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Friend Puts CE Colleague On the Pennsylvania Map

As part of the continuing series on cities named for civil engineers, this issue of the newsletter explains how Latrobe, Pennsylvania came to be. It was named for Benjamin Henry Latrobe, II (1806 - 1878) who was the chief engineer of the Baltimore & Ohio (B & O) Railroad that was finally closing in on the Ohio River, in 1851. It is located about 40 miles east south east of Pittsburgh, PA and was on the main route of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Oliver Barnes, who had gone to Georgetown College in Washington D.C. with Latrobe and had worked with him on the B & O before going with the Pennsylvania Railroad, named it Latrobe.

Latrobe originally had studied law; but, upon graduation, he decided to start his civil engineering career working with his father on the design of a water supply system in New Orleans in 1820. His father would later die shortly after he contracted yellow fever while working on this system. 

 Benjamin Henry Latrobe
 Benjamin Henry Latrobe

As assistant engineer, he worked as a surveyor for the B & O Railroad in 1830 and in 1832. Latrobe surveyed and planned the route for the Washington Branch of the B & O which ran southerly from Baltimore to Washington, D.C.. To span the Patapsco River he designed the curved masonry Thomas Viaduct, which was one of the first major railroad bridges in the United States when completed in 1835. He left the B & O in 1835 to become chief engineer for the Baltimore and Port Deposit Railroad that would link Philadelphia and Baltimore. He returned to the B&O in 1836 and designed the Harper’s Ferry Bridge across the Potomac River, which opened in 1837. In 1842 he assumed the position of chief engineer and served in the that position for 22 years with the B & O, which reached the Ohio River at Wheeling, WV on January 1, 1853. The route Latrobe had selected required several long tunnels, including the 4,135 ft.-long Kingwood Tunnel, to maintain the 2.2% maximum grade requirement, but their completion would be after the charter deadline, which would have created serious political and financial problems for the company. In order to reach the Ohio River on time, he built several “shoo-fly” tracks, which consisted of a series of switchbacks on very steep grades, ~10%, over the mountains. This grade was the greatest any railroad had surmounted to that date. As can be seen he spent most of his career associated with the B & O having started his service under Jonathan Knight and Stephen H. Harriman, the original chief engineers for the railroad. He later became president of the Pittsburgh and Connellsville Railroad. In the 1860s, he was for a short time consulting engineer for the Troy and Greenfield Railroad and Herman Haupt in drilling of the Hoosac Tunnel in Massachusetts. After the Civil War, he went into business with C. Shaler Smith in the Baltimore Bridge Company. His brother John H. B. Latrobe, a prominent Baltimore philanthropist, also served the B & O as its general counsel. Latrobe died in Baltimore on October 19, 1878 and is buried in the Green Mount Cemetery with his wife and several children.

Latrobe is probably best known as the home of Latrobe beer and Arnold Palmer who grew up in the city.