William Lee Gerig (1866–1944)
William Lee Gerig was a civil engineer working on railroads and dams in both the United States and abroad, including his service as chief engineer for the construction of the Panama Canal. By the end of his career, he had consulted on every dam built in the United States from 1923 to 1938.
William Gerig was born on March 25, 1866, in Boone County, Missouri, the son of Swiss immigrants Francis Joseph and Carolyn Degan Gerig. William Gerig’s grandfather Degen came to America in the early eighteenth century to practice civil engineering. His father, Francis Joseph, assisted in the construction of the Suez Canal before settling in Missouri. As a young boy, the instruments that surveyors used fascinated Gerig, and that fascination helped him gain the expertise that took him to the top of his field in civil engineering.
Gerig completed his early schooling in Ashland, Missouri and graduated at age nineteen from the University of Missouri at Columbia with a BS in civil engineering. Upon graduation, he moved to Clark County to oversee the building of a railroad out of Smithton, commissioned by J. A. Smith. Gerig gained experience in the construction of railroads and engineering while working various jobs that took him from Missouri to Arkansas and beyond. While working in Arkadelphia (Clark County), Gerig met his future wife, Francis “Fannie” Crow. The couple married on January 21, 1890.
For most of Gerig’s early employment, he worked as a hired employee. It did not take long in his career, however, to begin working for the U.S. government, and he rose as Division Engineer, overseeing many more projects. Gerig worked on many projects around the world. With the United States Army Corps of Engineers, he conducted a navigation survey of the Mississippi River in 1892. In 1905, Gerig was hired, serving under the U.S. Army Chiefs of Engineers John F. Wallace, John F. Stevens, and Colonel George W. Goethals as the chief engineer for construction of the Panama Canal. In 1908, Gerig was appointed vice president and chief engineer of the Pacific and Eastern Railroad in Oregon. One of Gerig’s largest projects in included work as consulting engineer for the government railroad between Seward and Fairbanks, Alaska. Although construction crews abandoned the railroad after completing only seventy of the 550 miles, it was eventually completed in 1923, still under Gerig’s supervision.
Gerig was considered a leading authority on the construction of earthen dams. He served as the consulting engineer for all dams constructed by the Corps of Engineers from 1923 to 1938. By 1935, his health was declining, and he wanted to retire. The president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, formally requested that he remain on the job because of his expertise, and Gerig continued to work until 1938. Gerig returned to the University of Missouri to receive his doctorate degree in law in 1935. He also continued to work, as he was requested to inspect rivers and harbors around the country, as well as the Cape Cod, Chesapeake, and Delaware canals.
Gerig died on April 3, 1944. He is buried at the Rose Hill Cemetery in Arkadelphia. In 1946, a ship named The Gerig was launched in Pascagoula, Mississippi. The ship was a 352-foot dredge-boat built by the U.S. Corps of Engineers. The U.S. Chief of Engineers and Associates placed a bronze plaque at the chief engineer’s office in Washington DC in honor of Gerig’s accomplishments.
For additional information:
Martin, Margaret Gerig. “William Gerig.” Typed-script paper in Gerig family subject file. 1982. Riley-Hickingbotham Library Special Collections. Ouachita Baptist University, Arkadelphia, Arkansas.
Newberry, Farrar. “William Gerig—Renowned Engineer.” Southern Standard. July 22, 1965, p. 1.
Richter, Wendy, ed. Clark County Arkansas: Past and Present. Arkadelphia, AR: Clark County Historical Association, 1992.
Smith, Faunnt. “Arkansas’s Undaunted Engineer.” Arkansas Gazette Magazine. September 20, 1936, pp. 3, 18.
Ouachita Baptist University
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