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FreightWaves Classics/Leaders: Frederick Mears built key railroads for the US

Early years

On May 25, 1878, U.S. Army officer and civil engineer Frederick Mears was born in Omaha, Nebraska. His father, Frederick J. Mears, was a career Army cavalry officer, and the Mears family lived in a number of military posts in the American West toward the end of the Indian Wars period after the Civil War. 

Mears was sent to and did well at the Shattuck Military School, which his father also attended. Shattuck is located in Faribault, Minnesota (although it is no longer a military school). He graduated with honors from the school in 1897, taking required classes in Greek, Latin, civil government, trigonometry, quantitative analysis, and mechanical drawing, in addition to high school courses. 

Lt. Frederick Mears. (Photo: Pritzker Military Museum and Library)
Lt. Frederick Mears. (Photo: Pritzker Military Museum and Library)

Mears’ best friend at Shattuck was Donald Stevens, the son of civil engineer and railroad executive John F. Stevens of the Great Northern Railway. (To read more about that railroad, follow this link and this link for the two-part article.) Due to his visits with the Stevens’ family, Mears grew very interested in engineering and railroading. At the age of 19, Mears went to work for Stevens at the Great Northern Railway; Stevens became Mears’ mentor. Mears began as a laborer on a survey party in Minnesota. He proved his abilities and rapidly advanced within the company, being promoted within two years to the position of chief resident engineer on one of the Great Northern’s branch lines in British Columbia.

Service in the U.S. Army

However, Mears left the Great Northern and enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army in the fall of 1899. Shortly after the Spanish-American War (which took place primarily in Cuba and the Philippines), the Philippine Insurrection (1899-1902) began. On January 30, 1900, Mears’ company sailed to join the campaign against Filipino revolutionary leader Emilio Aguinaldo. Mears showed his initiative and capabilities and was quickly promoted to the rank of sergeant; this was followed by a commission as a second lieutenant in 1901. Remaining in the military after returning to the United States, Mears took advanced engineering courses at the U.S. Infantry and Cavalry School at Fort Leavenworth (Kansas), where he graduated with distinction in 1904. He then completed two more years of advanced study at the nearby Army Staff College.

The Panama Canal 

John F. Stevens also left the Great Northern and had taken on a different challenge; he was the chief engineer for the Isthmian Canal Commission, the U.S. government agency that was building the Panama Canal. In late 1905, Stevens requested that Mears be transferred to work as an engineer on that project. However, Stevens abruptly resigned his position in February 1907, stating that the Panama Canal project required the expertise of a hydraulic engineer. 

Col. George W. Goethals of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was chosen by President Theodore Roosevelt as Stevens’ replacement in March 1907. Goethals was appointed as both chairman and chief engineer of the Isthmian Canal Commission.

Construction of the Panama Railroad. Note the second and smaller rail line above the main line. (Photo: historycollection.com)
Construction of the Panama Railroad. Note the second and smaller rail line above the main line. (Photo: historycollection.com)

Despite his relatively low military rank, Mears had assumed more and more responsibilities in Panama. Beginning in 1906 Mears served as the track foreman at the Culebra Cut, one of the most difficult sub-projects of the canal. 

Mears then was appointed as assistant engineer for the Panama Canal Railroad relocation project in September 1906. He worked under Ralph Budd, the engineer in charge of construction. (To read more about Ralph Budd’s career in railroading, follow this link to an earlier FreightWaves Classics article.) 

The existing Panama Railroad had been in use since the 1850s. However, in order to build the Panama Canal, the railroad had to be rerouted because it lay in the path of the canal and its supporting infrastructure. Therefore, Mears’ specific role in the historic waterway was focused on the massive changes made to the railroad. In addition to rerouting the railroad, it needed major upgrades, such as heavy-duty, double-tracked rails. The “new” Panama Railroad was built to carry the necessary workers, equipment, and other supplies across the isthmus needed to build the canal. 

