Tehuantepec, Guatemala, Honduras, British Honduras, El Salvador,
Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, the last of which was still a
province - indeed a most prized province - of Colombia. From Tehuantepec
to the Atrato River in Colombia, the natural, easternmost boundary of
Central America, was a distance of 1,350 miles as the crow flies, as far
as from New York to Dallas, and there were not simply a few, but many
points along that zigzagging land mass where, on the map at least, it
appeared a canal could be cut. A few years before, Admiral Charles H.
Davis had informed Congress that there were no fewer than nineteen
possible locations for a Central American ship canal. But at Darien the
distance from tidewater to tidewater on a straight line was known to be
less than forty miles.
Because of the particular configuration of the Isthmus of Panama - with
the land barrier running nearly horizontal between the oceans - the
expedition would be crossing down the map. The men would make
their way from the Caribbean on the north to the Pacific on the south,
just as Balboa had. (Hence Balboa's designation of the Pacific as the
Sea of the South had been perfectly logical.) The Panama Railroad, the
nearest sign of civilization on the map, also ran from north to south.
Its faint, spidery red line looked like something added by a left-handed
cartographer, with the starting point at Colón, on Limon Bay,
actually somewhat farther west than the finish point at Panama City, on
the Bay of Panama.
They were to measure the heights of mountains and the depths of rivers
and harbors. They were to gather botanical and geological specimens.
They were to take astronomical observations, report on the climate, and
observe the character of the Indians encountered. And they were to lose
as little time as possible, since the rainy season - the sickly season,
Secretary Robeson called it - would soon be upon them.
Six other expeditions were to follow. A Presidential commission, the
first Interoceanic Canal Commission, would be established to appraise
all resulting surveys and reports and to declare which was the chosen
path. The commission would include the chief of the Army Engineers, the
head of the Coast Survey, and the chief of the Bureau of Navigation.
Nothing even remotely so systematic, so elaborate or sensible, had ever
been attempted before.
But the Darien Expedition was the first, and the fact that it was to
Darien, one of the wildest, least-known corners of the entire world, was
a matter of extreme concern at the Navy Department. Sixteen years
earlier, in 1854, well within the memory of most Americans, an
expedition to Caledonia Bay had ended in a disaster that had the whole
country talking and left the Navy with a profound respect for the
terrors of a tropical wilderness. What had happened was this.
In 1850, Dr. Edward Cullen, an Irish physician and member of the Royal
Geographical Society, had announced the discovery of a way across Darien
by which he had walked from the Atlantic to the Pacific several times
and quite effortlessly. He had been careful to mark the trail, Cullen
said, and at no place had he found the elevation more than 150 feet
above sea level. It was the miracle route everyone had been searching
for and the story caused a sensation. A joint expedition to Darien was
organized by England, France, Colombia (then known as New Granada), and
the United States. But when the American ship, Cyane, reached
Caledonia Bay ahead of the others, Navy Lieutenant Isaac Strain and a
party of twenty-seven men started into the jungle without waiting,
taking provisions enough for only a few days and fully expecting to pick
up Cullen's trail. Balboa, when he started into this same jungle, had
gone with a force of 190 heavily armed Spaniards and several hundred
Indians, some of whom knew the way.
Strain was not seen again for forty-nine days. His troubles had begun
from the moment he set foot on shore. The Indians, impressed by the guns
of the Cyane, agreed to let his party pass, but refused to serve
as guides. Cullen's trail was nowhere to be found. Within days the
expedition was hopelessly lost. Food ran out; rifles became so rusted as
to be useless. Strain picked up a large river - the Chucunaque - which
he thought would take him to the Pacific but which, in reality, was
leading him on an endless looping course eastward, through the very
center of the Isthmus. When a band of Indians warned him that it was the
wrong way, he decided they were deliberately trying to mislead him.
Verging on starvation, his men devoured anything they could lay hands
on, including live toads and a variety of palm nut that burned the
enamel from their teeth and caused excruciating stomach cramps. The
smothering heat, the rains, the forbidding jungle twilight day after
day, were unlike anything any of them had ever experienced. Seven men
died; one other went temporarily out of his mind. That any survived was
due mainly to the discipline enforced by Strain and Strain's own
extraordinary fortitude. Leaving the others behind, he and three of the
strongest men had pushed on in search of help. When they at last
staggered into an Indian village near the Pacific side, Strain, who was
torn and bleeding and virtually naked, turned around and led a rescue
mission back to the others. A British doctor who examined the survivors
described them as the most "wretched set of human beings" he had ever
seen. "In nearly all, the intellect was in a slight degree affected, as
evinced by childish and silly remarks, although their memory, and the
recollection of their sufferings, were unimpaired...They were literally
living skeletons, covered with foul ulcers..." Strain's weight was
seventy-five pounds. A few years later, at Colón, having never
fully recovered, Strain died at age thirty-six.
