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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Clifford Foust is Professor Emeritus of History, University of Maryland.
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John Frank Stevens
By Clifford Foust
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2013 Clifford Foust
All rights reserved.
A Boy of West Gardiner
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.
Little in his early childhood could lead one to predict his later career or, for that matter, his mature personality. One writer late in Frank's life spoke accurately of "a rather common-place boyhood." The best bet would have had it that he would remain in Maine as a small farmer or, even more likely, as a tanner of modest expectations or, perhaps, as a poorly paid secondary school teacher. But in spite of the rural location of his family home, he was not the farm boy of proverb inured to deprivation and hard labor. Quite the contrary. Neither his parents' nor neighboring farms were much more than subsistence economies, producing little more than enough for the family table and to feed the few livestock they kept. The Stevens farm was about sixty acres, much of it forested, meager for a dairy farm that far north. Frank was not called upon for much arduous field drudgery, his contributions being mainly sawing and splitting firewood. His father tried him out on milking, but Frank recalled years later that "to get out of it I purposely made such a racket and spoke so harshly to his pet cows that he released me from that disagreeable task."
The principal source of cash money income for the family, the tannery, was one of several such enterprises in the vicinity, and it succeeded well enough to cover the small family's needs and the modest post–public school education of both Frank and Eugene. Later Frank characterized the tannery (the "tanyard," as they called it), which processed mainly sheepskins, as well-to-do, at least as contrasted with the others he knew. If he did little work on the family farm, Frank did play a role in the tannery. At some manual tasks, such as nailing the skins to drying racks, his father found that young Frank and his brother could perform more swiftly and better than grown men. The tanning process also required grinding dried hemlock bark into small particles by a tanbark grinder that was powered by a horse plodding in a tight circle. The process had to be closely watched, and fresh bark periodically shoveled into the grinder. Eugene later described this as "not hard physical work but it was a dull and uninteresting job."
Frank followed his brother in the local "little red schoolhouse" down the road within easy walking distance. There was little offered beyond the basics – reading, writing, some arithmetic, and introductions to grammar and geography – but for Frank and Eugene these sufficed. Frank did, though, succeed in resonating well with two teachers: Lucy Spear (Fairbanks), whom years later he tried to locate when he visited West Gardiner and Lewiston, and Susanne Sawyer (Brown), who "taught" Frank when she was only sixteen and he twelve. Sawyer thought that even then he had "a mathematical mind" that compelled her to spend many evening hours learning enough of numbers to keep up with him. Frank remembered himself as an ordinary student who "generally contrived to be up somewhere near the head of my class," saving him the embarrassment of being whipped in school. During one summer term he succeeded in getting his ears boxed, which led to his departure by an open window, "and neither coaxing nor threatened sterner measures got me back inside the schoolhouse again that term." At fourteen he moved on briefly to the nearby high school.
Frank compensated for the limited classroom offerings by frequent use of the small library in Hallowell, somewhat over four miles away. For a fee of two dollars a year that permitted two books a week, he and Eugene expanded their literacy and distanced their horizons. For several years Frank was a member, and he remembered walking there and back to consume, sometimes, four books a week. His reading fare included the then very popular Nick Whiffles adventures by Dr. John Hovey Robinson, also a Maine native whose last years were spent in Minnesota. These tales were the germ of Frank's later wanderlust, a permanent feature of his personality that he later called "the somewhat morbid craving to be always on the move." In his adolescence he also soaked up the travel descriptions of "one of my boyhood heroes," Bayard Taylor. Even in his elder years he remembered Taylor's scenes of "the midnight sun, the glowing desert, the Holy Land, and the mountains and valleys of our own beautiful West." And he loved particularly several long, complicated, and wordy historical novels, such as R. D. Blackmore's Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor (1869) and G. J. Whyte-Melville's The Gladiators: A Tale of Rome and Judaea (1863), rereading them in later years. Few today have the patience for a first reading of them. Much later he termed this a "bizarre" education.
Other than avid reading, Frank's pastimes were typical of his time and place, mostly outdoors when weather permitted: in winter sledding and skating, in warmer weather swimming in the old pond about half a mile from his home, exploring the woods in all directions, and climbing trees. The last activity resulted in a very serious injury at the age of five when he fell from a cherry tree onto a fence, where a picket penetrated his abdomen and exposed his intestines. Frank later described it as "a ghastly wound." Two neighbors harnessed teams to go in opposite directions to persuade a doctor to make the journey, one going to Purgatory or Litchfield and the other to Hallowell. Dr. John Hubbard of Hallowell came and patched Frank up, "and he came out as good as new." His brother later wrote that "recovery was a nip-and-tuck battle, but the doctor's skill and the Stevens vitality won." Frank remembered Hubbard as "a large man, large frame and very portly. But despite his large hands and fingers he was a wonderfully delicate surgeon." In the long, severe Maine winters, life got confining. Card playing and dancing were taboo in his somewhat strict family, but he later remembered learning "sinful games" like euchre and casino hidden in a barn away from parental oversight. He never learned to dance, not even the Money Husk, the Virginia Reel, and the exuberant square dancing so popular elsewhere.
