Open main menu

William Barclay Parsons (April 15, 1859 – May 9, 1932) was an American civil engineer. He founded Parsons Brinckerhoff, one of the largest American civil engineering firms.

William Barclay Parsons
William Barclay Parsons, Pach Brothers photo portrait.jpg
Born(1859-04-15)April 15, 1859
DiedMay 9, 1932(1932-05-09) (aged 73)
New York City, New York, U.S.
NationalityUnited States
Alma materColumbia University
Anna Dewitt Reed
(m. 1884; his death 1932)
Parent(s)William Barclay Parsons
Eliza Glass Livingston
Engineering career
DisciplineCivil engineer
Practice nameParsons Brinckerhoff
ProjectsFirst subway in New York City, Cape Cod Canal

Personal lifeEdit

Parsons was the son of William Barclay Parsons (1828–1887)[1] and Eliza Glass Livingston Parsons (1831–1922).[2] His siblings included Schuyler (1852–1917), Harry (1862–1935), and George (1863–1939).[3][4] His maternal grandparents were Ann Eliza (née Hosie) Livingston (1805–1838) and Schuyler Livingston (1804–1861), a descendant of Walter Livingston[5] who ran a line of clipper ships from the New York harbor named Barclay & Livingston.[2] His paternal grandparents were William Burrington Parsons (1794–1869) and Anne Barclay Parsons (1788–1869).[6] He was the great-grandson of Henry Barclay, second Rector of Trinity Church in Manhattan.[5]

In 1871, he went to school in Torquay, England, and studied under private tutors for four years while traveling in France, Germany, and Italy.[7] He received a bachelor's degree from Columbia College of Columbia University in 1879, and a second from the Columbia University School of Mines in 1882. He served as class president and president of the Philolexian Society, and he co-founded the Columbia Daily Spectator in 1877.[8] He later served as chairman of the university's board of trustees.[9]

Parsons married Anna Dewitt Reed (1858–1958) on May 20, 1884. (She was the daughter of Rev. Sylvanus Reed (1821–1870) and Caroline Gallup Reed (1821–1914).[5] Her brother Sylvanus was the aerospace engineer who developed the modern metal aircraft propeller.)[10] Their children were Sylvia (1885–1962), who married Rudolph Weld (1883–1941)[11] in 1908,[12] and William (1888–1973),[13] who married Rose Peabody (1891–1985), daughter of Endicott Peabody (1857–1944).[14]

Parsons died on May 9, 1932, in New York City.[9]


Parsons worked for the New York, Lake Erie and Western Railroad from 1882 through 1885. He wrote Turnouts; Exact Formulae for Their Determination (1884) and Track, A Complete Manual of Maintenance of Way (1886) which both addressed railroad problems, and this interest in rail transportation continued throughout his life.[15]

Parsons designed the Cape Cod Canal as Chief Engineer. He was also Chief Engineer of the Board of Rapid Transit Railroad Commissioners[16] and was responsible for the construction of the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) subway line.[17][18] He left New York in October 1886 to serve as Chief Engineer for the Fort Worth and Rio Grande Railroad, although he retained his affiliation with the District Railway Company. In 1887, he became the Chief Engineer and General Manager of the Denver Railroad and Land and Coal Company. He returned to New York in 1891 upon the completion of these railway projects and a number of water-work ventures in Mississippi.[19]

Parsons was appointed to the Isthmian Canal Commission in 1904 by President Theodore Roosevelt.[9] He was also appointed to a board which approved the plans of the Royal Commission on London Traffic in 1904, along with Sir Benjamin Baker and Sir John Wolfe-Barry, both British engineers.[20] In early 1905, he traveled to Panama as a member of the committee of engineers which favored a sea-level canal.

Parsons was the Colonel of the 11th Engineers of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in France during World War I.[21] He was with a team of engineers in Cambrai that was suddenly attacked by Germans while making railroad repairs, and the engineers fought back with picks and shovels. He was cited for "specially meritorious services" and received decorations from the United States, Great Britain, France, Belgium, and the state of New York.[22]


  • An American Engineer in China (1900)
  • "The American Engineers in France. 1920.
  • Engineers and Engineering of the Renaissance (1939)
  • Robert Fulton and the Submarine. 1922.
  • Track, a complete manual of maintenance of way. 1886.
  • Turnouts: exact formulae for their determination, together with practical and accurate tables for use in the field. (1884). ISBN 978-1-141-46307-7.