Strain had found the mountains at Darien not less than one thousand
feet. From what he had seen, Darien was "utterly impracticable" as the
route for a canal. Just the same, others were not quite willing to
abandon the idea. While Strain's ordeal was taken as a fearful object
lesson at the Navy Department, there were some who were still willing to
accept the possibility that Edward Cullen had been telling the truth
Cullen, who had come out with one of the British ships but then made a
hasty retreat to Colón (and from there to New York) the moment it
appeared something was amiss, turned up later as a surgeon with the
British Army in the Crimean War. He also kept persistently to his story.
The expedition had been deplorably misled, he argued. Strain had had no
business proceeding without him or without his map, which by itself
would have made all the difference.
Admiral Davis, Commander Selfridge, and, most importantly, Admiral
Daniel Ammen, chief of the Bureau of Navigation, were among those who
considered the case still very much open. "It is to the isthmus of
Darien that we are first to look for the solution to the great problem,"
Davis had informed Congress. "The statements of Dr. Cullen had been so
severely criticized," Selfridge was to explain, "and so persistently
advocated by him, that I was inclined to put some faith in his
representations." To Admiral Ammen, who had pored over every recorded
detail of the episode, the critical clue was in Strain's own report.
Days after he had started inland, at a time when he should have been
well beyond earshot of Caledonia Bay, Strain had written in his journal
of hearing the evening gun on the Cyane, and this, Ammen
believed, was evidence of a low-lying valley running inland from the
bay; otherwise the sound would have been blocked by intervening hills.
Interest in the new expedition was considerable in numerous quarters.
The very times themselves seemed so immensely, so historically
favorable. If there was one word to characterize the spirit of the
moment, it was Confidence. Age-old blank spaces and mysteries were being
supplanted on all sides. The summer before, the one-armed John Wesley
Powell, in the interests of science, had led an expedition down the
Colorado River into the Grand Canyon. The great geological and
geographical surveys of the West had begun under the brilliant Clarence
King. Poking about in godforsaken corners of the western desert, Othniel
C. Marsh, of Yale, who was not yet forty and the country's first and
only professor of paleontology, had unearthed the fossils needed to
present the full evolution of the horse, the most dramatic demonstration
yet of Darwin's theory.
People were reading Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues under the
Sea. The Roeblings had begun their Brooklyn Bridge. Harvard had
installed a chemist as its president. In Pittsburgh, experiments were
being made with a new process developed by the English metallurgist
Bessemer. And within the preceding nine months alone two of the most
celebrated events of the century had occurred: the completion of the
Union Pacific Railroad and the opening of the Suez Canal. All at once
the planet had grown very much smaller. With the canal, the railroad,
the new iron-screw ocean steamers, it was possible - in theory anyway -
to travel around the world in a tenth of the time it would have taken a
decade earlier, as Jules Verne would illustrate in his next voyage
The feeling was that the revealed powers of science, "the vast strides
made in engineering and mechanical knowledge," as Commander Selfridge
would say, had brought mankind to a threshold. It was said that the
power generated by one steamship during a single Atlantic crossing would
be sufficient to raise from the Nile and set in place every stone of the
Great Pyramid. Men talked confidently of future systems of transport
that would bring all peoples into contact with one another, spread
knowledge, break down national divisions, and make a unified whole of
humanity. "The barrier is down!" a French prelate proclaimed on the
beaches of Port Said when Suez was opened. "One of the most formidable
enemies of mankind and of civilization, which is distance, loses in a
moment two thousand leagues of his empire. The two sides of the world
approach to greet one another...The history of the world has reached one
of its most glorious stages."
There really seemed no limit to what man might do. While an official
report of the kind Commander Selfridge was to submit might contain the
expression "under Providence" (in conjunction with certain
accomplishments), such terms seemed perfunctory.
Excerpted from "The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914" by David McCullough. Copyright © 1978 by David McCullough. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.