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Dramatic, Memorable, Well Written
am 11. Juli 2000
David McCollough is a heck of a writer -- a fact I already knew from reading his wonderful biography Truman. His skill does justice to an epic story of recent times: the building of the Panama Canal.
This big book is necessary to tell a big tale. The effort to build the Path Between the Seas across the isthmus of Panama lasted from the 1870's through 1914. In a nutshell, first the French tried and failed to build a sea level crossing at Panama. This was in pursuit of a vision held by many national leaders in order to cut thousands of miles from the journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans. The Americans picked up where the French left off, and after a decade succeeded in creating a crossing using locks and a man-made lake.
What McCollough does so well is flesh out the above nutshell. It is a tale that would not be believed if written as fiction. The level of incompetence, mis and mal feasance, wonderously peculiar personalities, engineering failures and brilliance, vision and size astound the reader and underscore how that age relied more upon enthusiasm, idealism and optimism in the pursuit of grand efforts than does our careful and measured era.
The French followed the builder of the Suez canal into the jungles of Panama. Tens of thousands of French families invested their life savings in the stock of a company that had no plans for the actual canal, very little good data of conditions on the isthmus and no idea of the amount of earth required to be removed or a budget that would pay for the grand adventure. After spending the 1870's and 1880's mired in the jungle, losing tens of thousands (mostly black Carribean workers -- the people who really built the canal) to disease and accident, raising increasingly more expensive capital in desperate gambels to stay afloat, the French effort collapsed. Shame, ignomity and jail awaited some of the project leaders. Their effort will amaze the reader -- that such an ill-conceived (that's too much of a compliment it wasn't even conceived at all beyond "we'll dig it -- viva la France!") undertaking could consume much of the savings of middle class France reminds one of how susceptable people can be to charltons and swindlers.
Into the breach stepped Teddy Roosevelt. This story once again displays the Presidents immense force of personality, drive and integrity. Evidence strongly suggests he made a revolution in Panama to win that then Columbian provence away from a country that could not come to terms with the United States on aquiring the rights to dig the canal. He then ensured, through the use of highly skilled and able administrators, that the organization, logistics, financing and authority existed to make what for years stood as the world's largest construction effort. Great credit for the actual building goes to several engineers and their staff -- many US army engineers. The success also greatly rested on Col. Gorgas and his partially successful efforts to battle disease: yellow feavor, maleria and a host of others that had cost upwards of 200 of every thousand the French employed a generation earlier.
McCollough brings scores of fascinating personalites to light. He tells of the financial and and great political battles that attended all of the stages of the canal effort. The engineering and workings of the canal are simply and clearly laid out. The important efforts to improve sanitation and fight the mosquito borne diseases are succintly explained. All of these elements are rendered interesting and tightly woven in this very good book.