History Corner: Samuel Wright Mifflin

Described by Engineering News as "one of the pioneers and leaders among American civil engineers," Samuel Wright Mifflin was born in 1805 at Wrightsville, Pennsylvania. His father, Jonathan Mifflin, was a Revolutionary War soldier among General Washington's close military associates and a friend of the Marquis de Lafayette; his mother, Susanna Wright Mifflin, was a member of an English Quaker family of the Susquehanna who were founders of Wrightsville and prominent in colonial affairs.

Mifflin began his career as an engineer with the old "Columbia Railroad," the forebear of the present Pennsylvania Railroad. Thereafter he held many positions of trust and high professional character on the New York & Erie Railroad, the Boston & Portland, and the Philadelphia and Reading and Lebanon Valley Railroads. Among the older members of the engineering profession in his time, he distinguished himself as a locating engineer, few if any excelled him in this specialized branch of the profession. He located and constructed a considerable portion of the Pennsylvania Railroad in the Alleghenies; the famous Horseshoe Curve and the Summit Tunnel are described as practically entirely his locations. For many years he was connected with the principal Pennsylvania line in locating and building numerous branch railroads; his last work with the Pennsylvania line was the location of the Seaboard route to Long Branch. Following the end of the Civil War, the Federal government appointed Mifflin engineer in charge of harbor improvements on Lake Erie and Lake Michigan. His last professional work was the locating of a railroad in West Virginia for a Philadelphia company.

Mifflin is credited with having introduced the decimal system of graduation for construction work on the Pennsylvania Railroad. It followed the methods of M. Minot, engineer for the Orleans Railroad, who in 1856 popularized in France that system of railroad engineering known as tacheometry. Mifflin was the author of Methods of Location; or Modes of Describing and Adjusting Railway Curves and Tangents, as practised by the Engineers of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: Smith, 1837; repr. 1854). It was reprinted several times, the enlarged 3rd edition consisting of 48 pages and 1 plate. A work attributed to Mifflin, entitled Locations of Railway Engineers, may be the same as Methods of Location.

Mifflin was described as "a close and comprehensive thinker, and possessed of a highly organized mental and spiritual temperament." He also achieved a quiet fame in other areas removed from his profession. A warm friend of the oppressed, in the days before the Civil War he personally assisted many slaves from the South on their way northward to freedom; one of the stations on the famous "underground railroad" was on his farm in Wrightsville. Mifflin died at the age of 81 on July 26, 1885 at his later residence at Wayne Station (now Wayne) in Delaware County, Pennsylvania.

Mifflin's portrait, herewith reproduced courtesy of the Schwarz Galleries in Philadelphia, is an early work of the artist John Houston Mifflin (1807-1888), who is believed to have been a relative. He studied first at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, then with Thomas Sully in Philadelphia, and later in Europe with the American painter George Peter Alexander Healy. Dated February 7, 1832 on the verso of the canvas, is another inscription in ink, "S. W. Mifflin painted by JHM/Feb.y 7th/1832." On the reverse of the stretcher is written in ink, "S. W. Mifflin/J. H. Mifflin/Feb.r 7th 1832." The stretcher's verso also contains the painting's provenance: "This portrait was presented to Miss Whitehall (who became Mrs [Dr] Ahles of Lancaster, Pa.) by Samuel W. Mifflin and was given to Dr. Houston Mifflin by Mrs. Ahles (80 yrs old) on Aug. 7, 1903 -- Mrs. A. being the survivor of all her family this portrait was begun in 1830 -- June and seems to have been presented to S W Mifflin in 1832 Feb. 7, which was the birthday of the artist J. H. Mifflin. Note by Lloyd Mifflin [son of the artist] Aug. 1, 1903."

The portrait represents Mifflin as a young man of twenty-seven early in his career of railway engineer, surrounded by various instruments of his profession. The Y spirit level shown upon its tripod appears to be an early version of the instrument, although not identifiable with either Troughton's Improved Level nor Gravatt's Level. Lacking are knobs or wheels by means of which the instrument can be adjusted, or by which the telescope could be removed and reversed. The leveling rod with target likewise is represented in what may have been a simple version of the New York leveling rod, its target simply divided into black and white quadrants, without a vernier scale. The rod man would raise or lower the target until the engineer signaled that the proper height had been attained. The rod man would then read the graduation on the rod corresponding to the target's position and inform the engineer. Again the artist may have been inexact in providing detail. At the foot of the tree against which Mifflin leans are a folded engineer's 12-inch link chain and a bundle of ten or twelve chaining pins tied with strips of red cloth. Unaccountably lacking among the instruments is a theodolite or transit which would have been a requirement in that period; Mifflin in his book mentioned that his preference was for the transit made by W. J. Young. Depicted far in the background beyond Miffin are a railroad trestle and a railroad bridge, symbolic of his profession. Technical information on the instruments from Mr. François ‘Bud' Uzes is gratefully acknowledged.

Silvio Bedini is a historian emeritus with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

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