1811 – 1875
James Laurie was a co-founder and the first President of the American Society of Civil Engineers. James Laurie was born in Bells Quarry near Edinburgh, Scotland, May 9, 1811. He apprenticed in an office that made mathematical and engineering instruments in Bells Quarry until 1832. In that same year, along with James P. Kirkwood, he left Scotland for the United States. They both worked as engineers for the Norwich & Worchester Railroad in Boston, Massachusetts until 1835, at which time Laurie became chief engineer. This railroad had one of the first tunnels built in the United States. Known as the Taft Tunnel, it was built in 1837 during Laurie's time as chief engineer for the railroad. The Taft Tunnel, which is still in railroad use in its original form, was carved through hard rock and is approximately 300 feet long.
From 1845–1847, Laurie made surveys for the Providence & Plainfield Railroad, which later merged with the Hartford, Providence & Fishkill Railroad. In 1848, Laurie opened a Boston office where he remained a year or two. Most of his work was in connection with surveys or construction of railroads, bridges and other engineering projects. He then became engineer for the New Jersey Central Railroad, a position that he held from 1849 to 1851. During this period, he developed extension plans for the railroad from Whitehouse, New Jersey to Easton, Pennsylvania. After opening an office in 1852 in New York City, he did a three year study of bridges for the State of New York. In 1853 Laurie became chief engineer for the Nova Scotia Railway, in which capacity he reported to the government of Nova Scotia. As part of his responsibilities, he extended the railway in 1859–1860. Then, working for the state of Massachusetts, he made elaborate surveys and a large report on the Troy & Greenfield Railroad and the Hoosac Tunnel (a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark) in 1862. He was retained on this tunnel project for several years. Around the same time period, as chief engineer for the New Haven, Hartford and Springfield Railroad from 1861–1866, he designed the major lattice, riveted wrought-iron bridge across the Connecticut River at Warehouse Point, Connecticut, one of the first of its kind in the United States.
Later in 1870 Laurie examined the Lyman Viaduct on the Air Line Railroad in Connecticut. He also examined the Eads Bridge at St. Louis, Missouri and reported on the progress of the bridge's construction for the bondholders. James Laurie attended the initial meetings of the Boston Society of Civil Engineers (BSCE), which was founded on July 3, 1848 in order to provide professional support to civil engineers in the area. At that time he was elected director until 1850. It became the first permanent engineering organization in America. He was the first to present a BSCE paper: "Coal and Iron Trade of Great Britain and the United States," which was printed in the Mining Journal and American Railroad Gazette-Boston. This same issue reported favorably on the BSCE organization and the likelihood of its usefulness. With the apparent success of the BSCE, six civil engineers, including James Laurie, sent out a letter on October 23, 1852 inviting civil engineers and architects to attend the first founding meeting of national civil engineering society to be called the American Society of Civil Engineers and Architects (ASCEA). This organizational meeting was held on November 5, 1852. Twelve engineers attended the meeting which was held at the Croton Aqueduct offices in the Rotunda Building in New York City. At that time, Laurie was elected as the first President of this national organization. At the young society's January 5, 1853 meeting, he presented the ASCEA's first paper: "The Relief of Broadway." In it he called for the construction of an elevated railway above the New York City streets to help alleviate traffic problems in the city. Laurie attended all eight 1853 ASCEA meetings. From 1855 to 1867 ASCEA was inactive due to lack of interest by the membership (average attendance at meetings was only six members), the Civil War, and Laurie's working outside the New York City region.
In 1867, Laurie called a reorganization ASCEA meeting, and a plan was developed to resuscitate the Society. It was decided that the main concern was for the Society to have a fixed location for members to meet, especially for members from outside the New York region. In addition to the Society's adequate financial resources, Laurie presented a check for $558.25 representing compound interest from five discovered shares of the New York Central Railroad held by the Society. These funds enabled the Society to acquire new headquarters in the Chamber of Commerce Building. Now that they had their own offices, regular meetings were initiated which encouraged others to join the Society. The society was finally incorporated as the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1868.
Laurie strove to embody the ethics of the engineering profession. He believed that engineers had a responsibility to the public, and that the ASCE should represent the public interest in affairs of national concern. He supported the advancement of the engineering profession through higher education, and insisted that the requirements for admission into the Society include graduation from a "school of recognized standing." This is ironic, considering the fact that most of Laurie's engineering knowledge was attained through practical experience. On Nov. 6, at the annual board meeting, the following resolution was passed: " Resolved . That we tender our thanks to Mr. James Laurie for his faithful service as our president, for his efforts to re-establish and reorganize the Society on a basis which gives promise of a successful and useful continuance, and particularly for his care of our friends, to which we are greatly indebted for our present unencumbered and hopeful position." The James Laurie Prize was established by ASCE in 1912. The prize is awarded annually to the person who contributes most to the advancement of transportation engineering, including research, planning, design, and construction. James Laurie died in Hartford, Connecticut on March 16, 1875; he never married.
Resources: Biographies of the Founder Members, Boston Society of Civil Engineers. A Biographical Dictionary of American Civil Engineers - vol. II, 1991.