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

4.17 of 5 stars 4.17  ·  rating details  ·  8,439 ratings  ·  792 reviews
On December 31, 1999, after nearly a century of rule, the United States officially ceded ownership of the Panama Canal to the nation of Panama. That nation did not exist when, in the mid-19th century, Europeans first began to explore the possibilities of creating a link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the narrow but mountainous isthmus; Panama was then a re ...more
Hardcover, 697 pages
Published June 1st 2004 by Simon & Schuster (first published 1977)
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My uncle recommended it. I had barely started it when we left on a cruise of the Panama Canal, sailing from LA. This book is a detailed, non-fiction account of France's selection of the canal site in Central America, the politics, diseases, intrigues, and construction of locks and "Big Dig".

I forgot all about the cruise ship activities and buried myself in this book. It awoke the "inner engineer" in me that I didn't know I had. I read it desperately night and day, hoping to finish before reachi
Christopher Carbone
Something very strange happens about 30% through "Path Between the Seas." For the first 1/3 of the book, the reader must trudge through pedantic descriptions of very trivial matters and a hodgepodge of boring discussions on all things nautical. Then, all of a sudden McCullough does something amazing: he reminds you that people- everyday ordinary people -really cared about the Panama Canal, what it could do and what it would mean. And when it nearly failed, even though we are talking about people ...more
Dave Gaston
An epic historical account of the building of the Panama Canal. One of man's largest turn-of-the-century engineering and medical feats. The story spans 30 years including both the French failure and Roosevelt’s victory. Critical to US Naval Superiority. Pivotal in the war on Yellow Fever and Miliaria. A great, great story told by a master. Anything and everything written by David McCullough is exceptional. There are few scenes within this multi-tiered masterpiece that are still haunting. For exa ...more
Apr 02, 2008 Brian rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: U.S. history buffs
This book tells the complete story of the building of the Panama Canal, beginning with the French efforts from 1870 to about 1889, and then continuing with the U.S. completion from 1902 to 1914. I found the parts describing the actual building of the canal (by both the French and the U.S.) to be the most interesting parts of the book. I was much less interested in the political machinations dealing with the U.S. - Columbia negotiations and the U.S. assistance in the creation of the Republic of P ...more

“The United States had a mandate from civilization to build the canal, he [Theodore Roosevelt] told Congress on January 4, 1904…”—page 387

Reading very much like an eighth-grade textbook— pedantically packed with a densely detailed, confusing, and virtually meaningless litany of facts, figures, names and dates—especially the first two-thirds of David McCullough’s behemoth, THE PATH BETWEEN THE SEAS: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914 presents a serious chal
Probably no one writes more complete – and exhaustive – histories than David McCullough. In “The Path Between the Seas,” one of his earlier works (1977), McCullough guides you through the political, financial, and engineering intricacies of building the Panama Canal, a modern wonder of the world. It’s a fascinating read, especially if you enjoy history, politics and geography. The opening of the canal – and control – allowed the United States to maintain a two-ocean navy, and provide security fo ...more
It takes a lot of slogging through statistics to read this book, which is what you expect from David McCollough. At times the story gets mired in a lot of detail that I'll never remember. However, I did enjoy the book and what I learned that I think I'll keep. My biggest criticism is the lack of maps. What I learned:

