What was Isham wrapped up in?

In a comment on my last post, Ed Summers clued me in to a project he’s working on at the Library of Congress, Chronicling America – a collection of digitized US newspapers. Most of the Tribune material I have is relatively tame, so it was great to get a look at some more sensationalistic views of the dig.  As an example of the Tribune style of the 1890’s, here’s an 1893 article on the status of the dig, and an accounting of expenditures,

Tribune comments on the canal's usage - MILLIONS OF MONEY Chicago Daily Tribune Jul 23, 1893

Despite their between the lines indignation, they lead the article with a tremendous ode to engineering feats of the day:

We love engineers! - MILLIONS OF MONEY Chicago Daily Tribune Jul 23, 1893

They also include a few fantastic etchings of the dig, including this one:

Etching of the Dig - MILLIONS OF MONEY Chicago Daily Tribune Jul 23, 1893

Given all of the above, I’ve had a pretty benign view of the dig, thinking maybe there was a bit of nepotism in Isham’s relation to Mayor Carter Harrison Sr. (confirmed in this very old, very dense book of Virginia Genealogy – Genealogy of the Page family in Virginia April, 1893), but generally getting the sense that it was for the public good.  It was a shock when I found this zinger from the Chicago Eagle, a muckraking weekly with a picture of the editor / proprietor front and center:

League of Crooks! - Chicago Eagle, March 23rd, 1901

In case you can’t read extremely small type…ENHANCE!

League of Crime?! Egads!

Yikes!  Looks like I need to spend more time on the LOC Chronicling America site for some more perspective.  Isham’s later stance on graft and city corruption, plus his son’s (also named Isham Randolph) track record of public service (putting Al Capone away, among other things) makes me believe that Isham Sr. was above board, but you never really know.  I doubt his autobiography will shed much light on whether or not he was involved in a graft heavy engineering project, but it might.  I sincerely hope that it doesn’t, or otherwise proves that Isham was a solid engineer with some advantages in his life, but never took them for granted.  That’s the picture I have in my mind, let’s hope the facts bear out.

How could a guy that wrote this be bad?  The opening of Isham’s essay “The Imaginative Faculty in Engineering”  (1913)

“We had visions, oh! they were as grand
As ever floated out of fancy land.”

are words sung by a poet of our own land to the ears of a few who knew, honored, and loved the singer. He sang of the Lost Cause with a beauty and a pathos that touched the hearts of all who mourned for the men who followed that conquered banner along the path that led to glory and the grave.


The sculptor beholds in blocks of marble, forms that are hid from his fellow men, who see only a mass of stubborn stone. The explorers of Olympia have resurrected from the detritus which buried them treasures of Grecian art wrought from marble by Phidias, Praxiteles, and others, whose chisels made Greece beautiful and themselves famous. Within our own time one of our own race and nation saw in a marble block an imprisoned form, and day by day, with mallet and chisel, he toiled to liberate the loveliness of face, torso, and limb that duller eyes could not see, but which the opaque covering could not hide from him. Little by little the revelation which, from the first, was so clear to the sculptor came to his dull-eyed fellows, and at last the Greek Slave came forth in all her womanly beauty to delight the human vision until she, too, shall some day be buried, like the creations of Praxiteles, in some overwhelming convulsion of Nature.

It is not, however, of the poet’s inspired imaginings nor of the revelations of the sculptor’s art that I am to speak, but of “The Imaginative Faculty in Engineering”; for the engineer, no less than the sculptor, sees things that are hid from other eyes than his.