Isham Randolph, Poet

I’ve written in the past about Isham’s 26 stanza poem, written for Admiral Dewey on his visit to the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal.  You can see the entire poem on page three of this album.  I’ve found plenty of examples of Isham’s technical writing, but no other examples of his poetry, until this gem showed up in a memorial, quoted in the Society of Western Engineers, no date is given for its creation, but it is attributed to Isham,

The memorial also had a more detailed record of Isham’s railroad career, which I’ll add to the Wikipedia entry soon.  It also gave the names of his three sons (I only knew one) and his wife.  I found the name of his wife in census records, but not his son’s beyond Col. Randolph (who the memorial says was a Major?)  It also says that Isham helped to organize a regiment of engineers during World War One, and quotes the conclusion of a speech he gave them before their departure for Europe.  Though not poetry, it speaks to the poetic character of the man,

One last quote from the piece, not from Isham, but from the memorial writer, suggesting that a volume of Randolph’s writing, including his poetry, should be published.

I haven’t collected enough of his writing to “gather and edit a volume,” but I have pulled a bit together over the course of the last year, so – I guess I’m the guy that’s doing what this author asked for, just a hundred years later than he expected.

What Badges Would Isham Have Collected?

My pal @plural (Jason Gessner)’s funny tweet inspired a second (shorter) post explaining badges in terms of Isham Randolph.  (for those just joining, Isham Randolph was the chief engineer of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, the canal that reversed the flow of the Chicago River, I’m sort of obsessed with him.)

So, Jason, in response to your tweet – Isham Randolph is an excellent example of an entrepreneurial learner who would have benefited a great deal from OpenBadges.  Here, in convenient bullet format, I present my argument:

  • Isham began his career by learning carpentry from a man (whom he owned, sadly, he was a slave owner) on his plantation, he was not formally apprenticed or trained. citations
  • Isham worked his way up from axeman to chief engineer of the Chicago and Western Indiana Railroad, leveraging his on the job learning to advance his career. citations
  • Isham became chief engineer of the Chicago Sanitary district, dug the CS&S canal, then used his achievement to gain an appointment to the Panama Canal Committee. citations

So, in short, he would have had at least three badges, all of which were important to his career, none of which would was considered formal learning at the time: carpentry, surveying (probably engineering management), and canal building.

Ebin. J. Ward v. Isham Randolph

I’ve started to collect any historic records from the Sanitary District of Chicago during the Sanitary & Ship Canal dig on a Google bookshelf.  I’ve found 8 books, including several volumes of the official proceedings of the board of trustees.  All pretty dry stuff, but given enough time could paint a solid picture of the actual construction of the canal.  My guess is that not many of the volumes were printed, and really only for archival purposes.  Isham Randolph mentions them in his memoir, so I’m also guessing that they were mostly held by people involved with the department.

The first two volumes I found, 1891 and 1892 were from the collections of Michigan University and the University of California.  The 1892 edition has this signature on several of the front pages:

I googled “Ebin J. Ward” and found this record at the Chicago Public Library, “The Illinois water-power-water-way / an attack by Ebin J. Ward ; and defense by Robert Isham Randolph.”  Kind of cool, the Google books scanned copy is from the personal collection of one of Isham’s professional rivals.  One of these days I hope to come across a scan of something from Isham’s collection.

Some other clips -

Isham has a Wikipedia Entry


Isham Randolph, the owner of a full Wikipedia page

After 8 months of on and off work, a trip to the Newberry Library, and dozens of articles logged and noted, Isham Randolph – the engineer that reversed the flow of the Chicago River, has a respectable Wikipedia article: Isham Randolph.

I’m pretty proud of the work, every sentence on that page has a reference, in some cases more than one. I’d estimate that that article equals around 20 – 30 hours of work. Not an enormous investment, but more than I would have thought, and more than what the end result really looks like. During the time I worked on it, several other contributors helped clean and correct some wikipedia-ish issues around copyright and formatting. No one else contributed research or content, I always held out hope that there would be another closet Isham Randolph enthusiast out there in the world, but it looks like I’ve found a niche of exactly one – me.

