Open main menu

John Alexander Low Waddell

John Alexander Low Waddell (January 15, 1854 – March 3, 1938, often shortened to J.A.L. Waddell and sometimes known as John Alexander Waddell) was an American civil engineer and prolific bridge designer, with more than a thousand structures to his credit in the United States, Canada, as well as Mexico, Russia, China, Japan, and New Zealand. Waddell’s work set standards for elevated railroad systems and helped develop materials suitable for large span bridges. His most important contribution was the development of the steam-powered high-lift bridge. His design was first used in 1893 for Chicago's South Halsted Street Lift-Bridge over the Chicago River; he went on to design more than 100 other movable bridges, and the company he founded continues to make movable bridges of various types. Waddell was a widely respected writer on bridge design, and an advocate of quality training of engineers. Many of Waddell's surviving bridges are now considered historic landmarks.

John Alexander Low Waddell
John Alexander Low Waddell.jpg
John Alexander Low Waddell
BornJanuary 15, 1854
DiedMarch 3, 1938
New York, New York, United States
Alma materRensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Known forBridge Engineering (two volumes), De pontibus: A pocket-book for bridge engineers, and Economics of Bridge Work.
AwardsASCE’s Norman Medal on three occasions for papers published in 1909, 1915, and 1918 on advances in the use of steel and high-strength alloys in bridge design.
Scientific career
Fieldscivil engineering
Waddell Signature (1905).pdf

One of his most notable works is the ASB Bridge in Kansas City Missouri. It is only one of two of this design ever built, and is in use as a railroad bridge for the BNSF.

Early Life and worksEdit

John Alexander Low Waddell was born on January 15, 1854, in Port Hope, Ontario, Canada, to Robert Waddell (b. 1815) and Angeline E. Jones. His mother was the daughter of William Jones, late colonel of the 27th regiment and sheriff of the city of New York and a member of the State legislature in 1844.[1][2]

In 1875, Waddell obtained his degree in civil engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.[3]

Waddell traveled to Canada to work in its Marine Department of the Dominion before spending some time with the Canadian Pacific Railway.

He returned to the United States where he designed mines for a West Virginia coal company. In 1878, he returned to Rensselaer and taught mechanics courses until 1880. Waddell then traveled west, obtaining additional degrees from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, and spending some time working at the Raymond & Campbell firm in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

In July 1882, he was hired as a foreign advisor by the Meiji government of the Empire of Japan and taught at the Tokyo Imperial University for a few years while he wrote two books.

Waddell returned to the United States in 1886, founding a new design company the next year in 1887 and establishing himself in Kansas City, Missouri. Waddell took on a number of challenging projects and soon demonstrated a strong ability.

Lifting and swinging bridges had been used for generations by this time, though not on the scale we know them today. Waddell was the first to come up with a modern design, originally intended to span a short channel across Minnesota Point into the harbor of Duluth, Minnesota. His design won a contest put on by the city in 1892, but the War Department objected to the design. The city built an aerial transporter bridge in that location in 1905. In 1929, it was remodeled into the Aerial Lift Bridge, similar to Waddell's design.[4]

While the city of Chicago was the first to build a lift bridge of Waddell's design, completed in 1893, the second had to wait for his partnership with mechanical engineer John Lyle Harrington, formed in 1907. The firm of Waddell & Harrington designed a vertical lift bridge (since demolished) for the Iowa Central Railway over the Mississippi River at Keithsburg, Illinois, in 1909. The pair designed more than two dozen more vertical lift bridges over the next five years before dissolving their partnership in 1914.[5] John Lyle Harrington founded Harrington, Howard & Ash (today HNTB Corporation) in 1914,[6] while Waddell worked independently, joined in 1917 by his son, then doing business as Waddell & Son.[7]

In 1920, Waddell moved to New York City, and consulted on various projects there including the Goethals Bridge and Marine Parkway–Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge. In 1927, he formed a new partnership, Hardesty & Hanover, which company continues to exist.[7]

Waddell was an adviser to the Ministry of Railways, Republic of China. When in China he along with Meloy was entrusted by MIT and Harvard University to talk over with National Southeastern University (later renamed National Central University and then Nanking University) and reached the agreement on founding Sino-American joint engineering college in Shanghai, but it soon ceased due to the wars outbroken in the area.

He was widely recognised, being awarded honours by Japan, Russia, China, and Italy, holding five honorary doctorates (including those from Japan, Canada, and Puerto Rico) and being elected an Honorary Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1936.[8]


His wife died in 1934, and he died four years later, in 1938, in New York City. Waddell is interred at Garden State Crematory in North Bergen, Hudson County, New Jersey, United States.

Notable worksEdit

Waddell "A" Truss Bridge (1898), spanning the Linn Branch Creek, Missouri. Removed to construct Smithville Lake.

(not necessarily an exhaustive list)

Partial bibliographyEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ New York (State) Legislature Assembly (January 27, 1844). "Communication from the Commissary-Generay to the Assembly". Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York. 3 (50): 210. Retrieved December 31, 2017.
  2. ^ Weingardt, Richard G. (2002). "Henry John Degenkolb and John Alexander Low Waddell". Leadership and Management in Engineering. 2 (2): 44–46. Retrieved December 31, 2017.
  3. ^ "Alumni Hall of Fame - John Alexander Low Waddell". Retrieved July 10, 2019.
  4. ^ "Aerial Lift Bridge: National Register of Historic Places". Minnesota Historical Society. Retrieved August 13, 2009.
  5. ^ See list of Waddell & Harrington bridges in Appendix A of Spivey, Justin M. (January 2001). "Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne & Chicago Railway, Calumet River Bridge" (PDF). Historic American Engineering Record. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress. pp. 50–52. Retrieved October 22, 2018.
  6. ^ "Supply Trade News". Railway Age Gazette. 57 (20): 923–924. November 13, 1914.
  7. ^ a b "Firm Overview/Timeline". Hardesty & Hanover. Archived from the original on August 6, 2012. Retrieved August 18, 2012.
  8. ^ "Victoria Street Bridge, Leamington". Heritage New Zealand. Retrieved June 18, 2017.
  9. ^ "Waddell "A" Truss Bridge, Spanning Lin Branch Creek, Trimble, Clinton County, MO". Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) No. MO-8. Library of Congress. Retrieved August 19, 2012.

External linksEdit