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Joseph Smith Harris

Joseph Smith Harris, aged about 65.
Born 29 April 1836(1836-04-29)
East Whiteland Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania, United States
Died 1 June 1910 (aged 74)
Germantown, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Residence United States
Nationality American
Occupation surveyor, civil engineer, railroad excutive
Great-grandson of Persifor Frazer.

Joseph Smith Harris (April 29, 1836 – June 1, 1910) was an American surveyor, civil engineer, and railroad executive. Largely self-taught, he worked on several projects for the U.S. government, including the Coast Survey of the Mississippi Sound in 1854-56 and the Northwest Boundary Survey of 1857-61. He worked his way through a considerable number of adventures to become President of the Reading Railroad, which he brought back from its 1893 bankruptcy.


Family and early life

Joseph Smith Harris was born on the family farm in East Whiteland Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania;[1] the house has burned down, but the barn and springhouse still stand on what is now the Chester Valley Golf Club. His father, Stephen Harris (September 4, 1798 – November 18, 1851), was the local physician; his mother was Marianne Smith (April 2, 1805 – March 12, 1890). Stephen Harris' brothers (Joseph's uncles) included Thomas Harris and John Harris, who became career military officers. Joseph's paternal grandfather, William Harris (1757 – 1812), had been an army officer in the American Revolutionary War and thereafter, and his great-grandfather (on his mother's side) was Persifor Frazer, a figure in the Revolution who had some prominence in Chester County.

When Joseph was a youth, his father, Stephen, realized that he was dying and that his untimely death would likely leave his family destitute. Looking to prolong his life and leave his wife with a means of supporting herself, in 1850 Stephen Harris sold his farm, moved his family to Philadelphia, and in time purchased a boarding house, as that was one of the few business occupations available to respectable women of the time.[2] Stephen's death did indeed leave his family short of money, but his children were able to finish high school. Joseph attended Philadelphia's Central High School, graduating in 1853.[3]


Harris married Delia Silliman Brodhead, daughter of George Hamilton Brodhead, later president of the New York Stock Exchange, in 1865. They had five children (see below). After the death of his first wife, Harris married Emily Eliza Potts in 1882, and in 1896, after Emily's death, he married her sister, Anna Zelia Potts. His last two marriages were childless. He died at home in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1910. Harris and all three of his wives are buried in the family plot at the Great Valley Presbyterian Church, near Malvern, Pennsylvania, about four miles from his birthplace.

Coast Survey

In 1853, Harris took a job as a topographer for the North Pennsylvania Rail Road Company, which was under construction. He left this job after a year, becoming an astronomer for the U.S. Coast Survey. Upon joining the Coast Survey, Harris worked at Station Yard, Philadelphia, in the late fall of 1854 where he was engaged in checking earlier triangulation and astronomic work. By mid-November, this work was completed; Harris was assigned to the Coast Survey vessel Phoenix in the Mississippi Sound. His older brother Stephen was a Sub-assistant on the Survey, and it seems that sibling rivalry played a significant role in his work. Although he displayed many quirks of personality, Joseph Harris was meticulous in his work; his autobiography provides, among other things, an idea of Coast Survey shipboard life in the 1850s.[4]

The trip south was not without its hardships: Harris suffered from diarrhea on the Mississippi River and within a few days of his arrival at New Orleans, he contracted typhoid fever, which nearly killed him. Luckily, he was able to stay with an uncle who was a physician, and who nursed him back to health. After a month in bed, Harris proceeded to the Phoenix, then at Mobile, Alabama, arriving in January 1855. Stephen Harris was put in command of the Phoenix in May. The work of the surveyors was made difficult by the large populations of insects—everything from mosquitoes to flying cockroaches—that inhabited the coastal swamps and marshes, by the dearth of clean water, by the arrest of some of the crew after a brawl, and by hurricanes, all of which are described in Harris' autobiography.

