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William Barclay Parsons

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William Barclay Parsons (1859-1932)

1932 Obituary[1]


Many English engineers will sympathise with their professional brothers across the Atlantic in the loss sustained by the unexpected death during the past few. days of General William Barclay Parsons. Coming of an old New York family, whose name has been perpetuated in one of the down-town streets in that city, General Parsons was very widely known. In fact, he was at one time so familiar a figure over here, and the relations he developed with this country and its people were of so happy a character, that he was, not inaptly, once described by Sir John Wolfe Barry as half American, half English.

General Parsons was born in 1859, and received his education at Columbia University, where he took the degree of Bachelor of Arts in 1879 and Civil Engineer in 1882. For some years at the time of his death he had been Chairman of the Board of Trustees of this institution. His first practical experience was with a coal company, but almost at once he turned to railroad work; in 1882, entering the service of the Erie Railroad, in which, by 1885, he held the rank of division engineer. In 1885, he commenced practice as a consulting engineer in New York, and in these years acted as consultant to work involving some 1,500 miles of railway and 500 miles of water and sewer systems, besides other public works, embracing pumping plants, reservoirs, dams, bridge work, &c. Later, between 1898 and 1899 he conducted surveys for the Canton-Hankow Railway in China, amounting to 1,000 miles.

The early work with which Mr. Barclay Parsons’s name will be most generally associated followed upon his appointment as chief engineer in 1894 to the Rapid Transit Board of the City of New York, and this brought his qualities into greater prominence than anything else. The board was created with a view to co-ordinating the various systems of transport which were then developing in New York in a somewhat heterogeneous manner, the object being to make the most of any particular facilities, and to bring all into a plan which should be capable of efficient extension to meet the demands of the future. General Parsons has always been regarded as, in the main, responsible not only for the actual developments of which, as chief engineer, he was in personal charge, but for those which followed subsequently, during his tenure of the position of consulting engineer, as the general system extended with the growth of traffic and the spread of the city. After studying the conditions in other large cities, including London, where he was much interested in the District and Metropolitan Railways, Mr. Parsons decided on the shallow-subway system as affording advantages over the deep-level tunnel type of railway. In those days mechanical appliances were not so highly developed as they are now, and great stress was laid on the objection to making two vertical journeys by lifts, in addition to the journey by train. The escalator had not then come into its own, and the correctness of the attitude towards lifts is, perhaps, to-day confirmed by the policy of elimination which is being pursued in our own city here. The New York subways are, as our readers are aware, only just below street level, with the very minimum of cover rendered possible by the extensive use of structural steelwork. In the course of the past two years we have described in these columns many interesting typical pieces of work on extensions to the original scheme. In these, with the experience gained in the course of years, the methods have become more advanced, but, in the light of knowledge, can hardly be said to be more daring than those adopted in the earlier work. The latter was described in a paper read by Mr. Barclay Parsons before the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1908, the report of which occupied about 150 pages of the Proceedings, the discussion extending over four successive Tuesday evenings. For this contribution the author was awarded the Telford Gold Medal.

In 1904, Mr. Barclay Parsons served as a member of the Isthmian Canal Commission, and later as a member of the Board of Consulting Engineers in connection with the Panama Canal. In 1904, he was also appointed to the Advisory Board of Engineers for the Royal Commission on London Traffic. He thus had, we believe, as an American citizen, the unique experience of serving on a Royal Commission. With him on the Advisory Board were Sir John Wolfe Barry and Sir Benjamin Baker. In Traction and Transmission we referred to the appointment of the latter as the choice of two of the ablest and most experienced British engineers, while Mr. Barclay Parsons was described as the one man in the United States who, above all others, had had the sort of experience which would aid materially in bringing practical results out of the chaos then confronting the Metropolis. The report of the Advisory Board was published as vol. vii of the general report of the Commission, and contained a mass of interesting information. During the Yerkes regime Mr. Parsons acted as a Director of the District Railway.

From 1904 till 1914 Mr. Barclay Parsons acted as chief engineer to the Cape Cod Canal, described in a paper read by him before the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1918, which society awarded him the Norman Gold Medal. Although this work involved no great engineering feats, it brought to fruition schemes which had been in hand for 300 years, while it also afforded General Parsons the opportunity of making an unique investigation of flow in tidal canals. In 1916, he was chairman of the Chicago Transit Commission, and in recent years, as the senior partner of one of the best-known firms of consulting engineers in New York, has been connected with many notable engineering works throughout the United States.

He served in the Spanish-American War, and at the time of the Great War was an enthusiastic supporter of the Allies before his country came into the conflict. In due course he served with the rank of major, and then lieutenant-colonel and colonel with the 11th U.S. Engineers in France, and was attached to the 1st, 3rd and 5th Armies of the British Expeditionary Force, and to the 1st and 2nd Armies of the American Expeditionary Force. He was awarded the British D.S.O. in 1919, and the United States D.S.M., was made an officer of the Legion of Honour, and of the Crown of Belgium. Subsequently, with the rank of brigadier-general he was appointed deputy chief engineer, Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army Reserve.

General Parsons was essentially a man of a buoyant and cheerful disposition who did not allow difficulties to prevent him from extracting happiness from his work and associations. His geniality and high character won him friendships wherever his work or other occupations took him. He was particularly welcome over here in engineering circles, but was, of course, best known to the leaders of the profession of some years ago. His relations, we believe, with the staff of the British Forces to which he was attached in France, where he was largely engaged in road construction, were at all times of the most cordial description. His connection with professional work here was renewed as recently as 1929, when he delivered a course of special lectures on American engineering at Cambridge University. He received a number of academic honours, being made LL.D. of St. John’s in 1909, D.Sc. of Princeton, 1920, and of Trinity, 1921; and Doctor of Engineering of the Stevens Institute in the same year. For many years he was the senior member in the United States of our Institution of Civil Engineers, having been made a member in 1892.

He was the author of several contributions to engineering literature, and in later years had devoted Himself to historical research relating to medieval engineering. In this pursuit he was in touch with workers in Europe, especially in France and Italy, and made periodic visits to this side of the Atlantic in furtherance of this hobby. It was his hope some day to publish the results of these studies, which we believe brought to light several curious facts. General Barclay Parsons died in the Presbyterian Hospital, New York, following an operation to his shoulder, from which at first he was believed to be making a good recovery. We extend our sincere sympathy to his widow, brother and other relations, and to the large circle of friends who will miss his genial companionship."

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