Railroad cars carry off construction debris during construction of the Panama Canal. (Photo: Corbis/historycollection.com)
Railroad cars carry off construction debris during construction of the Panama Canal. (Photo: Corbis/historycollection.com)

In 1907, Mears was promoted to first lieutenant. Mears succeeded Budd as chief engineer of the Panama Railroad in 1909, serving in that role until 1914. At that time, in addition to his responsibilities as chief engineer, he was promoted to general superintendent of both the Panama Railroad and the Panama Canal Company’s steamship line. The Panama Railroad Company was a separate $5 million engineering and construction project that was established to support the construction of the Panama Canal. Mears’ eventually also supervised the operation of six steamships that ferried supplies for the canal-related construction projects from the United States.

President Woodrow Wilson. (Photo: Library of Congress)
President Woodrow Wilson. (Photo: Library of Congress)

The Alaska Railroad

After a decade of work, construction of the Panama Canal was in the process of being finished in 1913-1914. President Woodrow Wilson sought the construction of a railroad (or railroads) in the Alaska Territory to provide access to its resources. Wilson espoused that a railroad was the key to transporting Alaska’s natural resources. In his State of the Union address on December 2, 1913, Wilson stated, “We must use the resources of this country, not lock them up.”

The work in Alaska was to be supervised by a commission based on the structure and responsibilities of the Isthmian Canal Commission, which had supervised the Panama Canal construction. Gen. Goethals, chairman and chief engineer of the Isthmian Canal Commission, was ordered to Washington to advise President Wilson and Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane on the new project. Goethals strongly recommended Mears to be one of the three members of the newly constituted Alaska Engineering Commission (AEC). Goethals’ recommendation was based on Mears’ engineering and administrative experience in Panama, as well as his experience building the Panama Railroad and his earlier work for the Great Northern Railway. Following Goethals’ recommendation, President Wilson appointed Mears to the AEC in April 1914. However, because Mears was still a junior cavalry officer, it took a special joint resolution of Congress to confirm his position on the AEC.

An early map of the Alaska Railroad showing the 470-mile alignment between Seward and Fairbanks (Image: James Steese Papers/Dickinson College/National Park Service)
An early map of the Alaska Railroad showing the 470-mile alignment between Seward and Fairbanks (Image: James Steese Papers/Dickinson College/National Park Service)

By late spring 1914, Mears was traveling to Alaska to supervise 11 surveying crews that were mapping possible routes for the proposed railroad, which was to be built from the Pacific Ocean to deep in Alaska’s interior. However, there were really only two major routes, because there were only two portals through the Coast Mountains – along the Copper River or the Seward-Fairbanks route over the Kenai Peninsula and north of the lower Susitna Valley. 

Of the two possible routes, President Wilson chose the Seward-Fairbanks route, which began at Seward and utilized the right-of-way of the Alaska Northern Railroad. It had previously laid track from Seward to the head of Turnagain Arm. The route also used the existing rail line of the Tanana Valley Railroad in Alaska’s interior. 

Anchorage in 1915-16. (Photo: akonthego.com)
Anchorage in 1915-16. (Photo: akonthego.com)

Building a town as well as a railroad

When Mears returned to Alaska to begin the project in 1915, he found over 2,000 job applicants and merchants camped on the Ship Creek flats near the north end of Cook Inlet. They were squatting on land that Mears had planned to use for a dock, railroad workshops and warehouses. One of the AEC’s first tasks was to create a townsite, as well as to design and build a port. 

The U.S. General Land Office, which was the governmental agency charged with disposing of the land around Ship Creek, rapidly had the area surveyed, cleared, platted and then auctioned off. The squatters moved off the flats so that railroad construction could begin. The area soon became a town that was named Anchorage, which is now Alaska’s largest city. In addition to beginning the railroad, the AEC was forced to take on many of the responsibilities of a local government, building roads, water and sewer lines, and providing electrical power and telephone service.

