John F. Stevens (1853 - 1943) had a long a varied career, extending from 1873 to 1931, which included distinguished achievements in three well -defined fields: First, that of railroading, which he never gave up and in which his greatest contributions probably were made during the decade 1889 to 1899; second, his work in Panama from 1905; and third, his Russian service from 1917 to 1923.
John F. Stevens was born on April 25, 1853 near West Gardiner, Maine, the son of John Smith Stevens and Harriet Leslie French. He was raised on a small farm and attended local schools. He attended the Maine State Normal School where he trained to become a teacher. After teaching for a year, Stevens decided to take up engineering and got a job in Lewiston in 1872 performing surveys for mills and industrial canals. A year later, after learning the rudiments, he moved to Minneapolis, where he worked as a rodman for the city engineer. By night study, he educated himself further, became an instrument man, and in 1874 was promoted to assistant city engineer. From 1875 to 1877 Stevens worked as a junior engineer for various railroads in Minnesota. He then left for Texas where, at the age of 22, he was made "Engineer-in-Chief" of the Sabine Pass and Northwestern Railway. Unfortunately, the company failed and Stevens had to accept employment as a trackhand at $1.10 a day. By the year 1879, Stevens had worked his way up to roadmaster, and in that year the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad was extending their lines into New Mexico and he became one of the many assistant engineers on road location and construction; later specializing in bridge construction.
During 1881-2 he returned to the North Central States as an assistant engineer on the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad working principally in Iowa and then went to work for a contractor building the Canadian Pacific Railroad. The next year Stevens joined the staff of the Canadian Pacific as a locating engineer. Working mostly in the mountainous province of British Columbia he rose to the position of Division Engineer in 1885.
He returned to the United States to a similar position for the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad, but in December, 1886, he left to become the Principal Assistant Engineer for the Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic Railroad.
After a brief period with the Spokane Falls and Northern Railway, where he gained valuable knowledge of the Northwest, Stevens made perhaps the most important decision of his life; he joined the organization of James J. Hill (1838 - 1916) in building an unsubsidized transcontinental railroad along the northernmost route. Stevens was assigned to explore the route west from Havre, Montana. In the bitterest cold, over a period of weeks, he sought and, on December 11, 1889, found the now famous Marias Pass which provided the key passage across the Continental Divide. (In 1925 an heroic-size bronze statue of Stevens was erected at the pass in his honor by the grateful Great Northern Company.)
Next, Stevens was sent to Washington to explore the Columbia River and the Cascades for the final route down the western slopes of the Divide. Near Lake Wenatchee a key pass (now known as Stevens Pass) was located and the final route selected. He was made Assistant Chief Engineer in 1893, and Chief Engineer in 1895. He served in this capacity until 1903 when he accepted the position of Chief Engineer and later Vice-President of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railway Company. During his tenure as the Great Northern's Chief Engineer more than a thousand miles of new line was built and much of the existing system modernized. Perhaps the most famous single project was the Cascade Tunnel, a 2.6 mile rock bore built between 1897 and 1900.
On June 30, 1905 Secretary of War William Howard Taft appointed Stevens Chief Engineer of the Isthmian Canal Commission. In February, 1906, he supported the minority opinion which favored a locked canal over a sea-level canal. President Theodore Roosevelt directed that Stevens' plan with locks be adopted and the massive project proceeded under Stevens' direction. He realized that earth moving operations would receive his greatest personal attention and he organized an extensive system of railroads to transport the soil and rock from the Culebra (now Guillard) Cut, the inter-oceanic divide. By the end of 1906, all major decisions had been made and Stevens decided to retire from the work, resigning on January 30, 1907. His successor, Colonel (later, General) G. W. Goethals was to say, "The Canal is his (Stevens') monument."
Stevens returned to the United States to become Vice-President of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. However, in the summer of 1909, he rejoined his old friend J. J. Hill in a plan to develop a new railroad system in the Northwest. Among the talent Stevens chose to assist him in his undertaking was Ralph Budd as Chief Engineer. This project (the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway) was as much a legal exercise as a technical challenge, but it was successfully completed in 1911 when Stevens left to open a private practice in New York City.
In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Stevens Chairman of the U.S. Railway Commission to Russia with the diplomatic status of Minister Plenipotentiary. Two years later he was made President of the Interallied Technical Board of the Siberian Railways, a post which he held until 1923. During these six years, the collapse of the Czarist government occurred and he was forced to be de facto manager of a vast network of railways which extended throughout Russia, in a milieu of revolution, anarchy and international intrigue. The many foreign decorations he received for his efforts testify to his success.
Stevens returned to the United States to continue consulting. He eventually retired to a home in Southern Pines, North Carolina, but he still remained active; as late as March, 1936, he visited the Panama Canal.
Among the honors accorded John F. Stevens during his career are honorary doctorates from Bates College (Maine), University of North Carolina, University of Michigan and the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn; honorary memberships in the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Franklin Institute; receipt of the John Fritz Medal and the Herbert Hoover Medal; and decorations from the United States, France, China, Japan and Czechoslovakia.
He married Harriett O'Brien Stevens of Boston on January 6, 1876 in Dallas Texas. They had five children, two of whom died in infancy. When John F. Stevens died at his home in Southern Pines in 1943, he was survived by three sons, Donald F., John F. Jr., and Eugene C. Stevens. His interment was in Boston near his wife who had died in 1917.