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 [decorative delimiter] Class of 1819

Vol. I

(Born Ind.)

George W. Whistler​1

(Ap'd Ky.)


George Washington Whistler: Born May 19, 1800, Ft. Wayne, IN.

Military History. — Cadet at the Military Academy, July 31, 1814, to July 1, 1819, when he was graduated and promoted in the Army to

Second Lieut., Corps of Artillery, July 1, 1819.

Served: on Topographical duty, 1819; in garrison at Ft. Columbus, N. Y., 1819‑20; on Topographical duty, 1820‑21; at the Military Academy,

(Second Lieut., 1st Artillery,
in Re-organization of Army, June 1, 1821)

(Transferred to 2d Artillery, Aug. 16, 1821)

 p215  as Asst. Teacher of Drawing, Nov. 2, 1821, to Apr. 30, 1822; and

(First Lieut., 2d Artillery, Aug. 16, 1829)

on Topographical duty, Apr. 30, 1822, to Dec. 31, 1833.

Resigned, Dec. 31, 1833.

Civil History. — Civil Engineer in the United States, from 1833 to 1842, — and in Russia, from 1842 to 1849. Associate Engineer, Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, 1828‑29, — of Baltimore and Susquehanna Railroad, 1830, — of Paterson, N. J., and Hudson River Railroad, 1831‑32, — and of Stonington, Ct., and Providence, R. I., Railroad, 1833, 1834, and 1837. Superintending Engineer of Locks and Canals Company, Lowell, Mas., 1835‑36. Consulting Engineer, Western Railroad, from Worcester, Mas., to Albany, N. Y., 1837‑40, — and Chief Engineer, 1840‑42. Superintending Engineer of the St. Petersburg and Moscow Railroad, Russia, 1842‑49.

Died, Apr. 7, 1849, at St. Petersburg, Russia: Aged 49.

Buried, Evergreen Cemetery, Stonington, CT.

Biographical Sketch.

Major George Washington Whistler was born, May 19, 1800, at Ft. Wayne, Indiana, then a part of the great Northwest Territory. He was the son of John Whistler, a British soldier under Burgoyne at Saratoga, who subsequently entered our service, was wounded in St. Clair's defeat on the Miami, Nov. 4, 1791, and rose to be a Captain of the U. S. First Infantry, with the brevet of Major, in which regiment he served throughout the War of 1812‑15 with Great Britain.

Thus, on the Indian frontier, young Whistler was brought up with predilections for a soldier's life, which were soon gratified by his appointment from Kentucky, July 31, 1814, to be a Cadet of the U. S. Military Academy. Being then only fourteen years old, and of a joyous, mirthful disposition, it is not surprising that he was more devoted to boyish frolic and playing his flute than to dry, mathematical studies. The consequence of this exuberant love of fun was his being frequently an inmate of the guard-house, and often having to perform extra artillery drill, astride a cannon, before the quarters of the Acting Superintendent, then known as "Old Pewter's Salt-Box." Though "Pipes" (Whistler's sobriquet) was never studious at West Point, he quickly developed a decided talent for drawing, and such were his natural abilities that of his class, numbering over thirty members, he became the most proficient pupil in Descriptive Geometry, then just introduced by Professor Crozet, an élève of the celebrated Monge in the Polytechnic School of France. Notwithstanding this neglect of his studies, Whistler was graduated, July 1, 1819, twelfth in his class, and promoted in the Army to be a Second Lieutenant in the Corps of Artillery.

On graduation, Whistler, having shown much skill in drawing and the use of mathematical instruments, was detailed for topographical duty as assistant to Major Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Abert on surveys for military defenses. The first of these was Salem harbor, Mas., the shores being required to be represented by horizontal contour lines. None of the officers knew how to do it, and while all were pondering the problem, Whistler, seated on a hill, suddenly sprang up shouting "Eureka!" His discovery, the plan now generally used, was very simple, as was Columbus' egg standing on end after the failure of all the courtiers at the grand cardinal's feast to accomplish it.

