General William Wierman Wright was born July 27, 1824 at York Springs, Adams County, Pennsylvania. His family was Quaker, and he received his early education from neighborhood schools, finishing at the Academy at Gettysburg.
Wright began his engineering career in 1847 under Samuel W. Mifflin, then in charge of the Mountain Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Wright served with the Pennsylvania Railroad in various capacities until 1854, when he was principal assistant engineer in charge of the Western Division.
Over the years Wright supervised the construction of the Indiana Branch and the erection of the freight depot at Pittsburgh. In 1855, he became the chief engineer of the Memphis & Charleston Railroad. In 1857 he was engaged in the service of the Honduras Interoceanic Railroads, under the direction of John C. Trautwine (1810-1883), the well-known American railroad and canal engineer who served on surveys for the routes of the Panama railroad and canal. On his return to New York in May 1858, Wright was then sent to England in the service of the Honduras Company. He travelled extensively in Europe before returning to the U.S. in 1859. Wright then joined the Waynesburg Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad until the outbreak of the Civil War (1861-1865) during which he served in the Military Railroad Department.
It was during the war that Wright's reputation was built. He was in charge of the Acquia Creek Railroad and was responsible for extensive wharf construction. In 1863 he was military superintendent of transportation at Harrisburg. A year later, he became chief engineer of military railroads in the Mississippi division. He was also appointed colonel of the United States Volunteers.
In 1864, he was ordered to Savannah by General Sherman, and arrived in January 1865 heading the Military Railroad Construction Corps. His work during the war, repairing railways and bridges, marked Sherman's march through the South and distinguished Wright in the field of civil engineering. He was present with Sherman during the negotiations with General Johnston at the end of the war. By then, Wright was a close friend of Sherman's who remembered him in his postwar memoirs as one of his most trusted aides.
After the war, the construction corps was disbanded (May 1865), and Wright left government service in 1866 to become general superintendent of the Eastern Division of the Kansas Pacific Railway. In 1867, he became chief engineer of that company and directed surveys for a proposed extension of the road to the Pacific coast. In 1868, he joined the Kansas and Missouri Birdge Company at Leavenworth. He subsequently became associated with the Chicago and Atchison Bridge over the Missouri River. In 1870, Wright was appointed chief engineer of the Shenandoah Valley Railroad in Virginia, and supervised surveys for that railroad. He returned to Philadelphia in 1874, where he engaged in a general engineering practice.
In 1879 to 1880, Wright was invited to join the International Technical Commission formed by Ferdinand de Lesseps in Panama to investigate an interoceanic route across the isthmus.
When Wright returned to the U.S., his bright career seemed to take a downward turn. In his years abroad, he had become an alcoholic. He took lodgings in a room on Walnut Street in Philadelphia, and subsisted by cleaning offices. The night before he died, Wright had been arrested for drunken behavior in public. He was sent to Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia, and was found dead the next morning, March 9, 1882. He was buried beside his parents in Adams County. Wright never married.
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This collection consists of the four folios of General Wright's scrapbook which contains primarily news items relating to the proposed construction of the Panama Canal. Some letters, notes, and sketches by Wright are included, along with printed maps showing the different interoceanic routes that were considered. In addition, the scrapbook includes a letter from John A. Roebling, builder of the Brooklyn Bridge, and several broadsides in Spanish citing Ferdinand de Lesseps and the canal project.
The scrapbook consists of 70 pages of text and measures 8.5 inches by 11 inches. The front and back covers are present, but the spine is missing. The four folios have fallen apart and are consequently housed in separate folders.
This register is organized by folio, with itemizations and indexing listed for each page. Pages are numbered lightly at the top in pencil.
Abbreviations used include:
ALS autograph letter signed
ANS autograph note signed
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Provenance: The Manuscript Company of Springfield, Virginia
Processed by Lisette C. Matano, July 10, 1991.
BULK DATES: 1879 - 1882
SPAN DATES: 1857 - 1883
EXTENT: 1 box