The late nineteenth century and early twentieth century was a time of rapid construction in the United States. To build a modern nation, the country built railroads, harbors, dams, bridges and roads. Some of these projects, from railroads in Arkansas to the Panama Canal, were built in part through the genius of one Arkansas engineer, William L. Gerig.
William Lee Gerig was born in Boone County in central Missouri in 1866. His father was a Swiss immigrant and engineer who had worked on the Suez Canal project connecting the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea through Egypt some years before. Growing up, the young Gerig became fascinated by surveying and engineering.
Extraordinarily intelligent, he gradated from the University of Missouri at Columbia at the age of 19 with a degree in civil engineering. Shortly after his 1885 graduation, he was hired to help with the design and construction of the Southwestern Arkansas and Indian Territory Railroad, a short railway between Cleveland and Clark counties. Here, he married Francis Crowe of Arkadelphia in 1890. While he set down roots with his new wife in Arkadelphia, he was constantly on the move, leaving for long stretches to work on a variety of projects.
In 1905, Gerig was hired to serve as chief engineer of the Panama Canal project. The canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans had been a dream for centuries, yet several previous efforts had crumbled under the pressures of finances or the difficult engineering questions involved. Working with a team of engineers and hundreds of laborers in an oppressive tropical climate, Gerig helped get the project restarted. With modern engineering techniques and new equipment, Gerig was able to help solve many of the major problems and put the canal project on a successful path forward. Upon its completion in 1914, the Panama Canal was hailed as one of the top engineering marvels of the world.
However, Gerig was lured away from the Panama Canal project in 1908. Investors in Oregon were attempting to revive a troubled local railroad, the Pacific and Eastern, and brought in Gerig as vice-president and chief engineer. The railroad, however, continued to struggle, but local newspapers and the company praised the efforts of Gerig as he expanded the railroad’s lines and maintained its existing routes through the mountains.
He soon took on an even more ambitious project, the construction of a railroad across Alaska. Plans had been discussed at the beginning of the century to build a railroad from harbors on the Pacific coast to the central Alaska city of Fairbanks. However, the great distances involved, mountains, and extreme cold made construction a difficult task. The project took years. The last phase of the project was a 700-foot metal truss bridge over across a difficult stretch of river in 1923. At the time, the Mears Memorial Bridge was the longest bridge of its type in the world.
After the dedication of the railroad, Gerig went to work for the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers as a consultant for its many dam projects. He remained in the position for the next fifteen years. By the 1930s, the federal government expanded the number of earthen dam projects, particularly in Arkansas. Severe flooding in the 1920s had emphasized the need for better flood control in the region, and Gerig had proven his expertise. He retired from his position in 1938.
Even in retirement, Gerig was still in high demand. He continued to travel across the United States as an inspector and consultant to examine dams, canals, rivers and harbors. He died exhausted in Arkadelphia in 1944.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at [email protected] southark.edu.