In 1821, Whistler was ordered back to the Military Academy as the Assistant Teacher of Drawing. Leaving West Point, Apr. 30, 1822, he  p216 was again detailed for topographical duty, upon which he remained till Dec. 31, 1833, when he resigned from the Army, he then being a First Lieutenant in the Second Regiment of Artillery. His first service, during this last detail, was in connection with the Northwest Boundary of the United States, beyond Lake Superior, he having charge of a surveying party. It being midwinter, with the thermometer frequently 50° below zero, and the ground covered with blinding snow, their sufferings were very severe. Add to these hardships that their food was mostly tallow and Indian pemmican, their daily marches were made on snowshoes, and at night having to bivouac with no other covering than a buffalo robe to prevent their freezing. At the end of this severe ordeal, Whistler was transferred to more agreeable duties, — surveys for the Western Armory, Railroads, etc.

At this time, there being only a few instructed engineers in the United States, scientifically educated graduates of the Military Academy were wisely loaned by the government to assist private chartered companies in carrying out their various schemes of internal improvement. Among these pioneer enterprises was the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, upon which Whistler was employed, in 1828‑29, as an associate engineer. By this company he was sent to England with Jonathan Knight, Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.William Gibbs McNeill, of the U. S. Topographical Engineers, and Ross Winans, to examine and report upon the organization, construction, and equipment of the railroads of Great Britain. They were cordially received by the most eminent civil engineers in England, and after a careful study of numerous works returned, in 1829, laden with much valuable professional information.

Whistler had charge of the first mile of track laid on the Baltimore and Ohio road, — the first track for passage cars put down by any company in this country. Before it was quite finished, a rupture unfortunately took place between the directors of the company and the United States engineers. In 1830, McNeill and Whistler entered the service of the Baltimore and Susquehanna (now part of the Northern Central) Railroad, the latter remaining on the work till about twenty miles of main and branch track had been completed, when financial embarrassments put a stop to the company's operations. In 1831‑32, Whistler was engaged upon the Paterson and Hudson (now southern terminus of Erie) Railroad; and in 1833‑34, upon the Providence and Stonington Railroad. Though associated with Major McNeill in these and other works, it is well understood that, while his senior attended to the management of directors, Whistler was the real executive head upon whom devolved all professional duties, and the supervision of every detail.

Leaving the Stonington Road in 1834, Whistler was appointed Chief Engineer of the "Proprietors of Locks and Canals on the Merrimack River," a corporation owning a machine shop in Lowell, Mas., then the largest and best in New England. Here he furnished the most complete detailed drawings of locomotives, and introduced into their construction such a superior style of workman­ship and taste that his engines enjoyed a higher reputation than any others in the country. He it was, though himself a fine musician, who invented that very useful but most unmusical locomotive whistle,​a now making day and night hideous with shrieking discord. While at Lowell, his wife, the sister of Major McNeill, bore him a son, — the now famous artist, James A. Whistler,​b — who has inherited his father's graphic talents, but not much of his sweet amiability of temper, judging from his controversy in England with Mr. Ruskin.

In 1837 Whistler, with Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.William H. Swift (his most devoted friend, and brother-in‑law by his first marriage), was engaged on the Western Railroad of Massachusetts, now with the Worcester constituting the Boston and Albany Road. Till 1840, he was only the Consulting and  p217 then, till 1842, the Chief Engineer of the road. During this latter period he built the fine railroad bridge across the Connecticut River at Springfield, Mas.

Though many important railroads had been constructed in England prior to 1842, and about 4,000 miles of track had been opened in the United States, Russia, at that time, had in operation only a short passenger road of eighteen miles, from St. Petersburg to Tsarskoe-Selo. The Emperor Nicholas, extremely desirous of extending the system, sent the Chevalier de Gerstner and two distinguished engineer officers of high rank to this country to select the best person to be found who would undertake the planning and building of the contemplated St. Petersburg and Moscow Railroad. After spending several months in the United States in visiting our public works and studying the skill of their construction and the efficiency of their management, they returned to Russia, reporting strongly in favor of Major Whistler's experience, attainments, and capacity as an engineer. Accordingly he was invited to accept a liberal salary and proceed at once to Russia to become the "Consulting Engineer of the St. Petersburg and Moscow Railroad," a work projected by the Czar himself, to be built by the Government. Whistler accepted the invitation, was warmly received by the Russian ambassador in London, and reached St. Petersburg late in the summer of 1842 to enter upon his magnum opus of uniting, with iron bands, the ancient with the modern capital of the Russian Empire, distant from each other about four hundred miles.