Construction on the Alaska Railroad. Note the "U.S." on the side of the locomotive. (Photo Jack Klingeil Collection/Alaska Railroad)
Construction on the Alaska Railroad. Note the “U.S.” on the side of the locomotive. (Photo Jack Klingeil Collection/Alaska Railroad)

The railroad project

Mears was in charge of building the central section of the railroad, which was to begin at the end of the Alaska Northern’s track at the head of Turnagain Arm to Broad Pass. This was a distance of 200 miles through wilderness and difficult terrain. Mears was also charged with building a 38-mile spur line to the coal fields at Matanuska. 

Lt. Frederick Mears in 1919. (Photo: Bain News Service/Library of Congress)
Lt. Frederick Mears in 1919. (Photo: Bain News Service/Library of Congress)

World War I

Mears was promoted to the rank of captain in the U.S. Army in the fall of 1916. World War I had begun in August 1914; when the U.S. entered the war in April 1917, there were over 5,000 men working at various jobs on the construction of the Alaska Railroad.

Mears left the project to serve with the Army in France. As the commanding officer of the 31st Railway Engineers, Mears was promoted to major and then colonel. The 31st Railway Engineers regiment was one of nine regiments sent to operate the military railroads in France. 

After once again demonstrating his administrative competence, Mears was promoted to general manager of the U.S. Army Transportation Corps, a position he held until May 1919. In recognition of his services, Mears received the U.S. Distinguished Service Medal and the Grand Cross of the French Legion of Honor.

Colonel Frederick Mears (left) and fellow Alaskan Engineering Commission Commissioner Thomas W. Riggs, Jr. prepare to go hunting along the Alaska Railroad. Riggs served as territorial governor of Alaska from 1918-1921. (Photo: Alaskan Engineering Commission Collection/Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center)
Colonel Frederick Mears (left) and fellow Alaskan Engineering Commission Commissioner Thomas W. Riggs, Jr. prepare to go hunting along the Alaska Railroad. Riggs served as territorial governor of Alaska from 1918-1921. (Photo: Alaskan Engineering Commission Collection/Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center)

Mears returns to Alaska

In the spring of 1919, Secretary of the Interior Lane requested that Mears be released from his military duties in France to return to Alaska to lead the remaining construction of the Alaska Railroad. Because of World War I, the workforce building the railroad had decreased by nearly 50% of its peak pre-war size. However, work had continued. 

Another change was that the other two commissioners had left the AEC. William C. Edes, the former chairman, had retired, while Thomas Riggs had become governor of the Alaska Territory.

Therefore, when Mears returned to Alaska he was appointed the AEC’s chairman as well as its chief engineer. In addition, the original $35 million appropriation for construction had been spent; Congress appropriated an additional $17 million for construction through 1921. 

After his return, Mears planned and oversaw construction of four major bridges: over the Susitna River; over the Tanana River; over Riley Creek; and over Hurricane Gulch. The four bridges (and other work) were completed by the end of 1922. The last major project was the upgrade of the Tanana Valley Railroad from a narrow gauge railroad to one of standard gauge, which was completed in 1923. 

In the summer of 1923, President Warren G. Harding traveled to Alaska to drive the last spike and officially open the Alaska Railroad. However, Frederick Mears was not present to see the ceremony. 

In early 1923, Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall merged the Alaska Engineering Commission and the Alaska Road Commission. Col. James Steese, chairman of the Road Commission, had some experience with railroads; but Mears had no road-building experience. Therefore, Fall abruptly put Steese in charge of both Alaska’s road system and the Alaska Railroad.

Fall was later implicated in the Teapot Dome scandal, which rocked the Harding administration. Fall became the first American to be convicted of a felony committed while holding a Cabinet post.

On February 13, 1923, the U.S. Army ordered Mears to Seattle; he and his family left Alaska. Mears never returned, and never rode the railroad whose construction he was responsible for.

Before Mears left Alaska, the residents of Anchorage honored him at a banquet. They gave him a solid gold railway spike as a remembrance. However, Mears lent the spike to the new governor of Alaska, Scott C. Bone (who had been appointed to the position by President Harding). Bone and President Harding used the golden spike during the ceremony  opening the railroad.

