LCDR Calvin Brown: a most unusual navy civil engineer


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Civil Engineer Calvin Brown, Officer in Charge of Public Works construction, standing on the stone blocks at Dry Dock Number 1 at the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, on December 1, 1878.


The personal records of early Navy civil engineers are generally sparse and located in scattered record collections and, with one notable exception, the pioneer members of the Civil Engineer Corps left no detailed biographies.

The exception is Calvin Brown who wrote his own biography. Brown was unique among the 19th century members of the Civil Engineer Corps because he served three times as a Navy civil engineer: 1852 to 1864, 1869 to 1881, and in 1898. Since he was not in the Navy's employ in 1867, he did not receive a retroactive commission as a Navy officer dated to 1867 and is not counted as one of the six original Civil Engineer Corps officers.

Brown not only witnessed the Navy's evolution from a small, wooden sailing fleet to a modern steel-hulled navy, but also saw the transformation of the United States from a rural nation into an industrial giant. Brown began his autobiography when he was74 years old and felt he had completed it four years later. However, in 1898 the Civil Engineer Corps increased its strength by two officers to meet the Spanish-American War emergency: one of these was Civil Engineer (LCDR) Calvin Brown, recalled to active-duty at the age of 82.

Brown's autobiography is a word-portrait of the 19th century, which was visually reflected by the famed lithographs of Currier and Ives (Brown in his youth had even been a schoolmate of Nathaniel Currier).Here then is his story:

Calvin Brown was born in Boston's Roxbury District, which he called the “Boston Highlands,” on 25 March 1816. His father, “a more kinder, more loving parent never lived,” died in 1825. His mother subsequently remarried not the cruel antagonistic stepfather most often portrayed in Victorian literature, but rather one who furnished a pleasant home for Brown with “an acquisition of four step-sisters.”

Brown's earliest recollections concern the school system of the time, dominated by stern disciplinarians of Puritan background. He wrote: “The flogging of both girls and boys for all sorts of delinquencies, even the most trifling and accidental, and non-attributable to voluntary design, was the prevailing mode of correction. Faults of mental weakness, weak memories, constitutional inattention to studies, obtuse apprehension and various natural impediments to the acquisition of elementary knowledge were deemed corrigible only by the rod and other appliances of torture, and by many teachers mercilessly administered.”

When he was eight, Brown was taken to Boston to view from a distance the Marquis de Lafayette during his 1824 visit to the former colonies. This was the memorable event in Brown's early life and triggered a new awareness of a world outside his familiar surroundings.

Brown's formal schooling ended at twelve and, after a series of temporary jobs, he was apprenticed to the owner of a Boston bookstore. This gave him an opportunity to acquire and read a great many books hitherto unavailable to him. He later took a similar job with a Roxbury stationer where he learned and practiced bookbinding and related stationer skills. He was subsequently fired from this position when he left early one evening to attend "Master Stimson's dancing class." He returned to work in his stepfather's tannery following this incident and it was during this time that the pivotal incident which determined his later career took place.

By chance one day Brown saw a surveyor “...with a strange machine upon his shoulder [a theodolite]...and...was peculiarly struck with the phenomenon and an intense curiosity.” An older friend explained the duties of a surveyor and of the new demands that the railroad industry was making upon this profession. His interest whetted, Brown answered a Boston newspaper advertisement which invited applicants for a newly established engineering office.

Brown entered the employ of Robert H. Eddy, a student and associate of Loammi Baldwin, at about the same time that William P. S. Sanger was in Baldwin's service at the Norfolk Navy Shipyard. Brown found himself on the ground floor of a new profession which gradually made him one of the Navy's most experienced engineers. Of his new job, Brown wrote enthusiastically, “I found myself in the prospect of a career that charmingly disclosed its attractions in the study  of the records and graphic illustrations of the wonderful works which had been built by the eminent men in whose trade I had ventured to follow.”

