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Alfred Wingate Craven

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Alfred Wingate Craven (1810-1879), American railroad engineer

1880 Obituary [1]

MR. ALFRED WINGATE CRAVEN, the second son of Mr. Tunis Craven, was born on the 20th of October, 1810, at the Washington Navy Yard, D.C., during the time his grandfather, Commodore Tingey, was in command of that station. Two of his brothers entered the naval service; one, Captain T. A. M. Craven, went down in the “Tecumseh,” at the battle of Mobile Bay, in the civil war ; the other is the present Admiral T. T. Craven, U.S.N.

The grandfather having been removed to the naval station at Portsmouth, Alfred was sent to school at Exeter, N.H., and at Berwick, Me., whence he went to Yale College, and afterwards to Columbia College, where he graduated in 1829.

He then studied law, and was admitted to the bar; but not being fascinated with the confinement of a lawyer’s office, he left. the law to become a civil engineer. At that time, 1835, railroads were just being commenced ; few men had any practical experience in this branch of engineering, none scientific training. Mr. Craven possessed a fine physique,. and was practised in all manly exercises, so that he readily accepted the change of occupation. His first work was in connection with the surveys and construction of the Mad River railroad, on which he served as an assistant engineer. At the end of his initiatory year, he joined a large and dashing corps of young engineers, fitted out by General McKeil, formerly of the U.S. Engineers, to survey, locate, and construct the first division of the Louisville, Cincinnati, and Charleston railroad, in South Carolina, upon which work he was engaged for three years, and where he won many friends by his industry and marked character. Then he accepted a prominent position under Major Whistler, also formerly of the U.S. Engineers, on the Boston and Albany railroad. Kext he was employed on the central division of the Erie railroad, as chief assistant, until that work was suspended in 1842. Subsequently he had charge, on the Mohawk and Hudson railroad, of a change in the line and of the running of the inclined planes ; but not liking the manner of the President, he transferred his services to the Reading railroad, and constructed the coal basins, piers, and wharves on the Delaware river. Afterwards he became the Engineer-in-chief of the Schuylkill Valley railroad, and soon added to these duties a similar position on the Mine Hill Navigation railroad, both lines being completed under his direction.

Finding that the health of his family required a change, he went south, and took charge of the building of the Camden branch railroad in South Carolina. When this work was finished, after refusing to construct the Columbia and Charlotte railroad, he returned to the city of New York, and, through the assistance of many influential friends, he was, in July 1849, appointed Chief Engineer and Commissioner of the Croton Aqueduct department, a position which he occupied for nineteen years, with great credit to himself and great advantage to the property holders of the city. His experience had hitherto been almost entirely confined to railroad construction; but he had been distinguished for executive ability, and for fearless and uncompromising honesty, which were essential requisites for his new position. He was frequently abused and accused; but in every instance he came out of t,hesc attacks purer and stronger than ever. Courageous as a Bayard in his ways and manner, he might have had given to him the same motto : “sans peur et sans reproche.” He once said to a friend : "I can fight the whole body of vagabonds single-handed, without fear and without favour from any one, and I feel that I can whip them every time.” He had a good knowledge of human character, and soon surrounded himself with clever and efficient assistants, who became firm friends; and this spirit extended to all the employees on the works, who knew that he would be as just to them as he was to the city treasury.

During his administration as engineer of the Croton Aqueduct, the growth of the city required extensive additions to the waterworks. The distribution of water was greatly increased, the large receiving reservoir in the Central Park was built, as well as those on Blackwell’s and Ward’s islands, which were connected with the city services by pipes laid under the bed of the river. A complete survey was made of the watershed of the Croton river, and the large catch-basin at Boyd’s Corner was commenced, together with the pumping-engine works, and the reservoir tower for the high service; also a wrought-iron main pipe, 7.5 feet in diameter, was carried over the High Bridge, above the previous pipe, and was brought into use without interrupting the flow of water into the city for a single day. The sewer department was incorporated with the Croton Aqueduct department, and, under Mr. Craven’s supervision, the present system of sewers was projected, and many miles completed, before he resigned office on the 12th of May, 1868, which he did to the regret of the entire community, for he was known and esteemed as one of the most upright, faithful, and careful public officers the city ever had. He then, with his family, made an extensive tour in Europe, spending one summer in Sweden, studying the canals and river communications, and met with a most gracious reception from the Ring, from whom he received many favours. In Egypt Count Ferdinand de Lesseps paid him marked attention, and he was the first to carry the American flag through the Suez Canal.

On returning to the United States he opened an office in New York. During his connection with the Croton Aqueduct department he had been frequently called upon for advice by the engineers of other waterworks ; this he always gave with promptness and great cheerfulness, for it was a pleasure to him to assist the younger members of the profession. He was, as Engineer-in-Chief, or as Consulting Engineer, connected with many waterworks, as those at Brooklyn, Savannah, and Augusta; and he was directly or indirectly connected with most of the works, projected or constructed, for the supply of water to many towns, his reputation in this branch of engineering having been more extensive than that of any other person in America.

He was now again called into consultation on the construction of the Hempstead reservoir in Brooklyn, on the Syracuse waterworks, and on the supply of water for the city of Newark, the Gilbert elevated railroad, the Quarantine Hospital, the Fire Department, the Rifle Range, the Yacht Club, and many other institutions ofthe city of Kew York, and was appointed one of the Commissioners of the Fourth Avenue improvements. Failing in health, he went again to Europe in April 1878, but his disease was irremediable, and he died at Chiswick, near London, on the 25th of March, 1879. His remains were conveyed to Sew York, where they were interred with all the honours paid to public men in that country.

No engineer has had in America a more extended reputation and no one has contributed more to give character and standing to the profession in that country. He was one of the first to assist in forming an American Society of Civil Engineers, of which he was elected a Member on the 1st of December, 1852. On the 29th of January, 1858, he read a Paper before that body, entitled, “ Description of a line of large Water Mains laid by the Croton Aqueduct Department of the City of Kew York; and an inquiry into the causes of failure of a few of them.” On the re-organization of the Society in 1868 he became one of its directors, and was its President during the years 1870-71. His idea of duty to the profession and to his employers was high ; honest in his convictions, he was bold in expressing them, and never avoided official or personal responsibility. His friends were many ; his enemies few, if any.

Mr. Craven was elected a Member of The Institution of Civil Engineers on the 1st of February, 1870. During his visits to Europe he was remarkable for the great number and high character of the friendships he formed. His chivalrous bearing, his extensive and thorough knowledge, and his extraordinary social gifts, secured a welcome wherever he travelled. He was on terms of intimate friendship with several well known English engineers, to whom his singular power of exposition in discussing professional details. was no slight additional attraction to the other charms of his society.

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