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

4.20  ·  Rating details ·  17,619 ratings  ·  1,546 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, 698 pages
Published June 1st 2004 by Simon Schuster (first published June 1st 1977)
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Wynne There are two maps. One is the Canal as the French dealt with it, the other as of 1914.

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Apr 13, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Oct 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
“Ideas too have their period of extrinsic incubation, and particularly if they run contrary to what has always seemed common sense.”

Fact is almost always more interesting than fiction, and history is full of a lot of interesting facts. David McCullough has proved this time and time again in his books. “The Path Between the Seas” is one of his best examples. The history of the building of the Panama Canal is one I knew nothing about and it is one hugely fascinating story. The 44 year span between
David Putnam
Aug 03, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a wonderful book. I read this book ahead of a cruise my wife and I took through the Panama Canal and was stunned at the massive under taking to accomplish this structure. This is a part of history I knew nothing about. How France went bankrupt trying to finish it, the huge numbers of people who died from yellow fever and the theories at the time of why. Fascinating.
At one point the author gives a list of what one surveying expedition took on the trip. For me the list is fascinating all o
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
David Eppenstein
Jan 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is a tough book to rate. If you are a history nerd like myself then this book probably deserves the 4 stars that I have given it. However, if you are a more normal person and reader then this book would probably get three, maybe even two stars, because it can easily be mind-numbingly boring. The reason for this difference of opinion is almost certainly the length and the depth of detail. The book is 617 pages of text and I have to admit that 150-200 pages could probably have been chopped to ...more
Roy Lotz
Aug 09, 2021 rated it really liked it
Here is yet another masterful book by David McCullough. To be honest, I knew close to nothing about the Panama Canal before starting, nor was I particularly interested in it. But this book forms a kind of trilogy with McCullough’s books on the Brooklyn Bridge and the Wright Brothers—which I had greatly enjoyed—so I felt compelled to pick it up.

Even though McCullough has 600 pages, he is quite pressed for space and time, as he has to tell the story both of the French’s failed venture and the Am
Bob Newman
Dig This!!

Back in 2015 I went to Panama and saw the canal. I am a traveler that prefers nature and human contact (not to mention food, drink and music) to technology, so I admit to being somewhat underwhelmed by the sights of the canal. Yeah wow, far out, pretty neat, etc. Wrong!! After reading this giant work on the building of the canal, I wish I had read its history before I went.

We start reading about the first, French effort to build the canal. Why did they choose Panama when other “path
Sep 14, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
4.5 Stars for The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 (audiobook) by David McCullough read by Edward Herrmann.

This was really interesting. I thought I knew a lot about the project, but there was many things that I learned. Like, it came really close to being built in another Central American country. I had no idea that there was a plan B for where it could be built.

The author does a great job of explaining everything that went into the planning and construction b
Oct 11, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, library
My whole life is a lie! My favorite palindrome is BOGUS. I mean, sure, it's still a palindrome, but it's just not true!



There wasn't "a" man, there wasn't even "a" plan. There were like, a dozen men, all with various plans! It was almost built in Nicaragua! The one guy with a decent plan from the beginning was ignored and his plan sat unnoticed in a file somewhere, while the rest of them ran around, killing thousands of worke
Oct 11, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: five-stars
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
Nick Borrelli
Mar 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
You wouldn't think that a book detailing the creation of the Panama Canal would be an exciting and quick read. Well, you'd be wrong! I love David McCullough, I think he is flat-out the best biographer out there as well as being one hell of a history author. 1776 is my favorite book about the American revolution. The Path Between the Seas had me so interested in geology, Central American politics, jungle wildlife, topography, stuff that I would never have thought I would be interested in. It's no ...more
Colleen Browne
Nov 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
I wasn't sure whether to award 4 or 5 stars to this book until I realized that my withholding a star had more to do with me than the book. In his typically lucid prose, McCullough wrote a complete history of the building of the Canal. The research was impeccable; the book deserves all the accolades it received. From the disastrous French attempt at building it to the American struggles and finally success, the reader is given the full story. The egos involved always meant that there would be con ...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
Jan 14, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, history
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
J.M. Hushour
Nov 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
As a once-aspiring academic, I likely thought such works of popular history such as these were merely things to sniff at, something for the public palate. Now as a disparager and dismayer of all things academic, I see McCullough's work as some of the finest history-writing you're likely to encounter. Why? Because it is fun to read and, most especially, easy to read. Popular works of history such as this do much to repair the damage that overly analytical, PoMo academistry has wrought on the diff ...more
Apr 02, 2008 rated it liked it
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
Erik Graff
Jun 05, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Americans
Recommended to Erik by: no one
Shelves: history
David McCullough is a safe bet for popular history. He writes well, ambling along from the main thread of his story--here, the building of the Panama Canal--to include illuminating historical background and biographies of the principals.

