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Originally published Friday, March 21, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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"Panama Fever" digs into the construction of a monumental canal

A century ago, huge American steam shovels were scooping out the Panama Canal. The story of that project — how it came to be built as it was, and the fantastic mistakes people made — is well told by British author Matthew Parker.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Panama Fever: The Epic Story

of One of the Greatest Human Achievements of All Time —

The Building of the Panama Canal"

by Matthew Parker

Doubleday, 496 pp., $29.95

A century ago, huge American steam shovels were scooping out the Panama Canal. The story of that project — how it came to be built as it was, and the fantastic mistakes people made — is well told by British author Matthew Parker in "Panama Fever."

In this story, a private enterprise fails and a government enterprise succeeds. The private one was French, run by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the entrepreneur who had built the Suez Canal and made it pay. Suez had been at sea level, and de Lesseps insisted on the same for mountainous Panama. That mistake, Parker says, would have sunk the French venture had it gotten that far. It sank first of yellow fever, managerial chaos and a gross underestimation of the amount of work.

"When the Americans started work," writes Parker, "they replicated almost all the mistakes made by the de Lesseps company." Like the French, they brushed off the problem of disease and held out for a sea-level canal. The U.S. government also insisted on micromanaging from Washington, D.C., requiring engineers in Panama to fill out "six vouchers to hire a horse and a cart."

These mistakes were corrected. One turning point came when the young president, Theodore Roosevelt, refused to sack the project's medical officer, who was demanding "ridiculous" amounts of money for a war on mosquitoes. Roosevelt got him the money. He also gave a free hand to his chief engineer, a private-sector railroad man named John Stevens, whose name is on Stevens Pass. It was Stevens who figured out how to do the work efficiently — and who convinced the dreamers back home to give up on the sea-level canal.

Parker has made his book 200 pages shorter than David McCullough's 1977 book, "The Path Between the Seas." To do this, Parker has focused on the political story line — including the wresting of Panama from Colombia — and the social story line. He has sacrificed some of the personal detail for which McCullough's book is known, and he is thin on engineering and finance.

For example, when the Americans faced the question of where to build, sentiment in Congress was for a lock canal using a route through Nicaragua. Parker recounts how the French hired an American lobbyist to push for the Panama City-Colón route so they could sell their interest in it. (The French did, but not at their asking price.) He skims over the engineering arguments for Panama vs. Nicaragua. The reader can see the argument happening, including the forces behind it, but can never quite hear it.

Another example: In covering the French company's collapse, Parker spends several pages on the criminal prosecution of de Lesseps and de Lesseps' son, but remarks only in passing that it was the biggest corporate collapse in the world up to that time. What was the larger effect of that? He doesn't say.

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There is not a thought, then or in the book, of what today would be called the environmental effects of the canal.

Parker does take time to lay out the division between the white American supervisors and the foreign workers, especially the black workforce from the British West Indies. In telling the story of race, nationality and labor, he skillfully uses personal accounts and is excellent in portraying what it was like to work — and die — in Panama.

His chapters on disease are excellent. In the section on the French, he writes: "Yellow fever is an almost uniquely distressing, disgusting and terrifying disease ... and in the 1880s a strong adult would have only about an even chance of surviving an attack. At that time it was treated with whiskey, mustard seed, brandy and cigars."

Parker has written a clear and readable account of a tremendous story.

Bruce Ramsey: bramsey@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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