Friday, September 26, 2014

The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 by David McCullough ... some passages

Before heading down to Panama this trip, I took the opportunity to read The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 by David McCullough (1977). An excellent history of the Canal and those who built (or failed) to build it.

Below are some of the passages that I highlighted.

  • “My dear Lesseps . . . when you have something important to do, if there are two of you, you have one too many.”
  • Like so many before, they had come to Panama with little thought of being stirred by landscapes. That the place could be so breathtakingly beautiful struck them as a singular revelation. “La plus belle région du monde,” de Lesseps exclaimed in a letter to Charles.
  • A Cueva Indian word, Panama means “a place where many fishes are taken.” For the Spanish, Panama became a marshaling point and clearinghouse for the most important crossroad in the New World, the camino real, or royal road, which was nothing more than a narrow, mean mule track cut from Panama to Nombre de Dios, then the one Spanish fort on the Caribbean side.
  • Panama City was Panama. The humidity was not quite so oppressive as on the Atlantic side; there was less rain. The climate was indeed “delightful at evening and in the morning”—just about ideal in the dry season with the trade winds blowing—and on moonlight nights the view of the bay from the Bóvedas, the old Spanish seawall and the city’s “choice promenade,” was one of the loveliest sights anywhere in the American tropics.
  • The plaza was in the exact center of the city and was dominated by the old brown cathedral with its twin bell towers, the most imposing structure on the Isthmus.
  • Days and nights were made a living hell by bichos, the local designation for ticks, chiggers, spiders, ants, mosquitoes, flies, or any other crawling, buzzing, stinging form of insect life for which no one had a name.
  • But no statistic conveyed a true picture of Panama rain. It had to be seen, to be felt, smelled; it had to be heard to be appreciated. The effect was much as though the heavens had opened and the air had turned instantly liquid.
  • The skies, when it was not raining, were nearly always filled with tremendous, towering clouds—magnificent clouds, and especially so in the light of early morning.
  • And then, while the trees still tossed and roared, the rain would be over—in an instant. The sun would be out again, fierce as ever. Everything would glisten with rainwater and the air would be filled with the fecund, greenhouse smell of jungle and mud.
  • “Tell them that I am going to make the dirt fly!” (Teddy Roosevelt)
  • In his notebook that night he wrote a poem describing the moment. It was to be his only published verse, the last stanza of which became famous: I know this little thing A myriad men will save. O Death, where is thy sting? Thy victory, O Grave?
  • The sun was rising from the Pacific, a strange phenomenon, and the rays gave a jeweled appearance to the dew-soaked plants and the leaves of the trees. . . 
  • The city of Panama lay tantalizingly near . . . From our high point . . . the pastel shades of the Spanish tiled roofs were easily discernible; also the animation and movement of the streets. . . . (Marie Gorgas)
  • What made the undertaking so exceptional was its overwhelming scale. “There is no element of mystery involved in it,” Stevens reported to Washington, “ . . . the problem is one of magnitude and not miracles.”
  • Once, just before the canal was completed, the Commission of Fine Arts sent the sculptor Daniel Chester French and the landscape architect Frederick Olmsted, Jr., son of the famous creator of New York’s Central Park, to suggest ways in which the appearance of the locks and other components might be dressed up or improved upon. The two men reported: The canal itself and all the structures connected with it impress one with a sense of their having been built with a view strictly to their utility. There is an entire absence of ornament and no evidence that the aesthetic has been considered except in a few instances . . . . Because of this very fact there is little to find fault with from the artist’s point of view. The canal, like the Pyramids or some imposing object in natural scenery, is impressive from its scale and simplicity and directness. One feels that anything done merely for the purpose of beautifying it would not only fail to accomplish that purpose, but would be an impertinence. Consequently nothing was changed or added. The canal would look as its builders intended, nothing less or more.

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