Spring 1998

People of the Century

From the Ground Up

The Flatiron Building, a milestone in building construction, rises in 1902. Hamilton J Chapman was a consulting engineer on the project.

I mportant buildings and other major edifices around the world bear the imprint of WPI graduates. They include the Government Printing Office and the Army War College engineering school and barracks in Washington, D.C., which were built under the supervision of Mark Wilmarth, Class of 1876, while he was principal assistant engineer in the United States Engineers Office. Willmarth began his career with the Boston Sewer Department and was later an executive with several construction firms in New England. He returned to Boston in 1907 as general manager of Monolith Steel Co., which gave him the opportunity to supervise the construction of the Custom House Tower, one of Boston's most recognizable landmarks.

The ingenuity of T. Spencer Miller, Class of 1879, made work easier at construction sites all over the world, and is credited with speeding progress on such mammoth projects as the Panama Canal and Boulder Dam. Miller perfected a cable carrier system that made it possible to deliver heavy loads, like concrete, easily and accurately over long distances. One of his cableways, used in the construction of Hoover Dam, was 2,500 feet long and could carry 10-ton loads. He joined Lingerwood Co. as chief engineer in 1888 and immediately set to work to improve a cable system the company was working on. His invention of the "button stop" fall rope carrier made the product an instant success. Miller also developed a log-skidding cableway that made it economical to remove cypress logs from the Louisiana swamps, a conveyor for coaling ships at sea, and an automatic tension engine that made it possible to use a breeches buoy to rescue people from disabled ships even in the roughest weather.

Charles C. Hall, Class of 1882, was working in the steel industry when he invented a building material still commonly used for heat and sound insulation. Called rock wool, or mineral wool, it is made by blowing steam through molten rock. Hall formed a partnership to make the new product and later founded Banner Rock Products Co., which was purchased by Johns Manville Co. in 1929.

Hamilton J. Chapman, Class of 1886, was a consulting engineer for such New York City landmarks as Grand Central Terminal and the Flatiron Building (New York's first skyscraper), as well as the Treasury Building Annex in Washington, D.C. Walter F. Conlin '17 was one of the top building project managers in the country. He joined Turner Construction Co. after graduation and supervised such diverse projects as an aircraft factory in New Orleans, a rubber factory in Massachusetts, the Navy Test Basin in Maryland, and the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York.

A. Winthrop Merchant, Class of 1897, was one of the most prominent architects and building contractors in New England. With a partner, he founded Williams & Merchant; when his partner died in 1916, he took over the business, which was renamed A.W. Merchant Inc. The company built the Rhode Island Auditorium, the Metcalf Laboratory at Brown University and the Roger Williams Memorial, all in Providence.

Building bridges, dams and power projects has been the principal occupation of a number of WPI graduates through the years. During his lifelong career with Bethlehem Steel Co., E. Leland Durkee '19 worked on the design and erection of many of the world's most notable bridges, including the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the Cooper River Bridge in South Carolina and the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls. George R. Rich '19 was a renowned designer of power-generating plants. In his 57 years as a professional engineer, he worked on such projects as the Passamaquoddy Tidal Power Project in Maine, the St. Lawrence Power Project, and the Cape Cod Ship Canal and Locks. Charles C. Bonin '38 was a worldwide authority on the construction of arch dams. He joined Ebasco Services after graduation and ultimately became chairman and CEO of Chemico, an Ebasco affiliate. He was responsible for the design and construction of the Kamishuba Arch Dam, the first arch dam built in Asia.

Two graduates played pivotal roles in the building of new towns. Kirtland M. Smith, Class of 1872, was an engineer for the Alden Coal Co. when he discovered a rich coal vein in rural Luzerne County in Pennsylvania. He supervised the construction of a mine and founded the town of Alden, Pa., to support it. He was Alden's leading citizen for 50 years. Warren W. Parks '17 was the resident engineer on the layout and construction of Marimont, Ohio, a model town built in the 1920s.

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