The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914

The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914

by David McCullough

ISBN: 9780671244095

Publisher Simon & Schuster

Published in History/World, Professional & Technical/Engineering

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Book Description

Winner of the National Book Award for history, The Path Between the Seas tells the story of the men and women who fought against all odds to fulfill the 400-year-old dream of constructing an aquatic passageway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It is a story of astonishing engineering feats, tremendous medical accomplishments, political power plays, heroic successes, and tragic failures. Applying his remarkable gift for writing lucid, lively exposition, McCullough weaves the many strands of the momentous event into a comprehensive and captivating tale.


Sample Chapter


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 after all.

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 extraordinaire.

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.
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