Whistler was at once associated with the Technical Commission of Engineers, a Board of nine officers of the highest rank, mostly generals. To this commission Whistler made an elaborate report, Sep. 9, 1842, recommending a five feet track, with T‑rails,º 60 pounds to the yard, supported by cross-ties three feet apart, it being found, says he, "that, both in England and America, the narrow-gauge roads are the cheapest, safest, and best, the broad gauges having no equivalent advantages." Before this erudite Board, Whistler presented himself to propound and defend his conclusions, though he well knew that the greater part of that learned commission came prejudiced against him, as men in place and dignity are apt to be against a foreigner not of their own body, and viewed askance as a kind of adventurer. There is always a proneness to consider one under cross-examination as somewhat of a delinquent or impostor, whose faults and errors are to be detected and exposed, particularly when there is an appearance of innovation upon established doctrine. At this time, both in England and Russia, the opinions of engineers were setting very strongly in favor of wide-gauge railroads, and therefore, in view of all these circumstances, it is not surprising that the whole Technical Commission, with one exception, decided against Whistler in favor of the six‑feet gauge. The dissenting member was Colonel Melnikoff, who had carefully examined most of the narrow-gauge roads in Great Britain and America. In an able rejoinder to the adverse decision of the Technical Commission, Whistler reinforced his original views with power­ful arguments showing "that neither the result of experience nor probable future advantages calls for a greater width of track than five feet." Suffice it to say that Whistler finally triumphed, and when we recall the gauge controversy of those days,​c and knew how much expense and trouble the wide gauge has since caused, the stand taken by our young American engineer then, against such influences and many officers of note, entitles him to very high professional eminence, and illustrates the foresight and comprehensiveness of his mind.

In the mean time Whistler, with some Russian engineers of whom he speaks most favorably, reconnoitred the whole line from St. Petersburg to Moscow, and found the country very advantageous for a railroad,  p218 being nearly flat, but slightly marshy, and with only two broad river valleys to span and their streams to bridge. The difficulties of constructing such a road in America would not, even then, have been considered very great, but, in Russia, were formidable because of much official red-tape, the jealousy of most of the Technical Commission, and the lack of all railroad experience, mechanical skill, and organization of public works. Fortunately the Count Kleinmichel, Chief of the "Department of Ways and Communications," an officer with a clear head, possessing eminent executive ability, and without any jealousy of the distinguished American engineer, supported Whistler in nearly all of his projects and views; but his tower of strength was in the unwavering favor of the enlightened Czar himself.

Two lines, to connect the capitals, presented themselves: one along the Valley of the Volga, via Novgorod, and the other the direct line, about four hundred miles long. Whistler recommended the latter, which, being concurred in by the entire Technical Commission and approved by the Emperor, was at once adopted. As at this time only one short road, in all Russia, was in operation, therefore Whistler, for his contemplated great work, was forced to organize and plan everything himself, from a wheelbarrow to a steam excavator. As no skilled labor, machinery, nor equipment for railroad construction existed in the country, Whistler had to devise or send to the United States for engines, cars, pile-drivers, bridge models, spike machinery, and tools of almost every kind, with workmen experienced in their use. Capable superintendents of machine shops, bridge-builders, contractors, and heads of almost every department of construction had to be imported from America or England. As an illustration of the superiority of our American machinery, it may be mentioned that one of Whistler's steam pile-drivers with three laborers in an hour did the work which one of the Russian hand-drivers required sixteen men during two whole days to perform or, in other words, did more than a hundred times the amount of service.

Whistler had to be constantly on the move, and personally to direct vast and varied operations, involving the construction of 200 locomotives, 6,000 cars, great bridges, numerous workshops, large depots, and numberless structures for various purposes; and housing, feeding, and directing sometimes 60,000 mechanics and laborers. Of course he was assisted by able Russian engineers, but they were timid about adopting bold American devices; consequently Whistler had to be the responsible and directing head of everything.