During his year on the Phoenix, Harris and his crew performed triangulation along the coast from Pascagoula, Mississippi to the entrance to Lake Pontchartrain, a distance of about sixty miles (100 km). With the arrival of winter, the commanders left the Phoenix; when the weather turned colder, Harris was required to lay up the vessel for the remainder of the winter. He returned to Coast Survey headquarters to complete some drafting and other engineering work, and resigned from the Survey in the Spring of 1856.[5]

Harris took a similar position with the Kentucky Geological Survey, but he resigned after one month in July 1856 and returned to the Gulf of Mexico to complete his earlier work. The following March, Harris was hired as an astronomer for the Northwest Boundary Survey.[6]

Northwest Boundary Survey

In 1846, Britain and the United States agreed by treaty to draw the western Canadian-American border along the 49th parallel, which was largely mountainous wilderness at the time (see Oregon boundary dispute). After some delays, a joint American-British commission began to survey and mark the boundary in 1857. Harris and G. Clinton Gardner were hired as assistant astronomers.

In his autobiography, Harris describes the survey teams, the work, the land, and the local Indians. The British survey team, using the latest instruments, had a significant rivalry with the Americans, whom they considered uneducated and using inferior instruments. The two parties would sometimes differ on where the 49th parallel was, occasionally by as much as a mile. Harris later reported that when there were differences, the American team was usually proved right by later events.[7]

Civil War

The men of the Coast Survey were overwhelmingly pro-Union, and when the Civil War broke out, they were anxious to use both their surveying skills and their knowledge of the Southern coastline to aid the war effort. Harris volunteered for war service with the Survey after returning from the Northwest. By late February 1862, Coast Survey officers and the Survey vessel Uncas were prepared to sail for the Gulf Coast.[8]

Harris, in command of the Uncas, left New York for the Gulf Coast on February 28, 1862. Damage from a gale forced the ship to head for Hampton Roads, Virginia, for repairs and fuel; they arrived in time to witness the battle between the Monitor and Virginia (formerly the Merrimack). Because of the damage to the Uncas, Harris was ordered to transfer his equipment and crew to its sister ship, the Sachem, for the remainder of the voyage to the Gulf Coast. They left Hampton Roads on March 18 and stopped at Port Royal, South Carolina, for coal on the 24th. There, Harris was rebuffed by the Navy supply department and was instead ordered, under threat of facing a firing squad, to support an expedition to Edisto Island. Harris declined, repeatedly stating that he was under Coast Survey orders to proceed to Ship Island and report to Commodore Farragut. Only through the personal intervention of Commodore Samuel Francis Du Pont was the Sachem finally coaled and allowed to depart Port Royal. Following another coaling stop at Key West (during which four men mutinied and refused orders to pass coal to the vessel), Harris continued on to Ship Island and arrived April 9, to discover that the fleet had left the day before and gone to the mouth of the Mississippi River. The Sachem proceeded to the Mississippi River and arrived April 10, when Harris turned over command of the small steamer to Ferdinand Gerdes, who had arrived a few days earlier.

In April, Harris and the other surveyors marked navigable channels in the river and established survey markers on the shore to serve as control points for indirect artillery fire into the forts defending the approaches to New Orleans. They also placed buoys in the river to mark where the gunboats should anchor. Their work was performed under fire from the forts and from Confederate gunboats. On April 18, Union mortar boats began firing on Fort Jackson in what may be the first combat use of "blind" firing of artillery based on aiming the weapons from a known, surveyed location at a target with known survey coordinate points.[9] Not all of the firing was blind, however. Currents in the river sometimes caused the gunboats to swing at anchor, thus changing their orientation and causing their shells to go astray. Harris spent most of one day up the mast of one of the mortar boats, looking over the trees, noting the location of mortar shell explosions, and calling down rudder commands to cause the boats to vary their headings slightly, in order to adjust firing direction.[10] The forts having been weakened by the bombardment, the naval flotilla forced its way past them on April 24 (see Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip), and on to New Orleans. The effectiveness of the bombardment of Fort Jackson has been disputed (Commander David Dixon Porter had a reputation for bragging, exaggeration, and embellishment of facts in his reports and correspondence), but the Confederate casualties and subsequent mutiny of the troops are well-documented.