What’s next? I’m not entirely sure. I’ve started to pull together some articles on Col. Robert Isham Randolph, Isham’s son. In 1930, the Colonel, a veteran of the Mexican Revolution and World War I, was appointed as the chair of the Chicago Association of Commerce. Within 6 months, he had established The Secret Six, a (obviously) secret organization of prominent businessmen that threw their vast wealth behind the goal of ridding Chicago of crime. When I read this blurb from the Tribune, it blew my mind.

Wait, was he a businessman, or BATMAN?

So, what’s next?  A page for Isham Randolph’s son, who was apparently Chicago’s version of Batman.  It’s not an exaggeration, the Secret Six brought Eliot Ness to Chicago, and ultimately brought down Al Capone.  Sure, some crabby historians think that Randolph and the CAC created the furor over Racketeering for some nefarious  purpose, but I’m at the stage in my research where I’m totally buying the Secret Six as super-hero squad hook line and sinker.

Given the popular conception of Al Capone and the Untouchables, how could it be possible that it was all manufactured by a conglomerate of Chicago’s wealthiest businessmen?  Would they really do something like that just to get Anton Cermak elected to the mayor’s office on promises of being hard on crime in 1931?  Just a few short months after the formation of the Secret Six?  It’s just a lot to fathom.  I’m going to go with the official line, but – wow, what if the Randolph family both reversed the flow of the Chicago River and elevated Al Capone from petty gangster to public enemy one just to get a mayor elected?!  What a family!


Mayor of Chicago (c. 1880) was a bit of a thug

Isham makes a bold claim in his memoir. On September 15th, 1880, his 3rd cousin, the Mayor of Chicago Carter Harrison Sr. led a mob attack on the rail line he was working on. I added it to Isham’s wikipedia page, knowing that Isham himself said that none of the accounts of the attack included the fact that Harrison led the mob. I found the Chicago Daily Tribune article detailing the attack from September 16th, 1880, and true to Isham’s claim, no mention is made of Harrison’s involvement. That said, the Tribune’s coverage of the attack is interesting, and a great window into a time when violence was a common political tool.

An Account of the Mob Attack on the Chicago and Western Indiana Railroad - Chicago Daily Tribune September 16th, 1880

Isham Randolph’s Memoir, First Thoughts

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

Digital Historical Research

I’m headed to the Newberry Library this weekend to read Isham Randolph’s memoir “Gleanings from a Harvest of Memories.”  As I’m pulling my notes together, it’s amazing to me how little physical library work I’ve done to put together so much information about the man.  This is the first significant historical research I’ve done since college (more than 10 years ago), and a lot has changed.

All of my sources, excluding the memoir, have been online.  I’ve pulled dozens of articles from the Chicago Public Library – Chicago Tribune archive (you need a CPL card to access it), a few from the New York Times archive, and a couple of really great ones from the Library of Congress Chronicling of America project.   I used Harper’s archive to fill in a few ideas about the role of canal’s at the turn of the century, including this really great piece, Waterways of America (subscription required) that put the role of canals in 1900 in perspective (they were a big deal).  One of the most interesting sources has been Google Books.  They have a gigantic collection of digitized material, including a really fancy tool that lets me embed clips from books like so:

As I accumulated all this material, I thought about printing it all out and sorting it, and realized that was a terrible idea.  I originally tried to track it all in Evernote, but eventually concluded I would be better off in a more research oriented tool called Scrivener.  Scrivener is a great writing tool, and has a lot of features meant for organizing research.  I’d highly recommend it for non-trivial projects with a lot of PDF documents that need to be organized in some sort of reasonable fashion.  I haven’t used much of their writing tools yet, but I plan to as I boil all of this material down.