On July 15, 1923, President Warren G. Harding drove in the Golden Spike signifying completion of the Alaska Railroad. The event took place at milepost 413.7 at the northern end of the 702-foot Mears Memorial truss bridge. Returning from the Alaska trip, Harding died suddenly of a heart attack on August 2, 1923. (Photo: alaskarails.org)
On July 15, 1923, President Warren G. Harding drove in the Golden Spike signifying completion of the Alaska Railroad. The event took place at milepost 413.7 at the northern end of what is now the 702-foot Mears Memorial truss bridge. Returning from the Alaska trip, Harding died suddenly of a heart attack on August 2, 1923. (Photo: alaskarails.org)

Life post-Alaska

Mears resigned from the U.S. Army shortly after arriving in Seattle. He rejoined the Great Northern Railway, his employer in the late 1890s. His longtime associate and mentor, Ralph Budd, was now president of the railroad, as well as the St. Paul Depot Company. 

Frederick Mears. (Photo: findagrave.com)
Frederick Mears. (Photo: findagrave.com)

Mears first major project for the railroad was to supervise the construction of the Union Depot in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was then named engineer-in-charge and project manager for the Great Northern’s Cascade Tunnel in 1925. This tunnel was built under Stevens Pass in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state. 

Many consider this project the finest engineering achievement of Mears’ career. He designed and oversaw the construction of the 7.79-mile-long straight tunnel through the mountain range. It was one of the longest tunnels in the world at that time, and it was “completed with near-perfect accuracy.” 

Mears remained as chief engineer of the Great Northern Railway until his death on January 11, 1939. He was 60 years old when he died and had suffered from bouts of pneumonia that he had contracted in Alaska decades earlier. 

An Alaska Railroad locomotive crossing the Tanana River on the ice at Nenana, just prior to completion of the railroad. (Photo: Frederick C. Mears Collection/ University of Alaska - Fairbanks)
An Alaska Railroad locomotive crossing the Tanana River on the ice at Nenana, just prior to completion of the railroad. (Photo: Frederick C. Mears Collection/ University of Alaska – Fairbanks)

Legacy

The legacy of Frederick Mears “includes notable large-scale transportation infrastructure projects in various regions of the world.” He completed projects for the Great Northern Railway before and after his U.S. Army service; oversaw the construction of the Panama Railway; ran the French railroads for the U.S. Army during and after World War I; and founded what is now the largest city in Alaska.

However, Col. Frederick Mears is best remembered for building the 470-mile-long Alaska Railroad, which he began in 1914 and completed in 1923. As the chief engineer and member of the Alaska Engineering Commission (and later its chairman), he was the man most responsible for the construction of the Alaska Railroad. The railroad was built at a cost of $56 million over an eight-year period (1914-1923).

The U.S. Army honored Mears’ service in Alaska by dedicating one of its military posts in the Aleutian Islands to his memory. The base on “Amaknak Island in Unalaska Bay, on the north side of Unalaska Island, was formally named Fort Mears on September 10, 1941.” 

A second tribute to Mears is the Mears Memorial Bridge, the 700-foot-long truss bridge spanning the Tanana River at Nenana. The Alaska Railroad dedicated the bridge in his memory on August 22, 1974, some 51 years after his golden spike was used at that spot to signify the completion of the Alaska Railroad in 1923.

The Mears Memorial Bridge at Nenana, Alaska. (Photo: bridgehunter.com)
The Mears Memorial Bridge at Nenana, Alaska. (Photo: bridgehunter.com)

Lastly, the “personal and family papers of Frederick Mears are held by two repositories in Fairbanks and Anchorage, and are open to research. The Frederick C. Mears Collection, which includes over 500 photographs, is held by the Alaska and Polar Regions Collections and Archives, Elmer C. Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks. The Frederick Mears Family Papers, 1878-1941, are located in the Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska, Anchorage.”

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.

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