On New Year's Day of 1843, Whistler was, for the first time, presented at court. He, of course, appeared in the imperial presence with modesty, yet self-possession, neither dazzled nor daunted by splendour of the court, or the awful majesty of the throne. Upon the Emperor's invitation, Whistler with much ease and earnestness unfolded his plans for carrying out his great work, to which his Majesty listened in the most complaisant manner. Whistler in one of his letters, now before me, writes: "The Emperor is a very fine-looking man, very much like General Scott, but the general never treated me with half the consideration that the Emperor did; . . . there is that about him which enabled me at once to enter upon a conversation, and tell him all I knew upon the points of his inquiries with as much ease as I could have talked to any private gentleman. I verily believe I never said 'Your Majesty' once. I describe to him the whole route of the road, — its principal difficulties and how they might be overcome. He seemed much interested, often questioned me, and was pleased to say, shaking hands with me, as we parted, 'I am sure, sir, you will do it right,' to which I replied, 'You are very kind, sir, and, if you think it well done when it is done, I shall be proud of your approbation.' "

 p219  Shortly after this interview, Whistler received a communication stating that "His Imperial Majesty has been pleased to appoint you a member of the Technical Commission, established in the Department of Railroads," extending over the whole Empire. Such was the unbounded confidence of the Emperor in Whistler's skill, ability and experience that he was constantly called to new duties, he at one time being a member of three permanent and many special commissions; besides being consulted upon military engineering, river and harbor improvements, the great Neva bridge, which was finally completed by Americans, and, upon the special invitation of the Emperor, who personally consulted him, upon the difficult foundations for some new fortifications and dockyards at Cronstadt, Whistler's views being approved by the Czar though opposed by the Russian engineers.

This partiality of the Emperor for Whistler and his professional views of course greatly irritated his imperial engineers, many of whom were nobles of high rank. Though compelled to look up to this young American officially, they were determined to look down upon him socially, which the Emperor learning, he resolved at once to stop the annoyance to Whistler, whose nobility was not birth but moral worth, eminent talents, and distinguished services. Accordingly, the Czar, taking advantage of a day when he knew many engineer officers would visit the Hermitage, — the celebrated Russian gallery of art, — entered it without noticing any one till he found Whistler, who had an enthusiastic love for pictures. On seeing him, Nicholas went directly towards the American engineer, took his arm, and walked slowly with him entirely around the gallery, pointing out each chef-d'oeuvre. It is unnecessary to say that, henceforth, Mr. Whistler belonged to the very highest aristocracy.

For five years Whistler, day and night, toiled on in the performance of his arduous duties, patiently bearing with every vexation and disappointment at the slow progress of the railroad, which ere this he had hoped to complete and then return to his loved home. He was, however, consoled by a personal visit of the Emperor to the whole line of railway and to the numerous workshops, "where," says Whistler, "his Majesty was pleased to express his entire approbation and gratification in the most flattering manner to me and our countrymen, since which he has expressed his thanks in a ukase, and given me the Cross of the Order of St. Anne, and to Harrison, Winans, and Eastwick a diamond ring each."

Though kept very busy, — for Whistler always desired to make himself useful, professionally and otherwise, — his great work was constantly retarded from some cause, and, in 1848, the supplies of men and money were especially deficient. This was the year of the French Revolution, the forced abdication of Louis Philippe, and of Louis Napoleon becoming President of the Republic; in Austria, of the advance of the Hungarian Army on Vienna, of Ferdinand's abdication, and of Francis Joseph's accession; in Italy, of Charles Albert's calling out his army to repel the encroachments of Austria, of the revolt at Palermo, and of the Pope's flight from Rome in disguise; of disturbances in Prussia, Schleswig-Holstein, and Poland; and throughout Continental Europe there was a seething cauldron of commotion, which culminated the following year in the overthrow of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, the defeat of Charles Albert at Novara, and the march of Russia to aid Austria against Hungary.