1. The French were the first to attempt a canal across the isthmus in Central America. This was due to the unflagging zeal of Ferdinand de Lesseps, who was instrumental in the buildi
McCullough, David. THE PATH BETWEEN THE SEAS: The Creation of the Panama Canal – 1870-1914. (1977). ****.
Deemed a popular history, this immense study is more of a scholarly text. The book won the National Book Award for history in 1977 and was a best seller. McCullough, as usual, has done his research and has provided the history of the canal from its inception in the late nineteenth century by the French to its final completion by the Americans in 1914, at about the time of the start of WW I.
I read this out loud to Dan. I really didn't think we'd finish before we left for Panama, but we did it! And this book is loooong. I really enjoyed it though. This is the first McCullough book I've read and I'm incredibly impressed with the amount of research he puts into his writing and loved all the details. It made seeing the Canal so much more impressive. I only wish McCullough would have gone into a little more depth with the actual engineering of the canal, but the politics behind the proj ...more
David McCullough is one of my favorite authors, however, a book on the Panama Canal wasn't something I was really interested in until I found the book some years later at a used book sale and decided to give it a try. Like many Americans my only knowledge of the Panama Canal was what I read in the textbooks--the United States built the Canal after curing yellow fever. That is such an oversimplified viewpoint that it is almost untrue. It was pretty surprising to find out that the French had origi ...more
A couple of weeks ago, I was discussing my recent string of books chronicling enormous engineering projects (“The Great Bridge,” the World’s Fair part of “The Devil in the White City” and now “The Path Between the Seas”) with my friend Paul, and as I relayed the sacrifices made and the years dedicated by the men behind these works, Paul remarked, “Dude, can you imagine dedicating your life to building a f*cking bridge?” On many levels, this insight is full of wisdom. The engineers who undertook ...more
John Valesano
This was a very interesting and informative book on the dream of connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans with the Panama Canal. The book starts with the involvement of the famous French designer and construction manager of the Suez Canal and France's eventual failure, and finishes with the US completing the job. It contains all the engineering difficulties, political intrgue, medical discoveries, labor relations management , and construction management challenges you could ask for. With the c ...more
I read this book while I was on a cruise from Houston to Seattle on the NCL Jewel, so I got to see the Big Ditch up close and in live-living-color...awesome experience! It was amazing that I went through the same locks that have been in operation since 1914 and the same locks that my Dad passed through on the Battleship Iowa during WWII from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean. The book tells the story of the men and women who fought against overwhelming odds to construct a passageway between the ...more
The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 is a masterful recreation of the history of the planning, building, and operating of the Panama Canal. There was limited interest in Panama, then the northern province of Columbia, until gold was discovered in California after the Mexican War. As prospectors by the thousands scrambled to find the quickest way to get to California, a railroad was built across the isthmus of Panama whose stock quickly became the highest priced ...more
The building of the Panama Canal is arguably one of the greatest feats of engineering the world has ever seen. As well as capping off an age of mechanical pride/hubris (steampunkers take note), it brought down a French government, utterly shifted the balance of power in South and Central America, changed the way we handle tropical diseases, and then at the moment of success, was completely overshadowed by the beginning of World War I.

McCullough does an amazing job of laying out all the numerous
Ann Evans
Since we were planning to transit the Canal this spring, this book was obviously a "must read." I'm not sure if the voluminous amount of material would be as interesting to someone who was not planning to actually go there.

The highlights of the book? The timing of planning the Canal was at an era in history when new advances were possible. The industrial revolution made the monumental task of excavation possible. And, one the Americans took over the project from the French, medical research was
This is such a great story that the only negative I can find is the level of detail. Some may love it for the accuracy and completeness but it was a bit much for me. I'd find myself skimming passages that were like : he said, then he said, then they responded, then so-and-so replied...... Then later I'd realize I'd missed something important and should have paid more attention.
It was the endless politics that I felt could have been summarized, so if you love this politicking, this book will be
Wendy Unsworth
Exhaustive and exhausting!
I had wanted to read this book for some time having visited Panama and seen the mighty canal achievement for myself. The book is a challenge; long and densely packed with detail, some more interesting to me than others. At times I wanted the rambling political descriptions to be over. However I was fascinated by the in-depth history of the project in terms of medicine and the grave impact disease had on the whole enterprise. Panama is a place of stark contrasts with it
Webster Bull
I am writing a short biography of an American businessman who worked in Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador from 1890 to 1914, so I picked up this history of the building of the Panama Canal for some local color. I got much more than that. McCullough (Truman, John Adams) weaves a true tapestry of the times, from the Gilded Age to the very month when World War I began, August 1914.

The French began the Panama Canal, led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the flamboyant dreamer who had only just completed the Sue
Details of death from disease and other signs of criminal ineptitude are giving me nightmares. French, French, please go away. The "First Frenchman" Ferdinand de Lesseps was the worst kind of charlatan, buying political influence and the media and financially ruining his fellow Frenchmen.

