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John Frank Stevens

By Christopher Webb, Secondary Education major, Social Studies concentration, at University of Maine Farmington, Class of 2010

John Frank Stevens was born in West Gardiner Maine on April 25th 1853 to John Stevens, who was a tanner and a farmer, and his wife, Harriet Leslie French. His attendance at the Maine Normal School lasted only two years. After he got his degree in teaching he practiced for one year but did not pursue the profession any more. For economic reasons he decided to move out west and start over. His skills at math led him toward pursuing a career working on railroads and engineering. With almost no formal training in the area he quickly began working his way up the ranks.

His tasks in the field began easy at first, simply surveying fields and prospective sites. After two years of doing this in the Minneapolis city engineer's office he entered the field himself. He was characterized by his common sense attitude and determination and drive. Being mainly self-taught he was an exceptionally bright individual and this was reflected in his work. By the age of 33 he was already the principal assistant engineer for the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railway. He was in charge of the task of building a rail line from Duluth, Minnesota to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. His principal job was to survey the site but due to his tenacity he involved himself in almost all phases of the work from organizing, locating, constructing, and surveying it.

After his time working for that company James Hill and the Great Northern Railway hired him. During his time at Great Northern Stevens discovered two key passes; the Marias Pass over the Continental Divide and the Stevens Pass in the Cascade Range that was named after him. By 1895 Stevens was named to the position of chief engineer in the company, and shortly after he would become the general manager. Stevens was responsible for helping to build over 1000 miles of railway during his time at great Northern, a very impressive feat. He would hold one more position at another company; the Island and Pacific railroad company in Chicago, in 1903 and become vice-president of that company. It is shortly after this in 1905 that at the recommendation of James Hill, Theodore Roosevelt would hire Stevens as the chief engineer for the Panama Canal project.

Stevens took over the Canal project from John F. Wallace in 1905, Wallace had resigned the position mainly because of a fear of yellow fever, which had infected 134 people and killed 34. Stevens arrived at the site on July 25, 1905 and immediately began improving the conditions of the workers. He actually stopped what little excavation was going on at the time and focused the efforts on improving the living conditions of the people there and meeting their basic needs. During Stevens’ time as chief engineer hospitals, schools, churches, homes, mess halls, roughly 5,500 building total were built. The entire staff of the project was increased threefold during his tenure as well. Stevens supported the theory that the reason the workers were getting sick from yellow fever was because of the mosquitoes. Interestingly enough with knowledge about the mosquitoes themselves and the specific types which carried the disease Stevens was able to make the decision to clear the work sites for two hundred yards around of all vegetation. This is because the two types of mosquitoes which carried the disease could not fly for more then that distance without landing on something, therefore if they had nothing to land on they could not reach the site.

Stevens also contributed greatly to the efficiency of the project. He realized that the French who had tried to complete the project before them had been using lackluster equipment so he had the rail system that they would be using completely updated with the best materials since it would need to be rugged enough to haul away all the dirt from the excavation and bring in supplies as well. It was Stevens who proposed building a high level canal with dams and locks instead of a sea level one like the French were trying to do. His idea would be cheaper and quicker to accomplish. To give you an idea of how much dirt was excavated from this project it is estimated that there was enough dirt removed to circle the planet four times.
Without Stevens superior organization skills and his engineering genius it might not have been possible for this bogged down project to have been completed in such a timely manner. Stevens resigned from his post as chief engineer in 1907. He sited personal reasons for leaving the project but it was mainly because the project was running extremely smoothly by this point. He had installed all the modifications that needed to be done to get the operation going and felt like it just needed to continue as it was. After leaving the canal project he spent most of his years, starting in 1917, in Russia reorganizing the Trans-Siberian Railway. He only remained there for five short years before returning home. The only work Stevens did after the Trans-Siberian Railway was to work as a consulting engineer in Baltimore from 1923-1930, after that he retired to Southern Pines, North Carolina where he died on June 2nd, 1943 at the age of 90. Stevens was made an honorary member of the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1922 and in 1927 they elected him president, the highest office in the society. They also conferred upon him the John Fritz Medal and the Hoover Medal.


Baugh, Odin A. John Frnak Stevens: An American Trailblazer. Spokane, Wash. : Arthur H. Clark Co., 2005

J. Constr. Engrg. and Mgmt. Volume 126, Issue 5, pp. 325-330 (September/October 2000). Retrieved from:

Stevens, John F. An Engineers Recollections. New York : McGraw-Hill Publishing Co., c1936

Webster, Natalie; Manager, Media Relations, American Society of Civil Engineers. Retrieved from: