Recently, while searching for Mother’s Day topics, I found a piece about James Whistler’s mother, Anna, the subject of his iconic painting popularly known as Whistler’s Mother. The article also included background on Whistler’s father, which startled me for a moment. Of course the artist had a father, but who thinks about that? Well, we should because George Washington Whistler was a civil engineer who played a major role in transforming sleepy little Stonington village into a 19th-century transportation hub.
The early 1800s featured a flurry of railroad and canal construction linking the new country more cohesively together. Tourism and travel became more convenient, and America began her meteoric rise as an industrial powerhouse. In 1832, work began on the first railroad in Connecticut. George Whistler was hired to oversee its construction between Stonington and Providence. It was an engineering challenge because much of the route crossed coastal marshes.
George was working for the Proprietors of Locks and Canals Corporation in Massachusetts, supervising their machine shop, when he got this opportunity. He apparently retained both positions for a while, but in 1837, George must have felt he needed to focus on Stonington, because he relocated his wife, Anna, and their children to the Borough. Little James, their future artist, was 3 years old at the time.
The move probably pleased Anna because her sister, Kate, who was married to Dr. George Palmer, lived in the Amos Palmer House on Main Street. The Whistlers were welcomed warmly by their neighbors, who may have been bemused to see the family go to church in Westerly each Sunday in a carriage drawn by horses trotting along the train tracks.
Once the railroad was operational, passengers bound for Providence traveled aboard a train pulled by a wood-burning locomotive chugging along at 20 miles per hour. Tickets were priced at 6 cents a mile. This transportation revolution turned the village into a busy commercial center. There was a housing boom. Steamships filled the harbor. Restaurants, stores, and hotels sprang up. One grand example was the Wadawanuck Hotel, a tony resort that accommodated over 1,000 guests; it stood where the Stonington Free Library is today.
George’s professional background had prepared him well for this job. He was born in 1800 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a fort his father had helped construct. After graduating from West Point, George taught drawing at the academy, and worked for the Army as a topographer. He’s credited with being the first civil engineer to use contour lines to designate elevation on maps. His next assignment for the Army was surveying the international boundary between Lake Superior and Lake of the Woods near Minnesota and Ontario.
George went on to compile a remarkable résumé as a railroad man. He worked for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, studied steam locomotive construction in England, surveyed the route of the Baltimore & Susquehanna line, worked for the Boston & Lowell Railroad, and helped design the earliest locomotive built in New England.
After the Stonington project, George and the family moved to Russia. There he, along with Anna’s brother, William McNeill, consulted on the first major railroad in Russia, a 400-mile stretch between Moscow and St. Petersburg. George didn’t live to see its completion; he died of cholera when he was just 49 years old.
Anna brought his body back to the United States to be interred in the Stonington Cemetery. Anna lived in the Borough with her sister for a time, and then moved to England to be near James, who was pursuing his art career there. Although she didn’t approve of her son’s Bohemian lifestyle, she remained a devoted, supportive mother until her death in 1881.
Because of societal gender role restrictions, men of the past are often better known than women, so it’s a little ironic that Anna’s more famous than her husband. I guess that speaks to the power of art. In any case, the next time you’re traveling by train, remember George, the pioneering engineer whose stay in our area was brief but transformative.
Sources for this column include the Stonington Historical Society and the Indian & Colonial Research Center in Old Mystic.