Strictly speaking, Frank was raised in the church. His mother was a confirmed and enthusiastic member of the Hard-Shell Baptist Church only a few miles away. Both he and his brother fidgeted their ways through every Sunday service, but beyond a few biblical references and quotations, little seemed to rub off. Frank remembered his father as a passive religionist, willing to take part perfunctorily to please his wife but never interested enough for an active role. That seems to describe Frank also throughout his long life.
Not yet eight years of age when the Civil War began, Frank nonetheless was aware from the excitement shared by his family and chums that some great conflagration had been visited on the nation. Later on he learned that his father (already well over fifty) tried several times to enlist but was turned back because of age. As elsewhere in small-town America, he and other boys his age and older organized a military company, modeled on the Lewiston Light Infantry, in which his uncle Jesse T. Stevens was a captain. They armed themselves with wooden swords and guns and emulated their seniors in close-order drill. "Our one fear was, that the war would end before we were old enough to go to the front." But it did.
Within a radius of twenty miles or so lived a number of relatives, his father having been one of five and mother one of eight. As Frank and Eugene matured they visited relatives nearby from time to time, especially the families of three uncles in Lewiston, only twenty miles by hard road, where the occasionally unruly Androscoggin River powered prosperous cotton mills. To a country boy, the town of 10,000–15,000 inhabitants seemed, of course, like a major metropolis. And his maternal grandmother lived with the Stevenses in West Gardiner until she died when Frank was sixteen. Although he spent most of his later years many miles distant, Frank cherished his family nest, and as often as a busy railroad construction engineer could manage, he returned to visit. It caused him some distress that he was unable to get back when his father and mother died.
The boy did, however, anticipate the man in many other ways. Raised by parents busy with the heavy and time-consuming demands of husbandry and housekeeping, Frank had more than ample opportunity to fashion his own activities. He was not burdened with mind-deadening chores or field labor, yet he grew up in a rural environment largely safe and absent of corrupting temptations. He learned to rely on his own resources. He could and did roam on foot across the countryside around the small family home and through the dense pine forests, developing early a love of nature and the outdoor life. In travelers' accounts and rich novels he found exotic places and characters to populate his fantasy life. He laid the basis for a dedication to the peripatetic life, even as he kept dutifully to the requirements of a son of a lower middleclass family without evident aspirations for a fate different from that meted out to him.
Given the limited prospects of his youth, and the clear insistence of his parents that their boys obtain education sufficient to qualify them for some career other than field hand or tanner, first Frank and then Eugene turned to a course of study at the State Normal and Training School at Farmington, about fifty miles north and west. The low cost, Frank recalled, dictated the choice of school. Although only sixteen, he got a leg up by teaching five terms in several little red schoolhouses like his own. Successful enough, he entered a two-year course at Farmington in 1870, during which time he developed a considerable and permanent infatuation with geometry, trigonometry, and numbers in general. And this is also the first recorded instance in which he altered his baptismal name to his satisfaction: he matriculated as J. Frank Stevens rather than J. Franklin Stevens.
He also received some lessons in class distinction and social distance when his school competed in baseball against the boys of the prominent Abbott School, also located in Farmington. He contrasted himself, a son of "horny handed toil," with the privileged preppies of the "Little Blue School," concluding that they were of a higher social order than he and his mates. Although Frank took pride in – usually – besting these young swells in athletics, the encounters helped him to solidify in his outlook a measure of sensitivity to his modest origins and to grow a chip on his shoulder about it, both of which served him throughout his life. Ever after he took pleasure, usually quietly and modestly, in excelling beyond the accomplishments of those of sophisticated background or enviable education. He liked to expose the conceits of the pompous and self-anointed.
