The Master Builder
He was a no-nonsense engineer of bridges in a heroic age
My great-uncle, George S. Morison, one of America’s foremost bridge builders, died July 1, 1903, exactly (as he undoubtedly would have said) six years, five months, fourteen days, and six hours before I was born. What follows begins with some incidental intelligence that has nothing to do with his work; these, listed in no order of relative importance, are just some of the things I know about him:
He had, like Zeno, a conviction that time was a solid. If he made an appointment to confer with a person at 3:15 P.M., or as he always put it, at 15:15 hours, that was when they met. Those who arrived earlier waited; those who came at any time after 15:15 never conferred at all.
He read the Anabasis in Greek, the Aeneid in Latin, and the dime novels of Archibald Clavering Gunter in English.
He had a substitute in the Civil War.
He invariably referred to Mexico as Pjacko.
He thought that people who were good with animals, particularly horses, were popular with their fellows and loose in their morals. When he himself drove a horse, he brought it to a full stop by saying, “Whoa, cow”; and at least once while trying to turn a Concord buggy around, he turned it over in front of White’s Machine Shop.
He was rude to waiters.
One Sunday morning he walked out of church after telling the minister, who was explaining to the congregation why he thought silver should be coined at a ratio of 16 to 1, that he should never try to deal with a subject he obviously didn’t understand.
Of his neighbor Edward MacDowell, student of Liszt, composer of “To a Wild Rose” and the well-regarded Second Piano Concerto in D Minor, he said he was “a man with whom I had absolutely nothing in common.”
A bachelor, he built a house in the years from 1893 to 1897 that had, by one way of counting, fifty-seven rooms, so that he would have a suitable place to eat Thanksgiving dinner and to watch the sun set over Mount Monadnock.
I could go on. Although I do not think that in themselves such items tell very much about the kind of man my greatuncle was, I cite them because, as the world goes, it is remarkable that I know them at all. That such supplementary biographical detritus should survive in such fullness and in such detail into a third, and now, I should say, into a fourth, generation, is remarkable.
There are, to be sure, some contributing circumstances. I spent a considerable part of my youth in the house George Morison built for Thanksgiving dinners and sunsets. Here, beyond those impalpable influences produced by the sense of being on the actual scene, there were more overt reminders of my great-uncle as a first cause. When, for instance, I after a storm, moisture leaked through the northwest corner and ate away at the interior plaster, you knew it was because the novel arrangement of bricks and experimental cement that he had devised had not worked out—a rare exception. Or when, after going to bed, there were strange creaks and murmurs drifting through the halls and up the stairwell, you knew, or hoped you knew, that they were produced not by poltergeists or second-story men but by the contraction of his steel beams in the cooling night air.
But there was more to it than those visible and audible reminders. He was still around. The effect on those who came after was not the attenuated visitation of your runof-the-mill family ghost; it was a one-on-one encounter with a continuing presence. When he died, his sister lived in that house in a rather grand manner for fourteen years, and then his younger brother, my grandfather, presided in distinctive style for eight more years. They were personages of considerable substance, and I knew them both. But when I came to live there as a boy of fifteen, I found that my great-uncle had set them to one side and was still occupying the place.
Of those who have written about him, one spoke of his ability to enforce a decision taken “with a tenacity and ruthlessness that bore down all opposition. …” Another called him “a bulwark.” And a third said: “Force was the striking impression. When he entered a room, power came with him.” They were all trying to explain the source of his remarkable works—he did in fact put a satisfying dent in oblivion by the things he made. But he bore down on the opposition of time in quite another and less obvious way. That ability to fill a room with power turned out to be sufficient to project the force of his character through three generations of his family.
In March 1902 George S. Morison appeared before the Senate Canal Committee. He explained at length why he believed that the best way to join the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific lay through the Isthmus of Panama. The only real difficulty was posed, he said, by the Culebra Cut. “It is a piece of work that reminds me of what a teacher said to me when I was in Exeter over forty years ago, that if he had five minutes in which to solve a problem he would spend three deciding the best way to do it.” Because the Culebra Cut was a big problem, more time would be required. It would take two years to figure out what to do and how to do it.
