George Washington Whistler

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Portrait of Major George Washington Whistler by Henry Inman

George W. Whistler (Fort Wayne, Indiana, May 19, 1800 – April 7, 1849 in Saint Petersburg, Russia) was a prominent American railroad engineer in the first half of the 19th century.

George was born at the military outpost of Fort Wayne which his father, John Whistler, had helped build. His mother was Anna Bishop, daughter of Sir Edward Bishop of Great Britain.

Career in the USA[edit]

Whistler graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1819. Although appointed as a second lieutenant in the artillery, he spent most of his army career on topographical duty and as a railroad engineer. He was promoted to first lieutenant in 1829, and resigned his commission in December 1833.[1]

In 1835, Whistler became Chief Engineer at the Proprietors of Locks and Canals in the new city of Lowell, Massachusetts. During his time in Lowell, he was responsible for early American locomotive designs, and his sons, James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) and William McNeill Whistler (1836–1900) were born. He left Lowell in 1837 and was followed by his apprentice, James B Francis.[2] He took up a position with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which sent him to England to learn more about railroad technology. He was involved in the construction of several U.S. railroads, including the Paterson and Hudson River, Stonington and Providence, and Western railroads. In 1835, he worked with Patrick Tracy Jackson to begin the Boston & Lowell Railroad.[3] The same year, along with William Gibbs McNeill, he designed the Boston & Providence Railroad which included the famous Canton Viaduct which has been in continuous service for 174 years.

Working in Russia[edit]

A bridge model of similar design to the Canton Viaduct at the October Railroad Museum in St. Petersburg

In 1842, Whistler was employed by Engineer Melnikov as a Consultant on the building of Russia's first major railroad, the Moscow-Saint Petersburg Railway. While working on this project, he contracted cholera and died in St. Petersburg two years before the line was completed. He is credited with selecting the five-foot rail gauge still used in Russia and neighboring countries.

As a father[edit]

Whistler's first wife, Mary Roberdeau Swift, died in 1827, after they had had three children, a girl (Deborah) and two boys. He later married Anna Matilda McNeill, with whom he had five sons. Whistler's Mother, a portrait of Anna, by their first son, James McNeill Whistler, is among the most famous paintings in American art.

Stone arch railroad bridges built by George Washington Whistler in 1841 are still in freight and passenger service on the CSX mainline in western Massachusetts.

He was the first Civil Engineer in America to use contour lines to show elevation and relief on maps.


  1. ^ Service profile
  2. ^ "Lowell Notes: James B Francis" (PDF). Lowell National Historical Park. Retrieved 2009-05-30. 
  3. ^ "Lowell Notes: Patrick Tracy Jackson" (PDF). Lowell National Historical Park. Retrieved 2009-05-30. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Brown, Jeff L. (January 2014). "Rock Solid: Stone Arch Bridges of the 1840s". Civil Engineering (Reston, VA: American Society of Civil Engineers): 44–47. ISSN 0885-7024. 

External links[edit]