The Eddy engineering office had numerous and intriguing projects underway and the principal of the firm dedicated his time and efforts to train his young understudies, of which there were four. The first field assignments the fledgling engineers received were a bridge project between Charles and East Boston, two railroad surveys, and a study of ponds in the Boston area with a view to creating a municipal water supply. Brown became enraptured with his new profession and credits Eddy with providing, “...the most favorable conditions of studentship, with an accomplished elementary instructor, with every appliance needed for practice and study in comfort of a well-furnished office and congenial associates.”

Eddy chose Brown to complete a topographical and hydrographical survey of New Hampshire's Merrimack River from Nashua to Amoskeag. The results demonstrated the feasibility of establishing the famed Manchester Mills and Amoskeag Manufacturing Company (for years the largest cotton milling plant in the world). Before he was twenty-one, Brown was offered the job of engineer for the construction of the locks and canals that would furnish hydro-power for the manufacturing complex. He prudently declined the offer because he felt that he was not sufficiently experienced for such responsibilities and that his position with the Eddy firm was most satisfactory. Calvin Brown was wrong, however, about the latter; shortly thereafter he left Eddy because of a “...difference of views and a doubt of [Eddy's] fairness to employees.”

Brown's credentials were impressive enough to win him a position with the engineering firm of Thomas Hayward, a former professor of mathematics at Harvard.  In a short time, Brown was working with such noted engineers and architects as Loammi Baldwin and Leverett Saltonstall. About the former, Brown wrote, "...I became personally acquainted with Colonel Baldwin, whose engineering attainments and wonderfully attractive manners and sympathy with young people claimed my admiration and esteem."

In addition to developing himself as an engineer, Brown explored works of philosophy during this period of his life. He was an active member of numerous study groups, mostly oriented toward the teaching of the Universalist Church, and he regularly attended the Rev. Hosea Ballou's Young Men's Universalist Institute. Brown was troubled that Christian doctrine was not practiced as preached, that individuals placed the acquisition of wealth ahead of personal ethics, and that this acquisition of wealth was at the expense of other members of society. In fact,  Brown was something of a utopian socialist in his personal philosophy.

In 1838, at the age of twenty-two, Brown married; however, he mentions neither his wife's given name nor her family name in his chronicle. The following year, he lost his first child, a son, a week after birth. He was later to lose two other children in the same fashion.

In February 1838 Brown traveled by ship to Georgia to carry out a railroad survey; this was only six years after the building of the first railroad in the United States. As luck would have it, Brown's ship ran into one of the worst Atlantic gales of the period and he suffered grievously from sea sickness: “In my misery I cared not what became of me, any fate the sea god might select would be agreeable if it would afford any mitigation of the sickening-racking torture.” Docking in Charleston, South Carolina, after the nine-day voyage, Brown travelled to  Bainbridge, the terminal point of the new railroad. He then went by horseback to Thomasville where he joined the survey party. At Thomasville, Brown met the division engineer, B. F. Thomas, a former Baldwin associate, and Benjamin Chandler, whom he had known from his Boston days. Chandler and Brown crossed paths on a number of subsequent occasions; and the former would later be one of the first six men commissioned as Civil Engineer Corps officers.

The proposed rail line was to run from Thomasville to Brunswick, Georgia; and engineering parties were distributed along 40-mile long sectional divisions. The terrain was greatly different from that in which Brown and Chandler had previously worked; only rarely did a river, swamp, or other obstacle challenge their professional skills. Then, the survey was abruptly terminated; the Atlantic Coast Line Rail Road proved to be undercapitalized and could not continue its proposed expansion. Brown was given a small cash payment for his services, travel expenses, and a promissory note which was never honored. When Brown stepped ashore at New York Harbor on his way home, his first thought was of employment: “…having found myself wanting in the pecuniary means.” He tells his readers that “…unlike other occupations which admit of stationary establishments, it is an inconvenience of the civil engineer's profession that it ordinarily has to be practiced in various and distant localities...for more or less brief periods...after which he must look for another job not always at once available.” Brown,  however, was fortunate; he was soon associated with Gridley J. F. Bryant, a longtime architect friend in Boston. Bryant's father was an American pioneer in the use of pneumatic tube and caisson systems for submarine construction. Thus, Brown was able to add submarine construction to his professional knowledge.