Commander Porter wrote to Alexander Dallas Bache, superintendent of the Coast Survey, concerning the battle of Forts St. Philip and Jackson:

The results of our mortar practice here have exceeded anything I ever dreamed of; and for my success I am mainly indebted to the accuracy of positions marked down, under Mr. Gerdes' direction, by Mr. Harris and Mr. Oltmanns. They made a minute and complete survey from the 'jump' to the forts, most of the time exposed to fire from shot and shell, and from sharpshooters from the bushes.... The position that every vessel was to occupy was marked by a white flag, and we knew to a yard the exact distance of the hole in the mortar from the forts.... Mr. Oltmanns and Mr. Harris remained constantly on board to put the vessels in position again when they had to haul off for repairs, or on account of the severity of the enemy's fire. ...I assure you that I shall never undertake a bombardment unless I have them at my side.[11]

Following the fall of New Orleans, Harris participated in further surveys along the Gulf Coast, leading up to the Battle of Mobile Bay. By mid-year, his usefulness to the war effort had been exhausted, as the portion of the coastline with which he was familiar was in Union hands. He again left the Survey and returned north, where he re-joined the Northwest Boundary Survey, which was then performing its office work.[12]

Railroad career

Harris returned to railroad work around 1864, entering private practice as a civil and mining engineer[13] and also joining his older brother Stephen in the Schuylkill Company of Pottsville, Pennsylvania[14]. The two worked together doing survey work for the Lehigh Valley Rail Road and the Pennsylvania Rail Road Company.[15]. This work exposed them to danger in the form of the Molly Maguires, who were active in the coal fields of Pennsylvania at the time. Joseph Harris carried a blackjack with him, in case of attack, but it appears that he never had to use it. He worked for the Lehigh & Mahanoy Railroad 1864 – 68 and served as chief engineer for the Morris & Essex Railroad 1868 – 70. He was an engineer at the Philadelphia & Reading Coal & Iron Company from 1870 – 77, and served as superintendent and engineer for the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company 1877 – 80. He became general manager of the Central Railroad of New Jersey in 1880, serving in that capacity until 1882; the Central of New Jersey came under the control of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. He returned to the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Co. as president 1883 – 93, also serving as receiver and then vice president of the Central of New Jersey 1886 – 90. He became vice president of the Philadelphia & Reading Coal and Iron Co. in 1892.[16]

At the outset of the Panic of 1893, the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad went bankrupt and its president, Archibald A. McLeod, resigned. J. P. Morgan, who owned or controlled a considerable portion of the P&R's stock and debt, chose Harris, known to be a fiscal conservative, as one of the company's receivers, and later its president. At the time, he was president of the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Co., and it took some persuasion to get him to assume control of his bankrupt rival.[17] He oversaw the reorganization of the shattered company, beginning by stabilizing the railroad and its Coal and Iron Company. A new corporation, the Reading Company, was formed to buy the assets of its bankrupt predecessor, and Harris was its first president.[18] A period of much consolidation of the track networks followed, and by the end of the decade, the company reported a combined annual profit of nearly two million dollars.

A down-to-earth civil engineer, Harris foresaw looming difficulties for the Reading that his senior lieutenants could not or would not see. These included shifts in transportation patterns and the rise of organized labor. When he resigned as president in 1901, he noted, among other things, growing factionalism among the company's officers.[19]

Harris was a member of the American Philosophical Society and the Pennsylvania Historical Society. He became a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania in 1889 and was awarded a D.Sc. by Franklin & Marshall College in 1903.[20] He wrote his memoirs, which included criticism of his anti-union successor as president of the Reading, George Frederick Baer, in the Reading Terminal building in his retirement.[21] He died in 1910.


Joseph and Delia Harris had five children:[22]

  • Marian Frazer Harris (1866–1960). She married James deWolf Perry and was known for her long-lasting friendship with Beatrix Potter.[23]
  • George Brodhead Harris (1868–1952). He married Elizabeth Holbert.
  • Frances Brodhead Harris (1870–1925). She married Reynolds Driver Brown.
  • Clinton Gardner Harris (1872–1910). He did not marry.
  • Madeline Vaughan ("Sally") Harris (1873–1966). She married Henry Ingersoll Brown, brother of Reynolds D. Brown.


