Monday, October 18, 2010

Path Between the Seas

The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914, By David McCullough

Interesting book for a couple unique reasons beyond the fact that it is a very well written book, first, I read the book just preceding and during our 14 day cruise that included passage through the canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and secondly, because it was the first book that I read on the newest Amazon Kindle. There will be other blogs on those two elements for any that are interested.

The book covers the sweep of the history of the dream to span both the Suez and Panama barriers to global trade that went back to the time of Columbus. Also covered in sometimes maybe too much detail is Ferdinand de Lesseps, the Frenchman who was seen as the force behind the successful completion of the Suez Canal, and who became the primary driver of the ill fated French attempt at Panama. As in all great human stories, personalities play an often greater role than the technical and physical “facts”, and the canal is certainly not an exception.

What de Lesseps had was a vision, and a charm and force of personality to infect others with that vision, which he did for thousands of Frenchmen, costing many many thousands their fortunes, and some 22 thousand their lives in the jungles of Panama. His vision was for a sea level canal as was created at Suez, and he completely ignored the opinion of a well known (but not much liked) French engineer, Godin deLepinay, that the “obvious solution was” an “artificial Nicaragua”.

Nicaragua was the other competing route where the much longer 181 miles (vs 50 at Panama) would be shortened by large lakes and the use of rivers that were at least partially navigable, and could be dredged and damed to be of even more assistance. For de Lessups, the fact that the length and lake structure would be prohibitive of a sea level canal, made Panama the “only choice”.

The dreams of a sea level canal at Panama largely ignored two physical facts of the route – one being the Chagres river, and the other being the amount of earth that needed to be removed to get to sea level at the Culebra Cut. Putting a large dam at Gatun and creating one of the larges artificial lakes in the world 85' above sea level allowed the unruly Chagres to become an asset by providing the water required to operate the canal (in it's current form, 50 million gallons per ship) , and to reducing the depth of the cut at Culebra by that 85'.

The French ran out of money and ran out of lives – given the times, if more money could have been found, the lives would no doubt have been sacrificed, but as it was they lost something around 22 thousand to Yellow Fever, Malaria, Plague, Pneumonia and a host of other tropical ailments. There was also massive graft and corruption involved in their efforts, as well as innumerable technical difficulties. In any case, they fought long, hard, and expensively during most of the 20 years from 1870-1890, ending in a failure that was monumentally costly to their nation and of course many individual investors and participants in the venture.

We Americans tend to think that Teddy Roosevelt pretty much dug the canal single handedly, but while his role was key, the story is naturally much more complicated. The US had favored the Nicaragua route from the beginning, and when we started to get serious about actually doing the canal, that route was all but assumed, and but for a number of special circumstances would likely have been selected. One of the leading “circumstances” was Philippe Buanu-Varilla, the main lobbyist for the US purchase of the abandoned French assets. To make a very long and very complex story short – he helped get the price dropped by 60%, worked with the Colombians, played a major role in the revolution that created the Nation of Panama, and many other elements of politics, finance and intrigue that caused the current route to come about.

TR had a lot to do with the drive that made both the selection of the route and the selection of the men that would make the canal a reality. Two of the keys were Dr William Gorgas and John Stevens. Gorgas understood the detailed relationship between both Yellow Fever and Malaria and mosquitoes, and even better, he was able to push the techniques of the day to nearly eradicate those diseases in the canal zone, a feat without which it is fairly likely the US population would have turned against the loss of life that would have been required to complete the canal.

Stevens was considered the greatest railroad man of the day, and he was able to see that the canal was primarily a railroad problem – constructing a railroad with the equipment, placement and flexibility to move the massive amounts of dirt from the Culebra to where it was required. He also created the infrastructure to support the work effort, instituted planning and procedures and eventually forced the decision on the lock vs the sea level canal – a dream that bedevilled the Americans as it had the French.

Stevens left his post under slightly mysterious circumstances, although I find it quite likely he simply decided that there were other things he would rather do. His replacement was George Goethals, who was an organizational genius and tireless worker that saw the project through to completion.

Having now seen the canal I can say that like all well executed constructions, it “looks easy”. Being familiar with the Soo Locks as well as having gone through a number of different large locks on the Mississippi, it is hard to go back to the early 20th century and put the canal in the perspective. The locks are roughly the same size as the Soo locks , although I believe the Soo locks are narrower – the Panama locks are 1000 x 100'. Somehow, riding in a cruise ship over the route seems to very much belie the difficulties of the creation. Sitting on our balcony as a downpour arrived, but completely dry because I was tucked under the massive overhang of deck 10 above me made it hard to appreciate men toiling in heat, bugs, mud, and the constant threat of painful death by disease as the French had experienced.

One might be traveling on the lower Mississippi in the US with the jungles visible on the shore being no doubt more dense and with less example of human impact in Panama than back home. When we passed by the bridge over the Chagras, it was hard to imagine that sleepy looking little inlet being any sort of a threat to the project, but 50'+ of dam will really change the complexion of a river.

All in all it was a fine book, if possibly a bit TOO long and detailed in some aspects – as with the Gettysburg trip, there is something special about reading a book on the subject of a current travel destination.

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