There were many times when he was put in mind of his old teacher and quoted him on problem solving for the benefit of others. It was, said one associate, “one of the principal rules” of his life. He sought beforehand to take everything into account, analyze the evidence, determine the “best possible solution,” and then reach the “inflexible, intractable decision.” That, in fact, is the way he decided to become a civil engineer.
It took some time to do so. Born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1842, the son of a Unitarian minister, he was educated, like his father before him, at Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard College. From there he went South as the government superintendent of plantations on Saint Helena Island. The object was to bring some order out of the chaos produced by the Civil War among the resident whites and freedmen. After a year he returned to enter the Harvard Law School, in 1864, where he won the Bowdoin prize for the best dissertation. In 1866 he joined the great New York law firm of Evarts, Southmayd & Choate.
“Exactly one month later” he confronted the problem of what to do with himself—practice law, study the principles that lay beneath the practice and teach them at some university, or go west as a civil engineer. He set May 1 of the following year, seven months later, as the date to decide the matter. On that day he informed the firm of his intention to leave the law, and five months thereafter he went out to Kansas City, Missouri, to build a bridge with Octave Chanute. I have the distinct impression that he was turned in this direction by some work he did while in the law firm, on the bankruptcy of a small Western railroad. I cannot verify this by the documents now available, but it has the support of a fairly reliable memory, and it suggests a link in the causality he always sought. When he started work “calculating the cubical contents of stone for the masonry piers,” the “four years of doubt, vacillation and search” which had “formed the introduction to my life” were ended.
He could not have landed in a better place at a better time with a better man. The Missouri was a wild and willful river often disturbed by heavy floods and destructive ice jams. It constantly filled up old channels and cut out new ones. No serious bridge had ever been built across it, and the received judgment was that if a bridge were built, it could never be maintained. For someone who knew no engineering, it was a great place to begin.
There was also Octave Chanute, who had never built a big bridge before. But he had worked for a dozen years in various capacities constructing small Western railroads, and he had learned a lot on the job. At a time when there was really no other way to learn, Chanute was, at thirty-four, near the top of his class. He was, as all his later career indicates, an “acute and accurate observer,” an “inventive engineer,” a “truly scientific spirit,” and, withal, a man possessing the “Gallic power of clear and forceful expression.” When in middle age he turned his attention to “aereal navigation,” his experimental glider flights greatly expanded the knowledge of the field. To the success of the Wright brothers he contributed both useful principles and actual designs.
What it meant to start on such a job with such a man was made clear in a journal written in Kansas City on Thanksgiving Day 1867. After laying out his daily work and study schedule from 0800 to 2130 hours “with not more than one evening a week being excepted,” Morison went on to plot the move into the future. He was “ambitious, very ambitious.” What he had set his sights on was not a financial fortune but “a good and useful life.” With that as his purpose he would, when the Kansas City bridge was finished, “cross the Atlantic and devote a year to the study of French and German, and the acquirement of scientific knowledge; it being my wish to make the profession of engineering a truly liberal profession and through it to rise to science and philosophy, raising it with me rather than to prostitute it to mere money making.…” Not many of those who at the time were calculating the cubic contents of stones would have put it quite that way, and even now it must appear a very large and liberating definition of the possibilities in the field.
Given such attitudes and such a personal program, it is probably not surprising that he rose rapidly to the position of associate engineer on this first job and that, as soon as the bridge was finished, he went to work on a book that described the solutions to the problems encountered in the building of it. What followed—in a rare departure from his program—was not France and Germany but a six-year internship of steadily increasing responsibility in the design and construction of small, short Western railroads with names like Leavenworth, Lawrence & Galveston or Detroit, Eel River & Illinois. Near the end of this period Chanute called him back to serve as his principal engineer on the Erie Canal.
On May 6, 1875, the bridge at Portageville, New York, said to be the largest wooden trestle in the world, was consumed by fire. Morison was put to work drawing up the design and specifications for an iron structure that would replace it. On May 10, four days later, the first building contract was let, and he assumed the direction of the construction. Eightytwo days after that the bridge was open for rail traffic. It was 818 feet two inches between abutments and it gave him, at age thirty-three, an “international prominence.”
