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394448 - The Amazing Career of John Frank Stevens: Panama Canal Mastermind and Pioneering Railroad Pathfinder

Monday, June 4
10:30 AM - 12:00 PM
Location: Greenway CD
Co-Authors: J. David Rogers, missouri University of Science & Technology – Missouri University of Science & Technology

John Frank Stevens was born in Maine in 1853 and graduated from Farmington normal school in 1872. His amazing career began with surveying work in Maine before moving to Minneapolis, where he apprenticed himself and became the city’s Assistant City Engineer. Stevens surveyed the first trans-Canadian railway route, working for James Jerome Hill and Albert B. Rogers.
When Hill blazed the Great Northern Railway between Minneapolis and Seattle, he retained Stevens as his chief pathfinder. Stevens singlehandedly discovered Marias Pass in December 1889, alone in a sub-zero snowstorm. The following year he blazed a path across Stevens Pass in north central Washington. In 1903 Stevens left his position as Chief Engineer of the Northern Pacific to become Vice President of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad in Chicago.
In June 1905 Stevens was named Chief Engineer of the Panama Canal project following a deadly outbreak of yellow fever. During his first six months in Panama Stevens reorganized the Canal’s construction departments, and spent millions on improving sanitation, which saved the project. He then brought in key people with proven construction and operation-of-way experience from the railroad industry. Stevens railroad engineers ordered 144 locomotives and double tracked the Panama Railroad to increase efficiency. In December 1905 Stevens began advocating for a locked canal with an enormous reservoir at Gatun, to harness the erratic flow of the Chagres River. This plan was approved by Congress in June 1906 and was that followed to complete the project during the ensuing decade. Stevens resigned from his position in Panama due to political disagreements with canal management in April 1907.
In February 1927 Stevens made a triumphal return to Panama when he was serving as President of ASCE. Later that fall his Presidential Address described the canal’s design and construction.

Lawrence M. Magura, P.E., F. ASCE, D. WRE

Chair, EWRI History & Heritage Comm.
semi-retired consulting water resources engineer

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J. David Rogers


Dept of Geological Engineering

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394448 - The Amazing Career of John Frank Stevens: Panama Canal Mastermind and Pioneering Railroad Pathfinder



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