In 1937, 17 years after Isham’s death, his sons published a collection of short autobiographical stories written by their father and organized in rough chronological order. The book is called Gleanings from a Harvest of Memories. I read it, cover to cover, took a bunch of notes, and took photographs of the second half of the book for more detailed reading later. It’s unclear if the stories were written by Isham, or by his sons remembering things that Isham told them. In some cases, stories have dates and locations were they were written (or told?). The stories fall into four major time periods – Isham’s youth in Virginia during the civil war, his early days as a surveyor on the B&O railroad, the big ditch (his name for the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal), and his post CS&S career. What follows here isn’t a comprehensive overview of the book, just my first thoughts after reading it.
The Early Days – Virginia during the civil war (1848-1868)
I knew that Isham’s family owned slaves, I knew he came from a well known Virginia family, but it was still difficult to read the first section of his memoirs. Like many men and women of his generation, he looks back on slavery as if it was some sort of rosy period of singing until the Union burnt it all to the ground. It’s hard to read, hard to write about, and impossible to understand where he was coming from. He was 13 when the war started, lost two brothers in the confederate army, and was 17 when the war ended. In between, much of his families home was burnt during Sherman’s march to the sea and many of his neighbors attacked by marauders. His father was attacked by one of the families slaves, and Isham sat with the attacker while he was kept in leg irons in a shed recovering from his wounds.
Railroad Engineer (1868 – 1893)
Isham tried to be a farmer, but it wasn’t his strong suit. He learned how to build things from one of his families slaves, and used that skill as an axeman for the B&O railroad building the Winchester / Strausberg line. He came to Chicago in 1870, and by 1880 was the chief engineer for the Chicago & Western Indiana Railroad. Carter Henry Harrison, the mayor of Chicago and Isham’s third cousin, opposed the expansion of the railroad, and led an armed mob to attack the line. Isham says that the coverage of the attack didn’t mention that Harrison led it, but he saw him, “leading the charge on a black stallion.” He also said that at the time, Harrison didn’t know they were related. The mob attached Isham and his colleague, and almost hung the two of them, but they were saved by a Cook County sheriff, who ordered several Chicago policemen in the crowd to save the men. Soon after, Isham visited Harrison. He doesn’t say much about the meeting, but Harrison soon capitulated on the line expansion, and Isham says that they knew of their common ancestry at that point (August, 1883).
Chief Engineer, Sanitary District of Chicago (1893 – 1907)
Ten years after meeting Carter Henry Harrison, Isham is appointed as the Chief Engineer of the Sanitary District of Chicago (June 7th, 1893), and 4 months later (October 28th, 1893) Harrison is assassinated. Isham doesn’t say why he was appointed, just that four men came before him (including Lyman Cooley – an engineer that would often clash with Isham about canal construction). I find it hard to believe that his relationship with Harrison didn’t have something to do with his appointment, and I hoped it would be confirmed in the memoir, but the only confirmation I have is that they did know each other, and they did both openly acknowledge that they were related. The actual digging of the canal (7 years of his life) gets just three pages, plus an additional 2 about the opening of the canal. He says that 7 volumes sit on his shelf with every meeting and expenditure recorded, so he doesn’t feel the need to recount it again. Clearly, I need to find copies of those books.
He does relate one story of a Sheriff that owned the work-rights to a portion of the dig equal to $5 million in work fees, but that wasn’t actually doing the work. When he went to have the Sheriff removed, he was warned that he was politically connected, and to let him continue to milk the contract. Isham pursued, and had the man removed. It’s an early indication of much of his actions later in his career, there’s a few articles in the Tribune about Isham attacking graft and corrupt city contracts.
Then, 1900 rolls along, that canal is open, and there’s a few pages about a dispute with Canada over the water level of Lake Michigan being lowered by the canal. Isham gives a speech, sticks it to the Canadians, and all is well.
Roosevelt and Taft (1907-1920)
The final sections of the book detail every interaction Isham had with President Roosevelt and Secretary of War (soon to be President) Taft. His life post-big-ditch isn’t as interesting to me personally, so I glossed over this section a bit. He details a lot of dinners he attended, trips to Panama with Taft, and other canal builders he met. One interesting thing – Roosevelt was convinced that the Panama canal should be a ‘sea level canal’ (?), and Isham led a minority opinion that the canal should be a lock & dam canal. Other engineers on the project accused Isham of being disloyal to the President, but Isham insisted that it was an engineering concern, not a political one. The President agreed, read several reports written by Isham and other engineers, and came around to the idea.
The book reads like an old man rambling a bit. I could hear him talking, which was eery. The book was published in 1937, gifted to the Newberry Library in 1945 by Warner G. Baird (one half of Baird & Warner – a well known Chicago real estate company), and read by me in 2011. Has anyone else ever read it? Did anyone touch it after it was put in the secure stacks in 1945? I have more work to do, trying to find some other sources that confirm some of his assertions, trying to find more detail of the actual dig (it amazes me that 7000+ men worked on the dig for 7 years and theres no easy to find journals from any of the workers), and maybe even trying to find some of Isham’s living relatives to see if they have anything extra to add about his life. There’s something about the way Isham wrote, both in this book and in some of his other essays, that makes me think this is all worth researching, that talking about his life will lead to some bigger story about Chicago in 1900, about the belief of that era that engineering should trump nature and make up for our destructive impact on our environment. There’s a big story there, but there’s also just the interesting story of a man that had a huge impact on his world, but never seems anything but open and humble in his writing.