John Findley Wallace

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John Findley Wallace
John F. Wallace, 1904.jpg
Wallace in 1904
Born(1852-09-10)September 10, 1852
Fall River, Massachusetts
DiedJuly 3, 1921(1921-07-03) (aged 68)
Resting placeWoodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York
Alma mater
Known forChief Engineer of the Panama Canal

John Findley Wallace (September 10, 1852 – July 3, 1921) with the middle name Findley not Findlay,[1] was an American Engineer and Administrator, best known for serving as the Chief Engineer of the Panama Canal between 1904 and 1906. He had previously gained experience in railroad construction in the American Midwest.[2]


John Findley Wallace was born, September 10, 1852, in Fall River, Mass., the oldest son of the Rev. Dr. David A. and Martha J. (Findley) Wallace. His father, Rev. Dr. David A. Wallace, D.D., LL.D., was the first president of The Monmouth College, Monmouth, Illinois.

John Findley Wallace attended Monmouth College in Illinois with the class of 1872. He received his degree of C.E. from the University of Wooster, 1882, and Sc.D. from Armour Institute, 1904.[3]

Panama Canal Construction[edit]

On May 6, 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Wallace as chief engineer of the Panama Canal.

As with the French effort to build the canal before him, malaria, other tropical diseases and especially yellow fever plagued the country and further reduced the already depleted workforce. Despite his requests to the contrary, the project was forced to use dilapidated and undersized infrastructure and equipment that had been purchased from the French by the U.S. government. This included primitive steam shovels and an undersized and rusting railway system. The project struggled to make significant progress.

In an attempt to avoid the inefficiency and corruption that had slowed earlier French efforts, a U.S. government commission, the Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC), was established to oversee construction. However, it proved to be overly bureaucratic and was an impediment to progress. Not initially a member of the seven-man ICC, and in an attempt to streamline its efforts, Wallace was appointed to it when it was reformed and its membership reduced to three following his own recommendation. However, the real solution to the problem would be found by his successor, John Frank Stevens[4] who simply bypassed the commission and sent requests and demands directly to the Roosevelt Administration in Washington.

As recommended by a U.S. engineering panel in 1905, Wallace remained an advocate of the concept of a sea-level canal at Panama. To reduce the costs of construction and enable faster completion, this approach was later changed to a reservoir lake and lock system.[5] The new plan would increase operating costs, however, and limit the maximum size of ships able to use the canal.

Wallace was paid $25,000 a year, the second largest salary in the American government, behind only the president.[6] Despite this, in 1906 a frustrated Wallace abruptly resigned and returned to the mainland United States.[7] The Wallace resignation ultimately led to a better understanding of the difficult nature of the project by the Roosevelt administration, resulting in reforms that included larger, more realistic construction budgets. In 1948 Wallace was commemorated on a Canal Zone postage stamp.

Post Panama Canal Work[edit]

Wallace went on to conceive and design the passenger terminal facilities for the Chicago & Northwestern Ry., in Chicago, 1905–06; was president of the Electric Properties Co., 1906–14; president of Westinghouse, Church, Kerr & Co., 1911–16, and chairman of the board of that firm, after 1906; engineering expert for the City Council Committee on Railway Terminals of the City of Chicago and chairman of the Chicago Railway Terminal Commission.[1]

Wallace was president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, American Railway Engineering Association, and Western Society of Engineers. He was a Republican and a Presbyterian.[1]

He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "John Findley Wallace". FindGrave. September 22, 2013. Retrieved August 12, 2014.
  2. ^ Matthew Parker. Hell's Gorge:The Battle to Build the Panama Canal. p.214-16
  3. ^ Scotland, Electric. "John Findley Wallace". Electric Scotland. Retrieved June 8, 2015.
  4. ^ Parker p.253-5
  5. ^ Parker p.284
  6. ^ Parker p.216
  7. ^ Parker p.251-2