Spring 1998

People of the Century

Building the Iron Rails

For early graduates, the burgeoning railroad industry must have been a powerful lure. Those early alumni emerged at a time of tremendous expansion and consolidation in this young industry. For those with a willingness to set out for America's frontier, the possibilities were endless. One of the first to answer the siren call of the railroads was John W. Kendrick, Class of 1873. In 1879 he landed a job as a surveyor with the Northern Pacific and by 1888 was chief engineer of the entire railroad. Later, as general manager, he reorganized the line and put the Northern Pacific back on a firm footing after a period of financial hardship. He went on to become a senior executive with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe and the International-Great Northern.

William L. Darling, Class of 1877, joined the Northern Pacific in 1878 and was soon working on the first northern transcontinental line. He led the crews that built the line from Missoula, Mont., to the Columbia River, where they met the party coming west. He also built the main line out of Minneapolis and the city's passenger terminal. Later in his career he was part of the Railway Advisory Commission, a group of railway experts who advised the Russian government on improvements to the Trans-Siberian Railroad just before the Russian Revolution (see essay on Benjamin Johnson, below).

John Q. Barlow, Class of 1882, also started out with the Northern Pacific; by 1887 he was division engineer with the Union Pacific, responsible, ultimately, for building 250 miles of track in four states. He eventually worked for several railroads in the West, Northwest and East. As chief engineer for the Western Maryland Railroad, he built a new transcontinental line, the first to take passengers coast to coast without changing trains. He later became chief engineer for Utah Construction Co., one of the firms that helped build the West. For one assignment, Barlow supervised the laying of 20 miles of rail line needed for the construction of Boulder Dam.

John J. Donovan, Class of 1882, went west to work for the railroads, but ultimately became an important name in the lumber industry. He worked on rail projects in Montana and Washington before finding himself in charge of several rail lines emanating from the village of Bellingham, Wash. He resigned from his railroad duties in 1906 and with a partner formed Bloedel-Donovan Lumber Mills, which became one of the largest lumber companies in the Northwest. He was a member of the board of freeholders who framed Bellingham's charter and served on its city council for many years.

Benjamin O. Johnson, Class of 1900, had, perhaps, the most colorful and adventure-filled railroading career of any WPI alumnus. While the industry's trailblazing days were largely over by the time he graduated, the lure of the rails drew him west, where he worked for the Northern Pacific and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe. In 1917, after the Russian Revolution, he was commissioned a major in the Russian Railway Service Corps. Continuing the work of the Railway Advisory Committee (see essay on William Darling, above), this American military unit was established to protect railroad interests in Siberia and to reorganize and run the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Johnson's assignment was to repair tracks and bridges damaged in military action and direct operations on the line. He also took charge of some of the Czech Legion troops who were engaging the revolutionary forces for control of the tracks. The Czechoslovakian government would later honor him with the War Cross, its highest honor (he was the first American to receive the medal).

When the head of the Interallied Technical Board returned to the United States, Johnson became acting president, which put him in command of Allied forces in Siberia and in charge of portions of the Trans-Siberian and Chinese Eastern railways (about 2,000 miles of track, in all). When he returned to the United States in 1922, Johnson was honored by several governments. France gave him the Cross of the Legion of Honor, China its Chia Ho, or Distinguished Service Decoration, and the United States its Distinguished Service Medal.

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