Thus, between war, which absorbed the resources of Russia, and cholera, which carried off a million of the inhabitants of the Empire, there was little progress to the St. Petersburg and Moscow Railway. Whistler himself had been taken down with the cholera, and, on recovering, says, Jan. 2, 1849, in a letter to Captain William H. Swift: "Our work actually drags from causes that I cannot remedy; and, as if to keep up appearances, I am harassed with projects and estimates for things  p220 never to be executed. . . . I should like very much to be here to see the completion of this road, because I should be proud of my share in it. It is indeed a noble work, and very much more economically constructed than any other in Europe of a similar character, although there has been much extravagance in some things for effect; but I fear I shall not see the opening through." These last words were the prophecy of his own fate, for three months later, — Apr. 7, 1849, — stricken with heart disease, he breathed his last at St. Petersburg before he had attained the age of forty-nine. The "opening through" was made some years later by Whistler's accomplished successor, who had been graduated from the U. S. Military Academy six years after his distinguished predecessor.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century were born three of the most distinguished railroad engineers of the age, — George W. Whistler, Robert Stephenson, and Isambard K. Brunel, — the first an American, the second an Englishman, and the third of French descent, all of whom died in middle life from overwork. The latter two had the advantages of being sons of eminent engineers and inheritors of their experience and fame, while the former enjoyed the benefit of military training and education. Each partook of his nationality, Stephenson being sagacious, practical, and inventive; Brunel imaginative, ingenious, and daring; while Whistler had, in a marked degree, the good qualities of both. As a child, living on a wild frontier, he was exposed to many trials and dangers which taught him self-reliance; as a boy, at the Military Academy, he acquired methodical habits, the practice of a strict discipline, and the rudiments of mathematics and drawing, — the priceless tools of his life's profession; and in early manhood he was thoroughly exercised in the hard gymnastics of the unsolved mechanical problems of a new country. Besides, Whistler had rare natural abilities, a ready perception of principles, and was rich in expedients; possessed great tact, a sound judgment, and an ardent temperament; united steady perseverance to a prodigious capacity for work; and utilized not only the riches of his own mind, but skillfully profited by the experience of others. Though not much of a student of books, he was quick to avail himself of the ripe scholar­ship of more learned scientists; and with no theories of his own to combat, nor pride of opinion to sacrifice, he at once swept away all cobwebs of sophistry, was undaunted by ordinary difficulties, and hence promptly determined his course of action. But, though at times he modestly yielded to the adverse views of others, it was never from a lack of self-confidence, or capacity for originating and executing the boldest conceptions. His was always the leading mind among associates; and his plans, broad and comprehensive, ever aimed at securing the maximum results with the minimum expenditure of time, labor, and money. Cautious, tentative, and practical, Whistler was pre-eminently a safe man, and never the projector of wild schemes; yet, as the friend of progress, he early and urgently advocated that states should build railways, that the railways might build up the states. When he began his career of engineering, there were only a few miles of quarry and mining tracks laid in this country; hence, unguided by experience, he was compelled to make the surveys, select the routes, devise the structures, secure adequate funds, economically build and put in operation railroads which, with reasonable certainty, would pay dividends to corporations. In the midst of this usefulness and success in his native land, he was called away to develop his higher faculties in the creation of the internal improvements of a vast empire.

