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John Frank Stevens: Civil Engineer

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One of America's foremost civil engineers of the past 150 years, John Frank Stevens was a railway reconnaissance and location engineer whose reputation was made on the Canadian Pacific and Great Northern lines. Self-taught and driven by a bulldog tenacity of purpose, he was hired by Theodore Roosevelt as chief engineer of the Panama Canal, creating a technical achievement far ahead of its time. Stevens also served for more than five years as the head of the US Advisory Commission of Railway Experts to Russia and as a consultant who contributed to many engineering feats, including the control of the Mississippi River after the disastrous floods of 1927 and construction of the Boulder (Hoover) Dam. Drawing on Stevens’s surviving personal papers and materials from projects with which he was associated, Clifford Foust offers an illuminating look into the life of an accomplished civil engineer.

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1 A Boy of West Gardiner

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J. Franklin Stevens was born on April 25, 1853, in a small white clapboard house located on the road between French’s Corner and Hallowell, Maine. He and his brother were the third generation in the family homestead. It gave all appearances of being in the country, but it was listed in the crossroads town of West Gardiner. Situated on the south side of the road, the Litchfield Road, it lay just across from a small leather tannery owned and operated by his father. It was an agreeable rural setting, if – for some – far more attractive in summer than winter.

The second son in the family, he was baptized in the nearby Free Will Baptist Church as J. Franklin, named after the then-famed British Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin, who just a few years earlier had lost his life (as did his entire crew) while searching for the elusive Northwest Passage to the Orient. Throughout his youth he was Frank to his family and his close peers and, like his namesake, grew up touched by an inchoate yearning for travel, adventure, and fame. His elder brother, Eugene Chapin Stevens, was only five years his senior, close enough they could share experiences but far enough apart they could escape intense sibling rivalry, although they had the usual squabbles. They remained good and close friends throughout their lives.

 

2 Beginnings

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By the end of his first summer in Minneapolis Frank had learned enough of surveying to be promoted from ax man to rodman and levelman at the grand salary (to him) of $65 a month, double that of an ax man. His confidence grew equally with his skills. Although he kept busy during warm months, there was too little work to go around as soon as it turned Minnesota-cold, and Frank hunkered down to serious book study of the engineering knowledge he needed. There was plentiful material to keep him bent over his desk for several months in the winter of 1874–1875. His Minneapolis roommate, George W. Knowlton, later described Frank’s dedication to his self-improvement:

 

He was at work every night while the rest of us were playing. Coming home late, I would find him still at it – poring over those dry textbooks, filling sheets of paper with figures and plans of things that I knew nothing about. I’ve seen him sit for hours with his feet cocked up, smoking and thinking. He wouldn’t speak a word, so thoroughly absorbed would he be in some problem or other.1

 

3 The Great Northern

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James Jerome Hill, at fifty years of age in 1889, was well on his way to insuring that no one other than he merited the appellation Empire Builder, at least in the matter of North American railroads. The late 1870s and the 1880s witnessed the spasmodic pushing forward of railroad penetration of the lands beyond St. Paul across North Dakota and Montana, characterized by rivalry between Hill’s St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba line and Henry Villard’s Northern Pacific.1 And it was – notably – the year 1889 when Washington, Montana, and North and South Dakota gained statehood. The timing was right for the next stage of economic exploitation, and the Empire Builder was ready for the challenge.

Hill’s first goal was to keep Canadian and Minnesota/Montana traffic flowing on his Manitoba line – to give the new Canadian Pacific a run for its money – but he also had a much longer range vision. He had decided early in his railroad career that East Asian trade was the key to great profits for all railroads headed west, or at least the ones with adequate foresight and daring. In this regard Hill was a spiritual descendant of all of the late eighteenth-and nineteenth-century merchant adventurers enamored of East Asian commodities; his railroad would take the place of the Northwest Passage, so long searched for in vain.2 But he had rivals. On September 8, 1883, President Grant drove a gold spike for the NP in central Montana, staking that line’s claim to de facto preeminence in transportation in the northwest from California to Canada.3 Hill could not let that go unchallenged. As early as the spring of 1886 he called on A. B. Rogers to scout out the best line west from Helena to Puget Sound.

 

4 The Panama Canal: In

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John Frank Stevens did not go back to texas; Hill was misinformed or deliberately misleading. Nor was John Frank long without offers of employment. Days before the fistfight surfaced in St. Paul newspapers, one of them carried the rumor that he was to succeed George B. Harris as president of the Burlington, but that turned out to be spurious. However, word quickly reached Frederick Underwood, then president of the Erie road, of Stevens’s resignation, and within days Underwood wrote J. J. Hill to assure him that neither he nor Daniel Willard, his principal assistant, had suborned Stevens’s loyalties, but now that John Frank was out of GNS employ Erie was decidedly interested.1 Hill wished them well.

Before Erie could act, the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific road (CRIP, Rock Island) tendered him an offer, and John Frank accepted without delay. On the first of March 1903, he became chief engineer of the Rock Island. Certainly he needed an important job in railroading, and one seen as such. He persuaded himself that his horizons would be far wider at a Chicago desk than a St. Paul one, that he would in the normal course of things meet people and make connections less likely in the Northwest. And although he was now chief engineer of his second Class I line, thus achieving twice the career zenith he and Harriet had set many years earlier, he was already entertaining thoughts of heights more exalted – presidency perhaps of such a road?

