Bringing STEM history to life
at Lake City Middle School

Thursday, 20 October 2016

By Engineer John Frank Stevens,
whose friends call him "Big Smoke"

I was born in West Gardiner, Maine, in 1853.  My first job was as a land surveyor, following in the tradition of George Washington in that noble profession.  After seeing newspaper photographs of the great steel bridge being built across the Mississippi River at St. Louis, I knew I wanted to be an engineer.  In 1874, I sent its designer and builder, Engineer James Buchanan Eads, a letter requesting employment.

Captain Eads was already one of my boyhood heroes from his exploits building ironclad gunboats during the Civil War.  Do you know that the Union’s first victory during the Civil War was at Fort Henry in Tennessee?  General Grant got credit for that victory even though the fort surrendered to Eads’s gunboats before Grant’s army arrived. 

I didn’t get a job with Captain Eads, so I took one in Minneapolis where I studied as an apprentice engineer under Gen. Thomas Rosser, who was a railroad engineer after the Civil War.  After stints as a railroad engineer in Texas, Colorado, and Iowa, I became an assistant railroad locating engineer for the Canadian Pacific Railway, where I met “Empire Builder” James J. Hill. 

Barry Thacker, PE portraying famous engineer John Frank Stevens




As locating engineer for Hill’s Great Northern Railway, I discovered Marias Pass in the Rockies in 1889 and a pass across the Cascade Mountains that now bears my name.   I became chief engineer of the Great Northern in 1895, a goal I had set for myself early in my career. Decades after my discovery, the Great Northern erected a statue of me at Marias Pass.

In 1905, I was recruited by Secretary of War William Howard Taft to supervise construction of railroads in the Philippines, which had been ceded to the U.S. as a result of the Spanish-American War.  But before leaving for the Philippines, Secretary Taft offered me the job of chief engineer of the Panama Canal when former Chief Engineer John Wallace resigned.  I was reluctant to accept because the job had destroyed the reputation of previous renowned engineers such as Gustave Eiffel when the French failed at building the canal. 

President Teddy Roosevelt told me Panama was in, “a devil of a mess.”  I said, “I must have a free hand in all matters and I make no promise to remain until completed, but will stay with it until I have made its success certain or have proved it to be a failure.”

On arriving in Panama, I found a yellow-fever scare in progress, but that was just part of the problem—“There are three diseases here:  malaria, yellow fever, and cold feet, and the worst is cold feet.”

While President Roosevelt was telling the press, “We’ll make the dirt fly,” I stopped all excavation work and sent the steam shovel and crane operators home.  Dr. William Gorgas and I then got to work killing mosquitos to stop yellow fever and getting infrastructure built so we could make the dirt fly. 

A prestigious engineering board was commissioned by the Isthmian Canal Commission to recommend the type of canal to build, and decided on a sea-level lock by a vote of 8 to 5.  But I lobbied for the lock-and-dam system because none of the board members had seen the Chagres River during flood stage.  The Senate approved the lock-and-dam canal by a vote of 36 to 31 on 19 June 1906. Unlike others before me, I saw the Panama Canal as a railroad job, and it became American railroad engineering’s greatest triumph. 

In January 1907, President Roosevelt and Secretary Taft proposed awarding the contract to build the canal’s lock-and-dam system to Knoxville contractor William J. Oliver.  I objected to the deal because, “Oliver lacked the nature, experience, or achievement necessary to complete such a massive project,” not to mention he proposed using convict labor to do the work.  I knew if convict labor was brought to Panama, my experienced American railroad and mining workers would start a war, just as Coal Creek miners had previously done in Tennessee.

Despite my objections, President Roosevelt insisted on awarding the contract to Oliver, so I resigned -- for that and personal reasons.  President Roosevelt soon saw I was right and rejected the Oliver contract, agreeing that with the infrastructure and workforce in place, work could be completed without a contractor.  I was met on the boat from Panama with an offer to become vice president of the New York, New Haven & Hartford RR, and you’ll never guess who had recommended me for that job.  I’ll give you a hint—his initials are TR. 

When the U.S. entered The Great World War in April 1917, I offered my service and received a telegram to come to Washington to meet with President Woodrow Wilson.  I expected to be sent to France to assist with building railroads to support the American Expeditionary Force, but was instead made head of the Russian Railway Services Corps. 

My mission changed after the Communist Red Army seized control of Russia in October 1917, and President Wilson sent the AEF Siberia to protect American interests and assist in the removal of the Czech Legion from Russia.  My mission changed again after the Allied victory in November 1918, when Japan set its sights on the natural resources of China.

For my service as President Woodrow Wilson’s chief engineer in Russia and China during and after the Great World War, I was awarded more medals than Sgt. Alvin York from Tennessee without ever firing a shot.  I returned to the U.S. in 1923, but my contributions as an engineer were far from over.

In 1927, at the age of 74, I was elected President of the American Society of Civil Engineers.  My first act in that role was to propose a joint commission between civilian engineers and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to once-and-for-all develop a plan to address flooding on the Mississippi River after the Great Flood of 1927.  I used the design and construction success of the Panama Canal as a model where flooding was controlled by dams on the Chagres River.  I said, “After the plan is developed, give the Chief Engineer full authority and then hold (that person) responsible to the very letter.”

The recognized expert on flood control in 1927 was Memphis Engineer Arthur E. Morgan, who had been chief engineer for major flood control projects on the Great Miami, Arkansas, and Muskingum Rivers.  But, my plan to address flooding on the Mississippi River was rejected by Congress and the Coolidge administration.

Do you know that President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed flood-buster Arthur E. Morgan the first Chief Engineer and Chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933?  One of TVA’s central roles was to prevent flood damage, which had periodically ravaged the Tennessee valley.

Norris Lake was created by Morgan’s first TVA dam, thus giving Lake City Middle School its name.  Next year, LCMS 8th graders will be attending Anderson County High School with students from Norris.  Coal Creek students at LCMS know their history, so it’s important they understand the history of the students from Norris. 

Do you know who named the town of Norris, Tennessee?  Do you know who planned it, laid it out, and oversaw its construction in 1933?  Do you know who made Norris School the first school in the world to be fully electrified with lights turned on by an automated electric-eye?  The answer to all three questions is Engineer Arthur E. Morgan.

Students who say they are not interested in pursuing a career in engineering because they don’t like math are uninformed about the role engineers play in society.  Engineers are problem solvers and trail blazers—mathematics is just one tool in an engineer’s arsenal.  I can attest to that fact and have the medals to prove it.

In my 1936 essay, To the Young Engineers Who Must Carry On, I predicted the great works are still to come and it will be engineers who lead the army of progress.  

Historical Note:  The moon landing was one of those great works and two engineers, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, were the first to walk on the moon. 


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