Later: Well, the French did eventually go away, but, amazingly, as late as 1904, 15 or so years after the French had abandoned the scheme for a sea-level canal, some Americans continued in the froggy delusion th
Lisa (Harmonybites)
Oct 05, 2012 Lisa (Harmonybites) rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: History Lovers
David McCullough, as the subtitle spells out, here tells of the "creation of the Panama Canal," a tale spanning the first surveys in 1870 a few years after the American Civil War to the opening in 1914 just before the first World War. The tale had world dimensions I was unaware of before reading the book. As McCullough put it in his Preface: Because of the Panama Canal one nation, France, was rocked to its foundations. Another, Colombia, lost its most prized possession, the Isthmus of Panama. Ni ...more
Barksdale Penick
I like reading history and will remember much about this book. The French raising the most money ever by a private company and proceeding to start digging without ever really developing a comprehensive plan. They kept on until the money was all gone. The machinations in the US Senate that somehow resulted in the canal being built in Panama rather than Nicaragua) and as a lock canal (rather than a sea level canal, which was probably impossible). I think the Senate made the right but it sure makes ...more
"The Path Between the Seas", by David McCullough was a classic good book. The construction of the Panama Canal is always a very fasinating topic with its failure and then success and McCullough relived it in his book. The story starts with powerful countries rushing to figure out a plan for a interoceanic passage way through Central America, complete it, and make history. The French take the first wack at it, and go for a canal through the Isthmus of Panama. They put Ferdinand de Lesseps at the ...more
Tim Jin
I can understand why "The Path Between the Seas", about the Panama Canal is getting mix reviews from other listeners. I'm only the fourth person to write a review on this audiobook and the audio was published just a few years ago. The print version was published over 30 years ago, but the information is not outdated because the Panama Canal is a part of the Earth that was man made.

If you are not familiar with David McCullough, you will have a rough time getting through any of his books because
As with many McCullough books, it is wider than it is deep and therefore a good primer on a subject. Granted, the book was written and published prior to the canal's transfer back to Panama, but that's neither here nor there. The first half of the book got about waist-deep in the French canal debate and failure, while the second picked up with the U.S. purchase and construction. Unfortunately, the second half in particular felt almost rushed. McCullough does a good job of charting the broad hist ...more
This book made me really appreciate hard labor. I kept my mind's eye on the laborers behind the scenes when all the glory-hogs were slapping each other on the back about their accomplishment. It was a wonderfully written book that allowed that understory to be seen and appreciated, even if there was woefully little material to research to back up any facts. Still, the fact of the canal itself stands as a huge testament to those unskilled laborers. David McCullough is an amazing story-teller.
This is a mostly fascinating book about the building of the Panama Canal. I say mostly because even though I learned a lot (who knew the French started building the canal 40 years earlier?), I felt that (even though this was abridged), he spent too much time on French politics and finances and not enough on the finishing of the canal. McCullough is sometimes too scholarly, t too detailed for me, I loved the details about fighting Yellow Fever and the construction of this wonder of the world. Thi ...more
Very large and also quite tome-ish, though the book was not hard at all to get through. He has wonderful mastery of the details and knows how to present the human drama in the midst of all of the historical mish mash. Its a fascinating story about the canal that starts with the initial extremely difficult explorations of Panama. The French are the first to undertake the project though ultimately it shifts into American hands. The undertaking was the largest of its kind to that date in history. T ...more
Jennifer Stringer
Got it as a free audio book, so I've been listening to it on my commute. With all the engineering involved, it deserves to be read if looking for full comprehension. I don't know if the printed version includes maps and photographs, but those would definitely help. Still, what an amazing undertaking. I'll add it to my list a places to see one day.
Nan Williams
Jan 27, 2013 Nan Williams is currently reading it
Will I ever finish this book? It goes over and over and over the same information page after page. And then it jumps 20 years hence or 20 years previous and recounts conversations or letters or dialogue in the most miniscule fashion. Maybe this was the way you wrote history in the early 70s. I don't remember, but it certainly seems never-ending. I'm almost halfway through and we're not really started yet. However, on the plus side, I've learned what a world wide enterprise this was and how diffi ...more
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David McCullough has been widely acclaimed as a “master of the art of narrative history,” “a matchless writer.” He is twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize, twice winner of the National Book Award, and has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.

(update: His most recent book is The Wright Brothers, published on May 5th 2015 by Simon & Schuster.)

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“To the majority of those on the job his presence had been magical. Years afterward, the wife of one of the steam-shovel engineers, Mrs. Rose van Hardevald, would recall, "We saw him...on the end of the train. Jan got small flags for the children, and told us about when the train would pass...Mr. Roosevelt flashed us one of his well-known toothy smiles and waved his hat at the children..." In an instant, she said, she understood her husband's faith in the man. "And I was more certain than ever that we ourselves would not leave until it [the canal] was finished." Two years before, they had been living in Wyoming on a lonely stop on the Union Pacific. When her husband heard of the work at Panama, he had immediately wanted to go, because, he told her, "With Teddy Roosevelt, anything is possible." At the time neither of them had known quite where Panama was located.” 5 likes
“patience which I assure you requires more force of character than does action.” 1 likes
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