Brown enjoyed a successful private practice in the Boston area until 1840 when a new challenge came his way. That year a new wharf at the Portsmouth Navy Yard in New Hampshire collapsed. Alexander Parris, an engineer working at the Boston Navy Yard, was sent to investigate the damage. He chose Brown as his assistant and this job introduced Brown to the fledgling Navy shore establishment.  Parris and Brown were appalled by what they found: “It cannot be supposed that the designer, or designers, of this wharf was governed by any knowledge of statical or dynamical laws, but by a simple guess that the thing would do.”

The Navy authorized Parris to design and build a new wharf near the site of the old. Brown became the "draughtsman" for the project. It was found that"...the nature of the site, great depth of water, rapid tidal current and the outward slanting of the rocky bottom, precluded the adoption of a coffer dam, except at a vast expense and suggested the diving bell system as the only economical one." Brown, himself, rode the cast-iron diving bell to the estuary's floor and he did so in an age that did not fully realize the dangers of working under pressure. He and his fellow workers in the diving bell even undertook submarine blasting, a dangerous technique at the time. Following Parris's departure the next year, Brown became chief engineer on the project and saw it through to completion in 1845.

Following this job, Brown went back to railroad surveying; this time working for the Vermont Central Railway, between Montpelier and Boston. After four years, he took yet another railroad survey job in New York State. While practicing his civil engineering career, Brown was becoming increasingly obsessed with social reform: he actively worked for the abolition of slavery and was very interested in such utopian socialist experimental communities as Brook Farm, near his hometown of Roxbury, Massachusetts. His civil engineering career kept him at a distance from the Brook Farm group so Brown attempted to create a similar body, terming himself the “main organizer.” Brown, however, finally admitted that although many were interested the plan never went beyond the talking stage. He later briefly formed such a community in New York; however, he learned, as many others have, that all members of such groups do not equitably share the burdens. Brown also made a brief foray into the realm of spiritualism. Although impressed with several psychic demonstrations, he did not pursue this interest very far.

Although Brown remained acutely sensitive to the social and economic problems of his day, more practical problems, such as making a living, confronted him. He simply could no longer devote much time or thought to issues beyond his immediate career. In March 1850 Brown left Boston for Sackett's Harbor, New York, to make a survey for an extension of New York's Rome and Watertown Railway. Once again, however, Brown found himself the victim of an undercapitalized venture. After two years of work for the railroad, Brown emerged with a net loss. It was many years before he returned to railroad work, and then only as a government inspector.

While at Sackett's Harbor, Brown became acquainted with First Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant, USA, who was stationed at nearby Madison Barracks. Brown wrote, “[Grant] appeared as a quiet unobtrusive young officer with no prophetic manifestation of the extraordinary ability that afterwards characterized him in his conduct of our terrible national catastrophe.”

At this point, in the early-1850s, Brown's financial situation was desperate and he sought new employment:  “I made application to the U.S. Navy Department in the hope of again obtaining an appointment in its service--to my great relief this was granted and I was placed on the rolls of the Philadelphia Navy Yard but assigned duty at that of Portsmouth, Va.” He had hardly reported there when he was ordered to the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Navy Yard to replace his old friend and mentor, Alexander Parris, who had died during Brown's railroad adventures.

