William Barclay Parsons

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William Barclay Parsons
William Barclay Parsons, Pach Brothers photo portrait.jpg
Born (1859-04-15)April 15, 1859
Died May 9, 1932(1932-05-09) (aged 73)
Nationality United States
Alma mater Columbia University
Engineering career
Discipline Civil engineer
Practice name Parsons Brinckerhoff
Projects First subway in New York City, Cape Cod Canal

William Barclay Parsons (April 15, 1859 – May 9, 1932) was an American civil engineer. He founded the firm that became Parsons Brinckerhoff, one of the largest American civil engineering firms.

He was the son of William Barclay Parsons and Eliza Livingston Glass. He was the great-grandson of Henry Barclay, second Rector of Trinity Church (Manhattan). In 1871 he went to school in Torquay, England, and for the four years following studied under private tutors while traveling in France, Germany and Italy.[1]

Parsons received a bachelor's degree from Columbia College in 1879, and a second from Columbia's School of Mines in 1882. As an undergraduate, he served as class president and, in 1877, co-founded the Columbia Daily Spectator.[2] Spec was a literary magazine in Parsons' age; now it is the second-oldest continuously operating college news daily. He later served as chairman of the University's board of trustees.

From 1882 to the end of 1885, he was in the maintenance of way department of the New York, Lake Erie and Western Railroad. His first books had to do with railroad problems (Turnouts; Exact Formulae for Their Determination, 1884, and Track, A Complete Manual of Maintenance of Way, 1886), and this interest in rail transportation continued throughout his life.[3]

Parsons designed the Cape Cod Canal as Chief Engineer. He was also Chief Engineer of the New York Rapid Transit Commission, and as such responsible for the construction of the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) subway line.[4]

In 1900 he published an account of his work as Chief Surveyor of China's Canton–Hankou Railway. "...Parsons, acting for an American syndicate, accepted the direction of a survey of 1,000 miles of railway in China, primarily on the line from Hankow to Canton. The party passed through the then "closed province of Hu-nan, and the success of the entire venture depended not alone on the engineering skill but primarily upon the ability of the leader of the expedition to meet the extremely difficult diplomatic problems involved. Nevertheless, the mission was accomplished and the small group of American engineers, to the surprise of many of their friends, returned in safety. Parsons told the story of this adventure in An American Engineer in China" (1900).[5]

"He was appointed to the Isthmian Canal Commission in 1904, and early in 1905 went to Panama as a member of the committee of engineers which subsequently reported in favor of a sea-level canal...In 1904 Parsons was also appointed, together with the famous British engineers Sir Benjamin Baker and Sir John Wolfe-Barry, to membership on a board to pass on the plans of the Royal Commission on London Traffic. He always considered his selection for the post one of the greatest of the many honors which came to him." [6]

"In 1905, he had also been appointed chief engineer of the Cape Cod Canal. Completed in 1914, it joined Massachusetts Bay and Buzzards Bay and demonstrated that a canal without locks could be built between two bodies of water where considerable tidal differences existed."[7]

A part of 158th Street in Queens was named after him as Parsons Boulevard, giving rise to the station names Parsons Boulevard and Jamaica Center – Parsons/Archer.

Military Experiences[edit]

He was commissioned as a colonel in the Spanish–American War, and promoted to General in World War I.

William Parsons was the Colonel of the 11th Engineers of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in France during World War I. "He participated in the engagement at Cambrai, where, suddenly attacked by Germans while making railroad repairs, the engineers fought with picks and shovels. The 11th Engineers also fought in the Lys Defensive (Hundred Days Offensive), and during the Saint-Mihiel (Battle of Saint-Mihiel) and Meuse-Argonne Offensive. His book, The American Engineers in France (1920), is a valuable and interesting record of these activities. He was cited for "specially meritorious services" and received decorations not only from the United States, but also from Great Britain, France, Belgium and the state of New York."[8]

"The Americans were busy on the morning of November 3, 1917, building a railroad yard near the British front, when they were surprised by a sudden German advance. Without a moment's warning, the Germans concentrated a heavy artillery-fire on the yard. Lieutenant McLoud collected his men and calmly marched them through the German barrage to a point of safety. They had retreated about two miles, when they chanced upon a number of British soldiers. McLoud at once took command and, rallying the troops, returned to the firing-line. On the way back the Americans met a British staff officer, and with his aid they succeeded in getting additional arms and ammunition with which to equip the engineers of the party."[9]

"After the war, he was transferred to the Engineers Reserve Corps with the rank of Brigadier General."[10]


Parsons married Anna Reed, daughter of Rev. Sylvanus Reed and educator Caroline Gallup Reed, on 20 May 1884. They had two children: Sylvia Caroline Parsons, born 19 November 1885, and Dr William Barclay Parsons, born 22 May 1888.[11]



  1. ^ Dictionary of American Biography. Volume VII, Page 276.
  2. ^ "William Barclay Persons". Columbia University. Retrieved 2014-04-14. 
  3. ^ Dictionary of American Biography. Volume VII, Page 276.
  4. ^ Parsons Brinkerhoff Quade & Douglas, Inc., "The Man Who Planned the Subway: William Barclay Parsons and the New York IRT," 1980 (PB Communications).
  5. ^ Dictionary of American Biography. Volume VII, Page 277.
  6. ^ Dictionary of American Biography. Volume VII, Page 277.
  7. ^ Dictionary of American Biography. Volume VII, Page 277.
  8. ^ Dictionary of American Biography. Volume VII, Page 277.
  9. ^ Francis A. Collins. 1918. "The Fighting Engineers". Pages 111-112.
  10. ^ Dictionary of American Biography. Volume VII, Page 278.
  11. ^ Anna Reed Parsons, My New England Ancestors, privately published, 1957

External links[edit]