The story of the canal is at once impressive, from the engineering standpoint, and depressing, as one of the many sordid chapters of US imperialism. McCullough details how we "engineered" the creation of a puppet Panamanian state along with a canal in his account
May 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
McCullough book about the Panama Canal shows the hubris of De Lesspes who was the brilliant builder of the Suez Canal through sand but failed miserably in Panama as he had never even been to Panama and thought you could build a canal in a jungle.
The hardships endured by the people who did finally build the can were unbelievable with malaria, rock slides and oppressive heat.
Sep 15, 2018 rated it really liked it
While I did not enjoy this one q-u-i-t-e as much as David McCullough's TRUMAN, I still enjoyed it very much. A glorious book about one of the most difficult jobs this country has ever undertaken -- building the "trans-Isthmus" canal in the early Twentieth Century. See how the French company that had built the Suez Canal was a shoe-in for this one but just wasn't up to the task -- and how American muscle (Bucyrus steam-shovels, for example), planning and problem-solving (particularly in the matte ...more
Michael Burnam-Fink
Jan 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2019, history
David McCullough ably captures the grand spirit of the age in this book about the Panama canal. For centuries, men had dreamed of a canal through the American isthmus, which would elimate the fraught passage around Cape Horn, opening up the riches of the Far East and the Pacific Coast to traditional Atlantic powers.

The first man to seriously attempt a canal across the isthmus was Ferdinand de Lessup, builder of the Suez Canal and an entrepreneur par excellence. In the wake of the bitter defeat o
May 26, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
3.5 stars rounded down.

I found this book at the intersection of two interests; Pulitzer-prize winning authors (McCullough won two for biographies of Truman and John Adams) and audiobooks narrated by Grover Gardner. Turns out Nelson Runger was the narrator and he was very good, although I had to listen at 1.3x speed as anything slower seemed ridiculously slow.

This was a fascinating and informative book and if it sounds like something you'd enjoy, you probably would enjoy it! For me personally s
May 27, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Jan 28, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Ce Ce
Feb 29, 2016 rated it it was amazing
A riveting window into another era...French first and then American. An audacious dream and a stunning feat. Personalities, politics, science...timing. Tragedy, failures and stupendous success.

We will be visiting the Panama Canal next month. It will be a far richer experience having read this beautifully written history.
Jul 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
An extremely detailed account of how the Panama Canal was built. Since I have visited the Canal a number of times, I figured it was time to learn more about it and I'm glad I did. ...more
Alejandro Maza
Feb 17, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, read-2021
One of the best management books I've read ...more
Dawn Michelle
My brain is fried. What an amazing, huge, history lesson that you never got in school, book. WOW. I do not even know how to review this.

Just know this; this is worth reading [listening to]. You will learn things you never ever knew. And you will never look at the Panama Canal [or as I like to call it "I have no idea how this canal got built"] the same again. And ALL you THINK you know about it, is probably incorrect. I know I was schooled [and therefore both my bestie and my mom were schooled]
John Devlin
Jun 23, 2021 rated it liked it
A fluent and seemingly authoritative account of everything that went into the building of the Panama Canal.

I’d thought that this subject would make a great epic mini series and reading about the engineering, the personalities, the societies black and white has not dissuaded me.
Michael Huang
Jan 31, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I had reservations about 700-page tomes. Couldn’t you write it in 300 pages? But in McCullough’s defense, the Panama Canal story is a hell of story. The Panama Canal is not just any canal. There is a reason why it’s one of the 7 wonders of the modern world. For the 80km or so distance that a ship passes from Pacific to Atlantic (Caribbean), the amount of digging needed could have made a canal 55ft wide and as long as the US is wide.

Hot on the heel of success of the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Less
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David McCullough is a Yale-educated, two-time recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize (Truman; John Adams) and the National Book Award (The Path Between the Seas; Mornings on Horseback). His many other highly-acclaimed works of historical non-fiction include The Greater Journey, 1776, Brave Companions, The Great Bridge, The Wright Brothers, and The Johnstown Flood. He has been honored with the Nation ...more

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