Digging Ditches is Dangerous

Digging the canal wasn’t easy.  New construction machines and techniques were influencing the dig, and organizing thousands of workers led to lots of issues.  Isham was hit by a train in 1899:

Isham hit by a train, Chicago Daily Tribune Oct 28, 1899

Obviously danger from construction would be a big concern, but less obviously, the biggest danger in the camps was your fellow workers.  Roving gangs terrorized the camps at night, as described in the closing paragraph of this New York Times piece on the dig,

Nightime in the camps, New York Times - January 13th, 1895

The line “politics has been successfully kept out of the rough looking army” is a bit sad.  Haymarket and Lucy Parson‘s 80,000 marchers on Michigan Avenue was a year and a half away.  There aren’t any mentions (that I can find) of any significant labor organization going on in the canal camps, but I have to assume it was attempted.   Later that year, the drainage commission promised action to “rout out the thugs”, but I haven’t yet found any follow up, or results of their actions.

Going after the thugs, Chicago Daily Tribune June 27th, 1895

The camps worked long days under difficult conditions.  Such a huge concentration of workers would be a prime target for organizers.  The 8 hour workday movement hit Chicago in 1884, so it’s easy to assume that the canal workers would have known that they could organize.

8 hour work days? Anarchy!

What was Isham wrapped up in?

In a comment on my last post, Ed Summers clued me in to a project he’s working on at the Library of Congress, Chronicling America – a collection of digitized US newspapers. Most of the Tribune material I have is relatively tame, so it was great to get a look at some more sensationalistic views of the dig.  As an example of the Tribune style of the 1890′s, here’s an 1893 article on the status of the dig, and an accounting of expenditures,

Tribune comments on the canal's usage - MILLIONS OF MONEY Chicago Daily Tribune Jul 23, 1893

Despite their between the lines indignation, they lead the article with a tremendous ode to engineering feats of the day:

We love engineers! - MILLIONS OF MONEY Chicago Daily Tribune Jul 23, 1893

They also include a few fantastic etchings of the dig, including this one:

Etching of the Dig - MILLIONS OF MONEY Chicago Daily Tribune Jul 23, 1893

Given all of the above, I’ve had a pretty benign view of the dig, thinking maybe there was a bit of nepotism in Isham’s relation to Mayor Carter Harrison Sr. (confirmed in this very old, very dense book of Virginia Genealogy - Genealogy of the Page family in Virginia April, 1893), but generally getting the sense that it was for the public good.  It was a shock when I found this zinger from the Chicago Eagle, a muckraking weekly with a picture of the editor / proprietor front and center:

League of Crooks! - Chicago Eagle, March 23rd, 1901

In case you can’t read extremely small type…ENHANCE!

League of Crime?! Egads!

Yikes!  Looks like I need to spend more time on the LOC Chronicling America site for some more perspective.  Isham’s later stance on graft and city corruption, plus his son’s (also named Isham Randolph) track record of public service (putting Al Capone away, among other things) makes me believe that Isham Sr. was above board, but you never really know.  I doubt his autobiography will shed much light on whether or not he was involved in a graft heavy engineering project, but it might.  I sincerely hope that it doesn’t, or otherwise proves that Isham was a solid engineer with some advantages in his life, but never took them for granted.  That’s the picture I have in my mind, let’s hope the facts bear out.

How could a guy that wrote this be bad?  The opening of Isham’s essay “The Imaginative Faculty in Engineering”  (1913)

“We had visions, oh! they were as grand
As ever floated out of fancy land.”

are words sung by a poet of our own land to the ears of a few who knew, honored, and loved the singer. He sang of the Lost Cause with a beauty and a pathos that touched the hearts of all who mourned for the men who followed that conquered banner along the path that led to glory and the grave.


The sculptor beholds in blocks of marble, forms that are hid from his fellow men, who see only a mass of stubborn stone. The explorers of Olympia have resurrected from the detritus which buried them treasures of Grecian art wrought from marble by Phidias, Praxiteles, and others, whose chisels made Greece beautiful and themselves famous. Within our own time one of our own race and nation saw in a marble block an imprisoned form, and day by day, with mallet and chisel, he toiled to liberate the loveliness of face, torso, and limb that duller eyes could not see, but which the opaque covering could not hide from him. Little by little the revelation which, from the first, was so clear to the sculptor came to his dull-eyed fellows, and at last the Greek Slave came forth in all her womanly beauty to delight the human vision until she, too, shall some day be buried, like the creations of Praxiteles, in some overwhelming convulsion of Nature.