For the next seventeen years he devoted most of his time and thought to building railroad bridges in the West. He built these bridges across the Missouri, Mississippi, Ohio, Snake, Columbia, and Willamette rivers. They all had certain common characteristics. Their specifications filled the requiremerits of the particular situations to a T, and in the building those specifications were satisfied precisely. As at Plattsmouth, Nebraska, where the “total deflection of the main span under the test load of 800,000 pounds was exactly” as previously calculated, so with all the others. They were also on the grand scale. At Memphis, Tennessee, the main span was 790 feet, which made it the longest truss in the country. At Cairo, Illinois, the metalwork was 10,560 feet—two miles—in length, the longest steel bridge in the world. And they were all structures in which the function was obviously made to determine the form, in studied austerity.
It was said that in this period he compiled a record that was “unrivaled in the history of bridge construction.” Whatever the truth of this evaluation, it is certain he acquired a reputation that made him sought after for many different kinds of services. He joined the boards of four railroads. For fifteen years he provided Baring Brothers of London with comprehensive analyses of the physical condition, financial structure, and managerial competence of American railroad companies. He played a large part in the study that led to the reconstruction of the Erie Canal. President Cleveland put him on one commission that selected San Pedro as the deepwater port for Los Angeles and on another that started the action that produced, nearly forty years later, the George Washington Bridge across the Hudson.
Then in 1899 he was appointed by President McKinley to the Isthmian Canal Commission. For the next two and a half years he devoted himself to an exhaustive examination of the political difficulties and technical factors, past and present, that were involved in the great enterprise. Twice he went to Europe; once he made a four-month exploration of the isthmus itself; and he attended all the fifty-one meetings of the commission in Washington. In November 1901 the members signed a report that, reflecting a powerful combination of historical, political, and technical pressures, recommended Nicaragua as the site for the canal. Appended to this document was the dissenting opinion of a minority of one. It recommended, with much careful explanation, the choice of the Isthmus of Panama as the preferred site; and it was signed by George S. Morison.
There followed weeks of argument within the commission, debates in Congress, discussion in the press, and earnest consideration in the White House. In January 1902 the commission rendered a supplementary report that unanimously concluded that the “feasible route for an Isthmian Canal to be under the control, management and ownership of the United States is that known as the Panama Route.”
In such a tangle of historical, political, international, and technical considerations and in such a concert of dominant personalities, it is hard to determine final causes. David McCullough, who has made the most recent and careful investigation of the situation, concludes as follows: “If one traces back through the chain of events … and if it is remembered that Morison … made no effort to glorify his contributions, at the time or later, then Morison emerges a bit like the butler at the end of the mystery—as the everpresent, frequently unobtrusive, highly instrumental figure around whom the entire plot turned.” It is an image he would, beyond much doubt, never have chosen, but it makes a point he would never have made for himself.
Such, briefly, was the nature of his principal works. Before trying to establish a more coherent explanation of the man himself, it may be useful to say something about the man among his fellows. Was his record indeed “unrivaled,” should he be called “the leading bridge engineer in America, perhaps in the world,” did he deserve the title of Pontifex Maximus bestowed on him at one college commencement? That is a very doubtful kind of exercise that leads to no useful conclusion. What is far more to the point is that he was a contributing member of a remarkable company, some of whom held his achievements in a good deal higher respect than his person. And what is interesting is not what set the members apart but what they all had and did in common.
There were, of course, some distinguishing temperamental differences. John Roebling played the flute and allowed a caller to be five minutes late before canceling the appointment; Octave Chanute made witty remarks; James Eads interrupted a stunning career for four years because he preferred the “happy environment of his family”; Charles Latrobe liked to go about in society and worked in watercolors; and so on. What really matters is the shared experience of those who practiced civil engineering in the last half of the last century and the effect of that experience on themselves and those around them.