Frank's formal education ended in June 1872 when, as one of twenty-five graduates in only the eighth class of the school, he completed his two years in Farmington Normal (since 1968 known as the University of Maine at Farmington) with no strong urge to teach beyond the several terms required of him to offset his free tuition. He put in ten weeks each in Westport, near Sheepscot Bay, and Manchester, close to the town of Winthrop, just west of Augusta, both small towns. From his teaching in a winter term in Winthrop township prior to his graduation, he received a fine report:
[He] did well.... He is thorough in his teaching, wide awake, and energetic.... Government was good and the exercises systematic.... His object is ... to dig deep, get down to the principle.
This description could well have been made of him at nearly any decade of his life. Still, one of the main things he learned was that he didn't want to spend his life in the classroom.
Through one of his Lewiston uncles Frank wangled a few months' summer work at a wage of 75¢ a day with a private engineering company in Lewiston that was doing surveys for mills, industrial canals, and, Frank recalled years later, for a building on the campus of the state school at Farmington. With his board costing $4.50 a week he could break even only by working six days of the week. What he did gain, "for some occult reason," was an urge to engineer. In good weather he carried the surveyors' equipment and cut and set stakes; on inclement days he sharpened pencils and rubbed ink for the draftsmen and even split firewood on rainy days for his chief's kitchen stove. It all led Frank to think that surveying and maybe even engineering might be more interesting endeavors than secondary school teaching, but ones that required him to leave home. Being a surveyor's gofer in an established local economy was too slow a way to become an engineer. Still, many years later, he said, "Just why I chose Civil Engineering as a life's work, I do not myself now remember."
That autumn of 1873 Frank visited the new Maine State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts at Orono (since 1897 the University of Maine) for two days and talked with professors who thought he would probably pass the mathematics exams and thus could enter a year earlier than otherwise. But at the impatient age of nineteen he decided he could not wait that long to begin remunerative work. A lady cousin who lived in a Boston suburb wanted him to come there and offered to pay his expenses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "but through a false sense of independence I declined to accept her offer." As soon as his teaching obligation ended, he left West Gardiner and Maine in April 1874, having just turned twenty-one, not to return for seven years, even for a visit. Later Frank also blamed the 1873 business recession for convincing him that there were few opportunities for him to advance a surveying or engineering career in the East.
"I was exactly like millions of other boys in this country who have to make their way in the world unaided," he mused in his later years, perhaps giving himself a shade more credit than he deserved in using the word "unaided." "I had no more [than] a year of this. I felt that I had learned to do it about as well as I ever would. I became restless. The West drew me." Without knowing it, he followed the famed advice of John Soule, editorial writer of the Terre Haute Express, when he said, "Go west, young man, and grow with your country," a refrain popularized by Horace Greeley. He joined thousands of other young people in pursuing the siren call of opportunity in the open expanses of the West.
Frank learned, probably from the local Kennebec newspaper, of the dramatic bridge and hydraulic engineering of James Buchanan Eads, whose eponymous bridge at St. Louis was then nearing completion. This was not the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi (the first had been in use between Rock Island and Davenport since 1856), but it was the iconic one heading west; it was then the longest arch bridge in the world, the first to use only cantilever supports, and it rested on some of the deepest caissons ever sunk. Frank wrote to Eads asking for employment and received in return "a rather friendly letter" regretting that at this juncture Eads could do no hiring, but he encouraged Frank to come west. About this time Frank received a letter from his uncle Jesse Stevens – then employed as engineer for the St. Anthony Falls Water Power Company and credited with saving the Falls and Minneapolis electrical power by engineering an apron that succeeded where others had failed – assuring him that, were he to migrate, Jesse could arrange for a job with the city engineer of Minneapolis. Frank leaped at the opportunity.
Frank rode the Portland & Kennebec Railway from Hallowell to Portland, the Boston & Maine to Boston, the Boston & Albany to Albany, the New York Central to Buffalo, the Canadian Southern (later the Michigan Central) to Detroit, the Michigan Central to Chicago, the Northwestern to Camp Douglas in Wisconsin, the West Wisconsin to St. Paul, and finally the St. Paul & Pacific (later the Great Northern) to Minneapolis. All of these are now fallen flags. Nine railroads, eight changes, and six days after leaving home, he knocked on the front door of Uncle Jesse's house, where Frank was to reside for the next two years. It was his first real experience with living and working in "a small city" of about 17,000, yet it was a metropolis in the wide eyes of "a poor ignorant boy."
Excerpted from John Frank Stevens by Clifford Foust. Copyright © 2013 Clifford Foust. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
PrefaceAcknowledgements1. A Boy of West Gardiner2. Beginnings3. The Great Northern4. The Panama Canal: In5. The Panama Canal: Out6. Interlude7. Railroading in Russia8. The Final DecadesNotesSelect BibliographyIndex