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In 1676, Sir Isaac Newton wrote "If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants." In this blog, we take Newton's words to heart, and recognize the many great engineers and scientists upon whose shoulders we stand.

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John Frank Stevens: Engineer of the Great Northern Railway and the Panama Canal (1853-1943)

Posted February 27, 2012 9:40 AM by SavvyExacta
Pathfinder Tags: April 25 June 2

This engineer worked on projects ranging from building thousands of miles of railroad to putting in place the infrastructure needed to complete the Panama Canal. Although John Frank Stevens did not actually dig the canal and locks, he helped set the stage for George Washington Goethals, who worked on those parts of the project.

Railroad Work

Stevens was born in Maine and completed his education in civil engineering in 1873. He moved to Minneapolis, MN and began surveying and building railroads. In 1886 Stevens worked for the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railroad and built the line across the upper peninsula of Michigan.

He later worked for the Great Northern Railway and built over a thousand miles of railroad. Stevens helped discover a way through Marias Pass over the Continental Divide - a means of expanding the railroad through the Rocky Mountains without a tunnel. He made another discovery farther west; Stevens Pass, east of Everett, WA, was named for him.

Stevens built the original Cascade Tunnel at Stevens Pass. Construction of the Cascade Tunnel was completed in 1900. It was a single track railroad 2.63 miles long. The tunnel was electrified in 1909 to eliminate a smoke problem. A 1910 avalanche, the deadliest in U.S. history, killed 96 people. A longer and lower tunnel was built; the original Cascade Tunnel was abandoned in 1929.

Panama Canal

Stevens was appointed chief engineer to the Panama Canal project in 1905. Morale was low and successes were few when he entered the project. Stevens helped lay the groundwork that would help the project get started:

  • Insisted workers be immunized against yellow fever (along with malaria it killed hundreds of workers per week).
  • Introduced a food car to boost morale.
  • Pushed to build a lock canal rather than one at sea-level.
  • Built transportation infrastructure (railroads, warehouses, machine shops, and piers) and new communities.

Stevens' original agreement with President Theodore Roosevelt had been to "stick to the job until he could predict success or failure according to his own judgment". He resigned from the project in 1907, having turned it around from the "devil of a mess" left behind after the resignation of John F. Wallace, his predecessor. George Washington Goethals was appointed to complete the Panama Canal, including its actual construction.

Resources:

Balboa Circle Renamed to Honor Canal Engineer

PBS - American Experience - Biography: John Stevens

Wikipedia - Cascade Tunnel

Wikipedia - John Frank Stevens [image]

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Re: John Frank Stevens: Engineer of the Great Northern Railway and the Panama Canal (1853-1943)

02/28/2012 8:12 AM

I've always had a passing interest in railroads. Years ago, in college, I wrote a paper for an American History class that looked at the railroad industry. I was impressed by the success of The Great Northern Railroad.

As Wikipedia says: "The Great Northern was the only privately funded, and successfully built, transcontinental railroad in United States history. No federal land grants were used during its construction, unlike every other transcontinental railroad built. It was one of the few transcontinental railroads to avoid receivership following the Panic of 1893."

The Wiki link about the Cascade Tunnel is worth a look.

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