They came up, for the most part, the hard way. Leaving college and, more often, high school, they started out on the ground floor, measuring stone, surveying lines, calculating stresses. They did these things more often than not on a new railroad, which for them, like the Erie Canal for the preceding generation, was the only available institute of technology. Here they learned from men who knew a little more than they did because they had been a little longer on the job. Frequently they followed these instructors into the engineering division of one of the larger, more stable roads in the East. And from there, after a time, they usually struck out on their own as “consulting engineers,” which meant they were ready to deal with whatever propositions came to them.
Wherever they went, whatever they did, they found the subject matter was always changing. Larger loads, longer spans, deeper excavations, new materials, novel procedures. In such conditions the name of the game was figuring out sensible new departures from what had been tried and true for centuries. And if the figuring wasn’t right, the cost of going wrong could be measured out and the source of difficulty explicitly defined. When, for instance, the bridge Amasa Stone had built at Ashtabula, Ohio, went down one stormy night, it took a train of passengers with it. And after a jury found that the bridge had been an experiment “which ought never to have been tried,” Amasa Stone, “as exacting of himself as he had been of many others,” took his own life.
Those who started on the ground floor and worked their way through to the top of such a calling were often said to be bold, self-reliant, independent, secure, powerful, daring, resolute, and, sometimes, arrogant and overbearing. At this distance it may be seen that their most continuing collective contribution was not the things they built but their way of going at things. They gave a significant push to the developing new method of solving certain kinds of problems that occur in life.
Over and over they demonstrated that the ingenious solution that worked was reached through accurate observation, exact knowledge of the strength of materials, precise calculation, due respect for the laws and forces of nature, and the resourceful ordering of evidence obtained by the unclouded intelligence. They could be daring when the findings from the hard data—subjected to the logical process—supported the bold conclusion, and they were resolute because, within their scheme of things, they could prove they were right. Faith might well have its uses, but they had found a surer way to remove a mountain. This method, increasingly refined, has put us wherever it is that we are today.
On this subject he had ideas which in his closing years he put down in a small book. It demonstrates the extent to which he had fulfilled his early intention to rise through his profession to philosophy, and it still speaks to our condition. Our ability to manufacture power in unlimited quantities, begun with Watt and the condenser, had opened up what Morison called a new epoch for mankind. Carried to its logical conclusions, it would in time give men the capacity to create all the essential conditions for their living and to determine their own fate. He foresaw a future when “material developments will come to a gradual pause,” when “an immense population will live comfortably and happily, and the qualities which make the good citizen and the contented man will be more in demand than those which make leaders in periods as we are familiar with.”
But he also believed that the new epoch, before it reached this possible end, would “destroy many of the conditions which give most interest to the history of the past, and many of the traditions which people hold most dear.” Among other things it would “destroy ignorance, as the entire world will be educated, and one of the greatest dangers must come from this very source, when the number of half-educated people is greatest, when the world is full of people who do not know enough to recognize their limitations. …”
How do we assemble the bits and pieces of Modson’s personality and character in a more intelligible mosaic? If the design is supposed to fulfill a familiar expectation, this is a hard question. Remember that until he built the great brick house, at the age of fifty-five, he had no place to call his own, and during the remaining years of his life his accumulated occupancy of that house came to little more than forty-nine days. Though he had apartments in Chicago and New York, he didn’t use them much, and then only for bed and sometimes breakfast. For the most part he stayed in hotels and sleeping cars, and ate in clubs and restaurants. Considered as a social being, he seems a programmed nomad.
There are some family letters, but for the most part they have to do with the arrangement for a proposed visit or the details of some small errand he wished a member to perform. There is also the daily diary he kept throughout his life. In the entries are faithfully reported temperatures, rainfalls, and the number of minutes the train he was riding on was behind schedule.
In such conditions one must respect the dead air spaces, accept the fact that what you see is all you’re going to get, and recognize that he planned it that way. If you look back to the journal entry for Thanksgiving Day 1867, you will find his program for a good and useful life. What he did with himself from those first calculations of cubic quantities to his closing consideration of engineering as the source of a new epoch satisfied the terms of that program—not less, not more, but exactly.
Elting E. Morison is Killian Professor of Humanities Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.