Whistler, when he went to Russia, was in the prime of life; brought up as a soldier, he was adapted to the usages of a military nation; and his American experience on surveys, in machine shops, and with the construction of public works, admirably fitted him for his new vocation. But  p221 no beginning could have been more unpromising than his on the St. Petersburg and Moscow Road, where nearly his whole resources were his own mental activity, trained inventive faculties, varied professional experience, and strong will to conquer difficulties. Few statistics and little railway knowledge were at hand; all plant, machinery, and tools were wanting, and no drilled personnel was to be found to administer the various and complicated departments of this great road. Whistler had to create everything from a spike machine to a locomotive engine, and to play executive officer everywhere and in everything. His was a mighty task, greater even than the construction of the largest of the Egyptian pyramids, the fourth wonder of the ancient world. According to Herodotus, one hundred thousand men were employed for ten years in preparing and transporting, and two years in building, the pyramid of Cheops. To rear this mountain of stone involved the lifting of 15,733,000,000 cubic feet one foot high; whereas Whistler, with about one third of the force in one sixth of the time, had a much more Herculean labor to perform. Though himself the Atlas whose shoulders upheld the mighty load, his personal energy imparted itself to his subordinates, quickening and influencing them as strong characters always do, flowing down into theirs, and bringing out their fullest powers. Moreover, the whole education of Whistler's life had inculcated a sympathy with his workmen, who respected his master­ship as he did their manhood, thus enabling him to enforce the strictest discipline while securing their cheerful obedience and best exertions. Besides, his uniform kindness and good temper, his social disposition and familiar intercourse, and his readiness to converse intelligently upon almost every topic, brought him in easy contact with men, enabling him to select from among them the best agents to work out his own ideas. Hence, through his chosen assistants, he organized and directed vast bands of skilled mechanics and hordes of common laborers who were employed so many years in carrying his magnificent conceptions to their success­ful achievement. But his chief reliance was upon himself; everything bore the impress of his own patient thought; each detail was as carefully considered as if constituting the whole scheme, and nothing was neglected to attain the desired end. Materials were required to be the best of their kind; structures had to be built solidly and trustily, and the whole work was to be honest in construction and economical in cost. Of the millions expended by his order, though corruption sat in high places near him, his integrity withstood every trial and temptation. Frequently called upon to act as arbitrator between contractors and the government, such value was attached to Whistler's impartial opinions, great experience, and sound judgment that both parties promptly yielded to his upright awards. No mean jealousy nor petty expediency could swerve him from the path of rectitude, and, if ever a bias lingered in his breast, it was for the friendless workman.

Whistler was not simply an eminent engineer, but a man of broad culture and a profound thinker, and possessed a gifted and well-balanced mind. His hospitable mansion was the resort of persons learned in art, in literature, and in science; and his ready and intelligent discussions on these topics inspired his guests with admiration of his acquirements and deference to his opinions. His favorite resorts were picture galleries, music halls, and assemblages of magnetic men; for he had graphic skill and critical connoisseur­ship, delighted in harmony, and was a charming flutist, and his native humor and esprit imparted to his sparkling conversation both vigor and originality, making him the delight­ful companion of all ages, sexes, and conditions. In manners he was simple, modest, and unassuming, but always manly; though frank in expression and social in spirit, he never sacrificed his sense of self-respect; and, whether associated with subordinates, equals, or superiors, he maintained the quiet  p222 ease and simple deportment of one of Nature's noblemen. His exquisite refinement, keen sympathy, and delicate sensibility shed a lovable atmosphere around, which imparted a genial warmth to all within its influence. Prosperity never closed his heart, nor stole away the generosity of his soul, for he had a hand as open as day for melting charity, and he would often be parsimonious to himself that he might provide for the necessities of those who had narrow claims upon his benevolence. It, therefore, is not surprising that this lord of unselfishness and king of industry was an idol among his friends, to whom he was ever kind and considerate; a great favorite with his professional brethren, whose merits, talents, and assistance he was the first to recognize; and that, when he breathed his last in a foreign land, his death was mourned in two continents where he had labored and been loved.

"Such men are not forgot as soon as cold;

Their fragrant memory will outlast their tomb,

Embalm'd forever in its own perfume."

The Author's Note:

1 Was the brother of Col. William Whistler, U. S. Army.

Thayer's Notes:

a The train whistle is definitely an American invention of the 1830s, but several people lay claim to it: for another account, see Harlow, The Road of the Century, p342.

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b His full given name was James Abbott McNeill Whistler; he is usually known today as James McNeill Whistler. A 40‑page biographical sketch of him is one of the chapters of Col. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.William Baumer's book on West Pointers best known for other than military achievements: Not All Warriors, chapter 6.

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c The gauge problem is very thoroughly covered in railroad literature; it cost the country millions of dollars and was even the cause of the serious riots at Erie, PA in 1853. For an overview, see Galloway, The First Transcontinental Railroad, p17; for the Erie riots, entertainingly but informatively told, Harlow, The Road of the Century, pp269‑274. The standard gauge in the United States is 4′8½″ (1435 mm).

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