 

5 The Panama Canal: Out

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With the swirl of activity on the Isthmus and now in Washington, things were quickly coming to a head. John Frank arrived back in the capital two days after Christmas 1905 with no realistic expectation he would enjoy much of an already foreshortened holiday season. The very next day the New York Times briefly but unreservedly reported that he would recommend to the Isthmian Canal Commission the construction of a high-lock canal, mainly on grounds of monetary cost and time of construction.1 And about the same time he learned that the International Board’s formal committee reports would be delayed many weeks, as General Davis was required to carry the document to an IBCE gathering at Brussels for signatures. About the only upbeat news came several days later, when it was made public that the ICC purchasing agent in New Orleans was recruiting musicians and asking bids for musical instruments, enough for six bands; as a headline had it, laborers “Will Dig Canal to Music.”2

 

6 Interlude

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John Frank and his second son landed in New York from the steamship Panama on April 13, 1907, a Saturday. John Jr. had been in the Isthmus with his father since dropping out of Yale in February; it is more than likely he was still in the family doghouse. A day earlier, Harriet with Eugene trained up from Washington to meet them, together with journalists anxious for a tidbit of irascibility from the former chief engineer. They didn’t get much.

Even before John Frank and John Jr. could debark from the Panama, a representative of the New York, New Haven & Hartford (NH) boarded the ship to meet them. He brought an invitation from Charles Sanger Mellen, NH president between 1903 and 1913 and J. P. Morgan agent, for John Frank to meet with him in Boston’s Hotel Touraine (now 62 Boylston on the Park). His road, it seems, was planning a thorough valuation of its physical facilities and equipment, moving and fixed, as a response to the Hepburn Act (June 1906) and the Elkins Act (February 1905), the key laws that regulated railroad rates, imposed heavy fines for discriminatory rebates to big customers, and strengthened the twenty-year-old Interstate Commerce Commission.1 Mellen hoped that detailed and transparent establishing of the current monetary value of his line’s property would counteract the severe depression in the prices of railroad securities by demonstrating that fair pricing of assets would exceed market value of stocks and bonds. He insisted they were not “watered” – if anything, they were priced too low – and therefore the freight and passenger rates charged were not too high.2 Mellen, a close friend of TR, wisely consulted with him, and the president recommended John Frank as “the man for the job.” Mellen also consulted with the influential chairman of the Interstate Commerce Commission, Martin A. Knapp.

 

7 Railroading in Russia

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Except for a brief revival in 1916 of talk of the Spanish railway project – a flurry that never went beyond the talking stage – John Frank seems to have paid little serious attention to European affairs and the onset of war. Other than his Canadian and Panama experiences and his tourist trips to Mexico and Cuba, his career was entirely mainland United States and Canada, and he was preoccupied with his own business affairs in the early war years. When the war came to America with the Senate declaration of April 6, 1917, John Frank was still in Florida but immediately offered his services to Washington authorities, and returned to New York.

One of President Wilson’s early wartime acts was to constitute an impressive political mission to the Russian Provisional Government, the government that replaced Tsar Nikolai II in February. The moment was ripe: the newly belligerent democracy of the Western Hemisphere would team up with the new democracy of Eurasia, a symbiosis that appealed to Wilson’s moral and political outlook. He needed a dramatic gesture to cement the relationship. He and his secretary of state Robert Lansing quickly fixed upon the elderly yet respected Elihu Root – erstwhile secretary of war and of state, and two-term senator – to head the large entourage to Petrograd, and John Frank was invited to accompany them as the sole railway expert whose task it would be to observe, however cursorily, Russian railroads, especially the Trans-Siberian lines, in order to recommend improvements.1

 

8 The Final Decades

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At the end of April 1923, John Frank formally and finally ended his Russian adventure. What had begun as a brief wartime service to his country stretched to nearly six full years. Seventy years of age when he was released, he felt still vigorous, although wisely he gave himself the long summer to contemplate his future. He had neither consulting work nor an engineering firm to which to return; “My long absence caused me to lose touch with various interests with which I had been connected, and as I had perhaps lost some of my youthful ambition, I made no effort to revive my former professional practice.” Make no mistake, however, there remained deep within him a strong peripatetic urge and a need for an active life physically and mentally.

During that summer and early autumn of 1923 he traveled to a variety of places, although he undertook no major ventures. He says he often contemplated trips abroad – New Zealand, Europe – but except for Panama he never took any. One very meaningful honor came his way: Bates College, founded as a Free Will Baptist school by abolitionists in Lewiston, Maine, voted him an honorary master of arts in civil engineering in 1922, but, of course, he was in Manchuria at graduation time, and the scholars were kind enough to hold the degree for him for the next year. The recognition “touched [him] deeply,” not only because he was remembered in spite of his long absence but because “the able and progressive President [Clifton D. Gray] and its notable Board of Trustees” thought his lifelong work redounded to the credit of the college and the old Pine Tree State. In later years he added three honorary doctorates to his roster of honors: University of North Carolina (1928), University of Michigan (1928), and Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute (1937).

 

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