Civil engineer Elmer Lawrence Corthell worked on railway, bridge, hydroelectric, irrigation, jetty, levee and other projects across the United States, Europe and Latin America. A Brown alumnus (Class of 1867) also awarded an honorary Doctorate in 1894, Corthell was one of the most noted civil engineers in the United States and one of the most respected civil engineers in the western hemisphere. In 1916, the New York Times estimated the value of the work he oversaw in the United States and Latin America at more than $180,000,000.
Following the opening of the John Hay Library in 1911, Corthell donated an extensive collection of his books, drawings, and pamphlets on river and harbor engineering to Brown. It was the first gift for the University's new library. The works Corthell donated were later combined with 6,000 additionally donated works to form the core of the Corthell Engineering Library, endowed by the Corthell Library Fund established in 1912. Many of the donated works were later incorporated into the Sciences Library, while the original gift remains part of the Library's Special Collections.
Corthell was the only engineer who ever held the offices of the President of the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Institute of Consulting Engineers at the same time. He authored The History of the Jetties at the Mouth of the Mississippi (1880) and Maritime Commerce, Past, Present and Future, along with articles on jetties, levees, ship canals and ship railways published in Johnson's Encyclopedia. He was active in array of other associations including the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers, the Institution of Civil Engineers of Great Britain, the Society of Arts of Great Britain, the Mexican Association of Civil Engineers and Architects, the American and National Geographic Societies, the Boston Society of Civil Engineers, the Western Society of Civil Engineers, the Engineers' Club of Rio de Janeiro, the American Railway Engineering Association, and the American Institute of Consulting Engineers.
Elmer Corthell's obituary in the New York Times offers one of the most complete summaries of the many projects he undertook:
"Mr. Corthell immediately took up engineering work, and in 1868 became assistant engineer in charge of the construction of the Hannibal and Naples Railroad, in Illinois. During 1869-74 he was division engineer of the Hannibal & Central Missouri Railroad: chief assistant engineer, building the bridge over the Mississippi River at Hannibal, Mo.: Chief engineer of the Sny Island levee, and chief construction engineer the Chicago & Alton Railroad Bridge across the Mississippi at Louisiana, Mo. with a draw of 444 feet, then the longest in the world."
"In 1875, Mr. Corthell took charge for James B. Eads of the engineering and construction of the jetties at the mouth of the Mississippi River, where he spent four years, and in addition to this, established the thirty-foot depth of South Pass, which increased the shipping facilities of New Orleans and made it a first-class port. During the Winter of 1880 Mr. Corthell went to the Isthmus of Tehauntepec, Mexico and made surveys on both the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts for the proposed Ship Railway. Shortly after he built the New York, West Shore & Buffalo and the New York, Ontario & Western Railways into this city."
"During 1885-87 he spent all his time working on the Ship Railway project and delivered a number of addresses from the route, including one before the Commerce Committee of the House of Representatives, then considering the proposed charter. Following this, Mr. Corthell entered into partnership with George S. Morrison in this city, and many large harbor works, bridges and viaducts, including the Cairo Bridge over the Ohio River for the Illinois Central Railroad, the longest steel bridge in the world, were built under his supervision."
"During 1889-90, Mr. Corthell built the St. Louis Merchants� Bridge over the Mississippi, and the jetties at the mouth of the Brazos River in Texas where it enters the Gulf of Mexico. Then he was in charge of the difficult construction of The Independent Entrance into Chicago of the Illinois Central and Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railways, which involved changing from a one-track to a six-track line, at one of the most complicated and congested track situations in the country."
"Following this, Mr. Corthell built the jetties of the Mexican Central Railroad at the mouth of the Panuco River in Tampico, and then in 1891 went abroad to make a number of important investigations. As a trustee of the University of Chicago he visited various universities and colleges, gathering data for the establishment of the school of Engineering and Architecture at his university."
"For eleven years he was engineer of the Boston, Cape Cod and New York Ship Canal across the Isthmus of Cape Cod."
"In 1899, on the request of the Government of the Argentine Republic, which asked the Untied States Government to appoint an engineer to act as a consulting expert in connection with the harbor and river improvements then planned, Mr. Corthell was sent there, and for two years solved the problems of the harbor of Buenos Aires. In 1902, he was elected the President of the Government Board of the Port of Rosario in Argentina, constructing the public works of that city, and later in the same year represented the Argentine Government at the International Congress in Dusseldorft."
Corthell was born Sept. 30, 1840, in South Abington, Massachusetts, and prepared for college at Phillips Exeter Academy. When the Civil War began during his sophomore year at Brown, Corthell enlisted as a private in the First Regiment, the Rhode Island Light Artillery. He served four years in the Virginia and North Carolina campaigns and was promoted to the command of a battery. After the war, he resumed his studies at Brown, graduating with an A.B. in 1867 and an A.M in 1868. He worked out of his New York office from the 1870s until his death in 1916. He died in Albany on May 16, 1916, at age 76, from a disease of the stomach.
Elmer Corthell's likeness was recorded in a formal portrait photograph showing a man who appears to be in his 60s, dressed in the style of double-breasted suit popular in the first decade of the 20th Century. Corthell's photographic portrait is currently unlocated and the name of the studio photographer is at present unrecorded.
Created by: Linda Mac
Record added: May 29, 2011
Find A Grave Memorial# 70561171
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