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Sunday, April 21 2019 @ 08:34 PM UTC

The Really Big Dig

Books & - Edited by JAY PALMER, Reviewed by Jim McTague: IN 1889, THE WORLD WITNESSED THE MOST CATASTROPHIC financial collapse in history up to that time. Investors had thrown all their money into a gigantic hole in the ground. Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique, which was funded largely by French investors to finance construction of a Panama canal, went bankrupt because the credit markets lost confidence in its promise to complete the project, already eight years in the making. The digging of the canal had been a source of tremendous French pride and an affront to the ego and global ambitions of an emergent United States of America, which was asserting itself in the Pacific and the Caribbean (and thus the Atlantic). (more)

[book1] Panama Fever By Matthew Parker, Doubleday, 560 pages, $29.95

Connecting the two oceans was of such strategic importance in a world where battleships were among the most powerful weapons that the effort to build the canal was more intense than the race to the moon would be 80 years later.

The French canal company had expended almost $300 million on the project -- equivalent, by one method of estimation, to $7.6 billion today. Some 800,000 individual investors -- the equivalent of 2% of France's urban population -- lost their money, in a miserable foray into the world of investing.

The company's collapse fell most heavily on the canal workers who had endured appalling conditions in the canal project's "good times."

Among their plagues were yellow fever, mudslides and accidents, which claimed the lives of one in five of them. From a force of 14,000, a mere 800 were retained for basic maintenance after work on the canal came to a halt.

Stores and hotels on the Isthmus of Panama were shuttered. Real-estate values collapsed. Laborers who couldn't afford the transit fare home were left utterly destitute.

Of course, one man's fiscal calamity is another man's -- or another country's -- gain. Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 engineered a revolution in Panama that split the isthmus from Colombia, a country then not inclined to cooperate with the U.S. This gave Washington complete control over any canal that would be hewn out of the rocky Panamanian terrain.

In 1904, T.R. talked Congress into buying the broken French project for $40 million, less than 15% of what the French had expended in their fruitless quest. With the equivalent of a war effort and by employing superior engineers, superior equipment, and superior medical science, America linked the Pacific Ocean with the Caribbean Sea, creating one of the greatest engineering marvels of all time.

British historian Matthew Parker retells this riveting story with passion and verve in a book subtitled The Epic Story of One of the Greatest Human Achievements of All Time -- the Building of the Panama Canal.

This delectable book is so well-crafted that it is a mystery why most of America's literary epicures overlooked it when it hit the shelves last March. Three cheers for Los Angeles' literary set for catching on and sending Panama Fever onto the L.A. Times best-seller list in April. However, the book never made it to any of the national best-seller lists.

I rank it as a work of history alongside Rick Atkinson's spellbinding An Army at Dawn and Walter Isaacson's brilliant biography of Albert Einstein.

If you think that there's no more ground to cover in the wake of David McCullough's 1977 monumental history of the canal, The Path Between the Seas, you are mistaken.

Parker's comprehensive book makes extensive use of the diaries and letters of the men who actually slung dirt with pick and shovel to bring home the tremendous human cost of building this modern marvel.

Jim McTague is a Washington editor at Barron's.

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