During his return to New Hampshire, Brown stayed at the same hotel as Franklin Pierce and became “…intimate with him and enjoying the noble geniality that characterized him.” Pierce introduced Brown to Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom Brown held in high esteem because of the Brook Farm experiment, in which Hawthorne had been active. Pierce was elected President later in that year of 1852. Brown was subsequently ordered back to Portsmouth, Virginia. However, he chose to establish his family residence in Philadelphia. He remained at the Norfolk Navy Yard for the next nine years. The Navy during this period was developing the Norfolk facility into a  major naval complex and had much need of a good civil engineer there.

Brown brought his underwater construction experience to Norfolk; and although the muddy waters and floor of the Virginia port were far different from the granite bottom of the New Hampshire estuary, Brown devised practical solutions to the problems encountered in new wharf construction and was soon undertaking major projects. America's first dry dock had been built  at Norfolk in 1833 for sailing ships. Brown now had to meet the support requirements of the   new steamships to which the Navy was converting. “In addition to the necessity for extending the landing and mooring facilities....new quay walls....a large foundry, a boiler making shop and equipment of heavy machinery were required,” Brown noted. His plans, incidentally, were approved by a board of civil engineers composed of William P. S. Sanger, Brown himself, and First Lieutenant William S. Rosecrans, an Army engineer who would later become a major general during the Civil War.

Although generally happy at his Virginia station, Brown admits to a “...few enemies who made their appearance under the relations they had entered into with the Government; in which my official position obliged me to interfere for its protection against their unscrupulous designs. I hardly need mention that these enemies belonged to the class of unprincipled contractors and speculators whose aim is to prey upon the public interests when opportunity is shown and they imagine its officials accessible to corruption.”

The impending Civil War, however, increasingly overshadowed Brown's other problems. Washington, DC, had become a hotbed of intrigue. An unidentified officer advised Brown that the “Norfolk Navy Yard would not long remain a Government yard,” and consequently to report “privately” any significant facts. Brown complied by supplying information and also prevented “•..expenditures of the appropriated public funds for the navy yard improvements from being made and applied for the benefit of the enemies of the Union.”

Brown, however, was spared witnessing what was to transpire at Norfolk. He was detached from the Virginia station on 21 March 1861 and ordered to Mare Island, California. On 6 May he sailed through the Golden Gate and found himself serving at the Navy's most distant permanent naval facility. It would seem that Brown had been sent because Washington wanted a tried professional on hand to develop the Navy yard -- but for whose benefit? California was an unknown quantity, Brown may have been sent there to improve the facilities for the eventual use of the Confederacy.

Brown was suspicious of the atmosphere he found in San Francisco: “The newspapers true to their instincts of venal profits to be secured by popular taste and opinion, appeared to be hesitating and holding themselves ready for siding this way or that,...the forts and other military positions were commanded by Southern officers,...nearly all of the civil officers at Mare Island were known to be avowed sympathizers with the Southern cause.” Brown was heartened by the appointment of a new yard commandant, CAPT William H. Gardner, USN, even though the local secessionists hailed him because he was a Marylander. “Captain Gardner I have always estimated as a full toned honorable man, whose sense of duty as an officer of the Nation placed him eminently above every temptation to invalidate the trust he accepted.”

Unfortunately, Gardner's allegiance was later called into question when, unwittingly, he had a magistrate from nearby Vallejo administer an oath of allegiance to the United States to the station personnel, not knowing that this judge was, himself, a leading advocate of secession. Loyal personnel refused to take the oath from this judge considering it to be a mockery. Because of this incident, CAPT Gardner was replaced as commandant. In a short time, those suspected of disloyalty to the Union cause were discharged. In the midst of all this turmoil, Brown was ordered to construct defensive works at the southern end of the island for the mounting of twelve heavy guns.

