Panama Fever by Matt Parker

Panama Fever by Matt Parker

Panama Fever by Matt Parker

August 14th marks the 100th Anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal. My friend Kenny Hicks who grew up in what was formally known as the “Panama Canal Zone” loaned me his copy of Panama Fever, it was near to impossible to put down once I started reading!

With the pending widening of the Panama Canal the largest ships in the world will soon be able to take the short cut between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. There is hot debate in Jacksonville about the deepening of the St Johns River to accommodate these ships and the cargo they carry. Now knowing the challenges posed in building the canal, deepening a few miles of the St Johns by a few feet seems simple!

xPanama canal workers

Thousands worked to build the Canal

Panama Fever documents the epic struggle to unite the two oceans, from early railroad crossings to the eventual canal. Every aspect is covered, from the science of its design, to the politics of its ownership, to the horrors of its construction – literally thousands died to make this waterway a possibility.

Until reading this book, I did not know that the Panama Canal was originally a project by the French as was the Suez Canal! In fact, it was Ferdinand de Lesseps who succeeded in Suez and plummeted in Panama.
The book covers the basic facts of the building of the Canal, but more than just focusing on the timeline, facts, medical, and engineering feats, Panama Fever focuses more on the people who ultimately got the job done. Tens of thousands of people worked on the construction of the Panama Canal. They came from the United States and many of the Caribbean Islands. The pay was good, the work was hard and especially in the beginning the risks from disease were huge. Thousands died during the construction from both disease and accidents.

Panama Canal

Panama Canal

What makes “Panama Fever” so interesting is that it’s a history told through the eyes of the people that created and built it. Parker draws heavily on letters, diaries, and interviews to tell a very personal history of how it was built. These real-life “characters” draw you into the book and make you care as much as they did about building the Panama Canal.

These days we take it for granted; but given the obstacles (engineering and medical) that had to be overcome you can begin to appreciate the dedication these people had — from the engineers to the unskilled laborers. And what a massive undertaking it was.

Panama Canal Today

Panama Canal Today

The book does not shy away from the negative; the thousands that died due to disease and industrial accidents — at a rate we cannot begin to comprehend in today’s safety-conscious world; or the racism of that era that underlay the structure of work and benefits. Or the sheer hardships imposed on the early builders; even in the early years of the American effort. “Panama Fever” also seriously addresses the French efforts in the late 1800s; this makes up almost half of the book. Parker spends time talking about how the French effort evolved and why it failed, mostly due to a gross underestimate of the engineering effort against a background of Yellow Fever and Malaria that decimated the workforce.

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