  1. ^ "Obituary Notes". The New York Times. 1 January 1888. Retrieved 14 August 2017.
  2. ^ a b "Mrs. Eliza Parsons Dead. Member of One of the Oldest New York Families Dies at 91". The New York Times. 5 November 1922. Retrieved 14 August 2017.
  3. ^ "MRS. PARSONS LEAVES ESTATE TO RELATIVES; Property Divided Among Children and Grandchildren--$15,000 to an Employe". The New York Times. 17 November 1922. Retrieved 14 August 2017.
  4. ^ Moffat, R. Burnham (1904). The Barclays of New York: Who They Are and Who They Are Not, -- And Some Other Barclays. R. G. Cooke. Retrieved 14 August 2017.
  5. ^ a b c Reynolds, Cuyler (1914). Genealogical and Family History of Southern New York and the Hudson River Valley: A Record of the Achievements of Her People in the Making of a Commonwealth and the Building of a Nation. Lewis Historical Publishing Company. Retrieved 14 August 2017.
  6. ^ Browning, Charles Henry (1898). The Magna Charta Barons and Their American Descendants with the Pedigrees of the Founders of the Order of Runnemede Deduced from the Sureties for the Enforcement of the Statutes of the Magna Charta of King John. Retrieved 14 August 2017.
  7. ^ Dictionary of American Biography. Volume VII, Page 276.
  8. ^ "William Barclay Persons". Columbia University. Retrieved 2014-04-14.
  9. ^ a b c "WILLIAM BARCLAY PARSONS". The New York Times. 10 May 1932. Retrieved 14 August 2017.
  10. ^ Roger Ward (December 1958). "The Propeller Pioneer". Flying Magazine.
  11. ^ Tmes, Special To The New York (28 August 1941). "R. WELD KILLED IN AUTO; Retired Boston Cotton Merchant Victim of Accident". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 August 2017.
  12. ^ "MISS PARSONS TO WED RUDOLPH WELD; Bride-Elect, a Daughter of the Civil Engineer, Has Been Presented at the British Court. WEDDING IN THE AUTUMN Bridegroom a Member of Well-Known Boston Family and Graduate of Harvard, 1905". The New York Times. 7 March 1908. Retrieved 14 August 2017.
  13. ^ Times, Special To The New York (3 January 1973). "WILLIAM PARSONS, SURGEON, 84, DIES". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 August 2017.
  14. ^ "ROSE PEABODY PARSONS". The New York Times. 6 April 1985. Retrieved 14 August 2017.
  15. ^ Dictionary of American Biography. Volume VII, Page 276.
  16. ^ "WILLIAM BARCLAY PARSONS". The New York Times. 2 December 1904. Retrieved 14 August 2017.
  17. ^ Parsons Brinkerhoff Quade & Douglas, Inc., "The Man Who Planned the Subway: William Barclay Parsons and the New York IRT," 1980 (PB Communications).
  18. ^ Parsons, Robert Barclay (27 October 1929). "TWENTY-FIVE YEARS OF THE NEW YORK SUBWAY; Bitterly Assailed at the Outset, the Ever-Growing System Has in That Period Replaced the Old City With an Entirely New One". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 August 2017.
  19. ^ "Historic American Engineering Record, Interborough Rapid Transit Subway" (PDF). National Park Service. p. 208.   This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  20. ^ Dictionary of American Biography. Volume VII, Page 277.
  21. ^ "FORM WAR RESERVE OF CIVIL ENGINEERS; Leaders of Profession Co-operating with General Staff in the Movement. A BILL NOW IN CONGRESS Measure Provides for Commissions, Special Military Training, and Making Men Subject to Call". The New York Times. 19 March 1916. Retrieved 14 August 2017.
  22. ^ Dictionary of American Biography. Volume VII, Page 277.

External linksEdit