It is not, however, of the poet’s inspired imaginings nor of the revelations of the sculptor’s art that I am to speak, but of “The Imaginative Faculty in Engineering”; for the engineer, no less than the sculptor, sees things that are hid from other eyes than his.

Isham Randolph’s Lazy Wikipedia Biographer

Isham Randolph

Isham Randolph, looking like he's ready to dig a big canal

Way back in 2006, I started a short lived polyglot programming group named after Rudolph Hering (who I thought reversed the flow of the Chicago River).  I later found out that I was totally wrong. Around the same time, I vowed to build a wikipedia page for the maligned Isham Randolph, the actual engineer who actually reversed the flow of the Chicago River. Now, almost 5 years later, there’s a wikipedia page with a picture, some dates, and a single paragraph about Isham Randolph.

Over the course of a few chilly nights in October 2010, I collected a couple dozen articles from the Chicago Tribune online archives (courtesy of the Chicago Public Library), and a bunch of engineering texts written by Isham and his colleagues (courtesy of Google Books). I found a photo, a copy of his signature, learned about the ins and outs of copyright law as it pertains to Wikipedia, and wrote a brief paragraph with my best interpretation of Isham’s life.

I was briefly embroiled in a copyright / image fair use issue with a Wikipedia editor, which was enlightening, and a bit disheartening. I spent most of my time there trying to figure out how I could justify using the only photograph I could find of Isham without violating Wikipedia’s policies. By the time the issue was resolved, I’d lost some steam.

Tonight, I went back to the virtual corkboard and started adding metadata to my collection of digital documents. I’d like to add content to the article, but don’t want to do it until I have a good understanding of the arc of Isham’s very impressive life. It’s important to me, because Isham was an exceptional man. He wasn’t formally educated, worked his way up through the railroads, was appointed the first chief engineer of the Chicago Sanitary District, and then undertook the greatest civil engineering project of the time. A project that was totally crazy, tremendously ambitious, and a little abhorrent to today’s more environmentally conscious style of engineering.

His career didn’t end when the canal finished, he went on to work on the Panama canal at the appointment of President Roosevelt, fought corruption in Chicago, wrote poetry about the sanitary & ship canal, and raised a son that would be a significant figure in the secret cabal that brought down Al Capone. A man like that deserves at least a reasonable Wikipedia page, probably a lot more.

Virtual Corkboard

My Virtual Corkboard

Late in his life, Isham wrote an 80 page autobiography, which his family published in 1937, long after his death. The Newberry Library has a copy, Gleanings from a Harvest of Memories. It’s cited in several civil war histories, because Isham grew up in Virginia during the war, and his childhood memories of the war are quotable. I’ve known about the book since October, but haven’t made the time to get to the library to read it. After tonight’s cataloging of sources, I’m enthusiastic to get down there and figure out who Isham was, or at least who Isham thought he was.

A few questions that I want to answer through the research: How does a railroad axeman become the head of the sanitary district of a major US city?  Was he related to Mayor Harrison? I think, but haven’t confirmed, that they have a common ancestor in Thomas Jefferson’s maternal grandfather Isham Randolph of Dungeness.  The canal is usually thought to have been constructed because of a typhoid epidemic in the city (which has been proven untrue), was the intention of the canal always based on transportation, was it there to undercut the railroads? Was Isham appointed because he knew transportation (railroads!) and knew how important the canal would be to the growing city?  Later in life, Isham was an outspoken critic of political corruption, while the Chicago Sanitary District was called “a vast power in the state.”  How involved was Isham in Chicago politics?  He was the head of a multi-million dollar giant engineering project that was constantly under fire from city and state government, what compromises (if any) did he have to make?

This isn’t an overnight kind of project, kind of like the canal:

Excavation site of Chicago Drainage Canal