  1. ^ Autobiography of Joseph Smith Harris, p. 1.
  2. ^ Autobiography of Joseph Smith Harris, pp. 24-25.
  3. ^ John W. Leonard and Albert Nelson Marquis, eds. Who's Who in America. A.N. Marquis Company, Chicago. 4th ed. 1906.
  4. ^ Albert E. Theberge, The Coast Survey 1807–1867, pp. 307–312; Autobiography of Joseph Smith Harris, pp. 31–65.
  5. ^ Albert E. Theberge, The Coast Survey 1807–1867, pp. 307–312.
  6. ^ See Autobiography of Joseph Smith Harris.
  7. ^ Autobiography of Joseph Smith Harris.
  8. ^ Albert E. Theberge, The Coast Survey in the Civil War 1861–1865, pp. 498–500.
  9. ^ See Albert E. Theberge,The Coast Survey 1807–1867, pp. 500–505; Autobiography of Joseph Smith Harris.
  10. ^ Albert E. Theberge, The Coast Survey 1807–1867, pp. 500–505; Autobiography of Joseph Smith Harris, p. 164.
  11. ^ This account is based on the Gerdes-to-Porter letter of May 16, 1862, in: Bache, Alexander D. Report of the Superintendent of the Coast Survey, Showing the Progress of the Survey During the Year 1862, Appendix No 35. "Report of Assistant F. H. Gerdes, U.S. Coast Survey, to Commander D.D. Porter, U.S.N., Commanding Mortar Flotilla in the Gulf of Mexico." p. 263.
  12. ^ Report of the Superintendent of the Coast Survey, Showing the Progress of the Survey During the Year 1862, p. 57.
  13. ^ Leonard & Marquis, Who's Who in America, 4th ed. 1906, p. 783.
  14. ^ Coast Survey.
  15. ^ Coast Survey.
  16. ^ Leonard & Marquis, Who's Who in America, 4th ed. 1906, p. 783.
  17. ^ James L. Holton, The Reading Railroad: History of a Coal Age Empire, Vol. I: The Nineteenth Century, p.325–326.
  18. ^ James L. Holton, The Reading Railroad: History of a Coal Age Empire, Vol. I: The Nineteenth Century, p.329.
  19. ^ James L. Holton, The Reading Railroad: History of a Coal Age Empire, Vol. II: The Twentieth Century, pp. 4–18.
  20. ^ Leonard & Marquis, Who's Who in America, 4th ed. 1906, p. 783.
  21. ^ Autobiography of Joseph Smith Harris, Preface.
  22. ^ Joseph S. Harris, Record of the Harris Family descended from John Harris born 1680 in Wiltshire, England, 1903. Joseph S. Harris, Record of the Smith Family descended from John Smith, born 1655 in County Monaghan, Ireland. George F. Lasher, Philadelphia, 1906. Pp. 154, 196-97.
  23. ^ Jane Crowell Morse (ed.), Beatrix Potter's Americans: Selected Letters, Horn Book, Inc., 1982.


  • Bache, Alexander D. Report of the Superintendent of the Coast Survey, Showing the Progress of the Survey During the Year 1856. A.O.P. Nicholson, Washington, D.C., 1856.
  • Bache, Alexander D. Report of the Superintendent of the Coast Survey, Showing the Progress of the Survey During the Year 1862. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1864.
  • Harris, Joseph S. Record of the Harris Family descended from John Harris born 1680 in Wiltshire, England. Geo. F. Lasher, Philadelphia, 1903.
  • Harris, Joseph S. Autobiography of Joseph Smith Harris. Unpublished. (archived at the U.S. Army Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, and at the Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, Delaware.)
  • Harris, Joseph S. Notes on the Ancestry of the Children of Joseph Smith Harris and Delia Silliman Brodhead. Private Printing, 1898.
  • Harris, Joseph S. Joseph Smith Harris Papers. Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Summary by S. Bock (
  • Holton, James L. The Reading Railroad: History of a Coal Age Empire Vol. I: The Nineteenth Century, Garrigues House Publishers, Laurys Station, Pennsylvania, 1989.
  • Holton, James L. The Reading Railroad: History of a Coal Age Empire Vol. II: The Twentieth Century, Garrigues House Publishers, Laurys Station, Pennsylvania, 1992.
  • Theberge, Captain Albert E. The Coast Survey 1807–1867; Vol. I of the History of the Commissioned Corps of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (


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