A Man for All Bridges
by George Shattuck Morison (source)
Among the features of Letchworth State Park that attract attention and stand out in the memory bank of visitors of all ages is not part of the Park at all but is the Erie High Bridge. This railroad bridge is still in active use today, and is the same bridge, with some renovations to allow heavier trains, that was built after the equally famous wooden structure burned. The origin of this bridge leads us to study a very interesting man — the engineer who designed the bridge, George Shattuck Morison. My reason for use of this title will become more clear as you read of his accomplishments.
If you have known any engineers you know they are an intelligent breed and usually quite proud of their profession. One that I worked with at Letchworth Park was James E. M. Stewart. He was Senior Park Engineer at Letchworth and like many of us retains his interest in the park even after going on to a career as a Consultant Engineer in the Scottsville area. He was kind enough to provide us with copy of a published Memoir that is our main source for this article.
Morison was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, December 19, 1842. He grew up near Boston and early on developed a faculty for surveying and architecture. He attended a prep school called Philips Exeter Academy, received a BS from Harvard in 1863 and was best in his class in math. He received a Bachelor of Laws from Harvard in 1866 and was admitted to the bar that year. A year later he was working as a Civil Engineer for which he had no special education or training.
His engineering work began in October 1867 on the bridge over the Missouri River at Kansas City with Octave Chanute who was in charge. He worked in Detroit until 1873 when he again worked with Chanute who was Chief Engineer of the Erie Railroad. At that time the Erie was replacing many of its wooden bridges. Morison was Principal Assistant Engineer in 1875 when the wooden Portage bridge burned and he designed and built the iron structure in six weeks from the date of the fire. His experience with the Erie launched him as a bridge builder. He is credited with building bridges at Plattsmouth, Bismarck, Sioux City, Blair, Omaha, Rulo, Nebraska City, Atchison, Leavenworth, and Bellefontaine Bluffs. All of which were over the Missouri river, which was considered the most treacherous stream in the country. Those over the Mississippi were at Winona, Burlington, Alton, St Louis, and Memphis. He bridged the Ohio at Cairo, the Snake River at Ainsworth, Washington, the Columbia near Belknap, Montana, one over the Willamette at Portland Oregon, one over the St John’s at Jacksonville, Florida and many smaller bridges in all parts of the United States.
He was elected a Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1875 and in 1895 was President of the Society which is the highest professional honor for an Engineer. He was a Member and Telford Medalist of the Institution of Civil Engineers. Member of Western Society of Civil Engineers and a trustee for three years. Member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers; the American Institute of Mining Engineers; and of the Mexican Society of Engineers and Architects; and Associate Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; a Fellow of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and other learned and scientific societies. A further renown came for his service on the Isthmian Canal Commission from 1899 to 1903 to determine the route for the Panama canal.
He was Chairman of a Commission to report on the plans of the Manhattan Bridge over the East River and signed the report on June 29th of 1903. Two days later he died.
It is not necessary to state that such work required a master mind, and when it is considered that Mr. Morison had no special technical training in engineering, but entered the field when he was nearly 25 years of age it is indeed marvelous. Nature endowed him with a strong intellect and a strong will, and he made the most of them. The whole grand success may be summed up in the word “work”. In his work he was original and not merely an imitator or developer of existing ideas. He had a powerful intelligence, which would have distinguished him in any calling, and added to that he had in large measure those special gifts which make a man an engineer in spite of accidents of education.
In a report by Clayton B. Fraser of Fraserdesign of Loveland Colorado made for the Historic American Engineering Record (part of the Library of Congress) in 1986 the author states: “With his long-span railroad bridges over the navigable Midwestern rivers, civil engineer George S. Morison(1842 – 1903) was instrumental in the development of the steel bridge industry in the 1880sand 1890s. The first to standardize bridge design for the Missouri River, he facilitated the American railroad expansion and was distinguished as one of the country’s most prolific and influential bridge engineers.”
Tom Breslin October 2002
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