While carrying out this task, Brown learned of the abandonment of the Norfolk Navy Yard. The new Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, had determined that. the Virginia installation was indefensible.   Confusion was rampant in Washington and Welles apparently issued contradictory or vague orders: relieve the threatened yard or destroy it. Neither was done. A  relief party did not reinforce the station, but instead made a miserable attempt to destroy it. Five warships were burned to their waterlines, including the USS MERRIMACK, which would later be raised and rebuilt so that it could terrorize Union shipping as the ironclad CSS VIRGINIA. Norfolk's structures were superficially burned; however, the valuable mechanical shops that Brown had designed and constructed remained to serve the Confederacy.  The yard's capabilities were restored within a month and it supplied most of the heavy guns and other ordnance used by the Confederacy on the Atlantic coast.

The arrival of Brown's family in December 1861, provided him some solace; however, a new problem emerged. The station commandant discovered that Brown received a higher salary than he; the commandant subsequently requested that his pay be raised to equal Brown's. The Navy Department chose a somewhat different solution. Brown's pay was lowered to equal that of the commandant.

Brown was miffed at the Navy. “I determined to leave the Navy upon the first opportunity that might be presented wherein engineering services would be appreciated upon their real value and not upon those of a comparison with mere official relation to some other individual.” The opportunity soon came. The Spring Valley Water Company of San Francisco offered Brown the post of chief engineer for the design and construction of a large municipal reservoir. “I accepted this call at a salary in almost ridiculous contrast with the government pay and resigned my position at Mare Island on Sept. 7, 1864.”

Brown stayed on the west coast and several years later, while returning from a construction project in Oregon, learned, through a newspaper report, that he had been appointed Navy Civil Engineer of the Mare Island Navy Yard. “This was a surprise to me as I had not solicited the position. I did not at first feel inclined to accept the place when it was officially tendered.” However “...the importunity of my friends...in urging my compliance...finally prompted an acceptance of the appointment.” He took service at the yard on 13 May 1869. The now 53-year old engineer relished his new office and duties. “With the exception of the more pretentious house of the commandant I was favored with the finest family residence on the island," Brown wrote with pride. Undertaking the renovation of Mare Island, Brown completed a new hospital, powder magazine, ordnance armory, headquarters building and large catchment reservoir. To his great pleasure, Brown was also named a government inspector of the Central Pacific Railroad, which was ultimately to join the Union Pacific at Promontory Point, Utah, creating the first transcontinental railroad. Later, Brown was to serve in the same capacity with the Southern Pacific Railroad.

In 1872, Congress appropriated the first funds to build a stone graving dock at Mare Island. Brown commented, “The work was almost exasperatingly slow owing to the paltry sums annually allocated for it.” The dock took nineteen years to complete. A year after the first appropriation, Brown toured England and France to study the docks at Portsmouth, Chatham, and Cherbourg; he was especially interested in their use of stone masonry.

Brown remained at Mare Island for the next nine years and completed numerous projects. However, the 1881 decision which finally gave Navy civil engineers full officer status also naturally gave the newly recognized officers the right to a Navy retirement. Along with Sanger and others, Brown took advantage of this and retired on 15 October 1881 (the same day Sanger retired) at the age of sixty-five and with the relative rank of lieutenant commander.

He devoted his retirement years to a private engineering practice and to the social and econom1c problems of his adopted state. He decried land speculators and more than once declined  lucrative fees for town-site surveys of land located in waterless, desert areas. For a time he shared office space in San Francisco with Colonel John Singleton Mosby, the famous Confederate guerrilla leader and former commander of “Mosby's Raiders.”

As mentioned earlier, Brown was recalled to active duty in 1898 at the age of 82 for the Spanish- American War. Brown served in Washington, DC, as senior member of a board of inspection which had him traveling to the Navy yards in New York, Boston and Portsmouth. After a six- month tour he was released from active duty. Unfortunately, Brown only carried his autobiography through to 1894, so we do not have his impressions of this tour of duty. However, an associate of Brown was informed by his daughter, Hattie, that “…she was so proud of her old father to see him in the uniform of his rank on duty at naval headquarters.”

Calvin Brown died on 29 March 1909 at the family residence on Oak Street in San Francisco, California.

Published:Wed Jan 11 12:32:16 EST 2017