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Kneass, Stricklandlocked

(29 July 1821–14 January 1884)
  • William Alan Morrison

Kneass, Strickland (29 July 1821–14 January 1884), civil engineer and railroad official, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of William Kneass, an artist and engraver, and Mary Turner Honeyman. Named in honor of architect and family friend William Strickland, Strickland Kneass completed his early education at Dr. James Espy’s classical academy before becoming an assistant to his brother Samuel Honeyman Kneass, an architect and engineer, on the construction of the Delaware & Schuylkill Canal and the railroad line between Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware. In 1836 he entered Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, graduating in 1839 with an honors degree in civil engineering. After working briefly as a surveyor for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s projected railroad between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, he moved to Washington to become a draftsman in the navy department’s Bureau of Engineering. Subsequently, he was employed by the special British commission preparing maps of the boundary between the New England states and Canada’s eastern provinces, and by the federal government on the general maps of the border survey.

In 1847 Kneass left government service to become an assistant to J. Edgar Thomson, the chief engineer for the Pennsylvania Railroad, which had succeeded to the task of completing the rail link from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh. By 1850 Kneass had supervised construction of the line over the Allegheny Mountains to Hollidaysburg, where it connected with the Commonwealth’s New Portage Road to Pittsburgh. Promoted to the post of first assistant engineer, he then oversaw construction of the PRR’s repair shops and engine house at Altoona and the rebuilding of the New Portage line to eliminate the steep grades at the summit of the Alleghenies through the construction of tunnels, viaducts, and infills, most notably, the famed Horseshoe Curve west of Altoona and the 3,670-foot tunnel at Gallitzin.

In 1853 Kneass returned to Philadelphia to wed Margaretta Sybilla Bryan (they would have five children) and to accept the position of associate engineer with the projected North Pennsylvania Railroad, but two years later he resigned this post to accept an appointment by the Philadelphia Select and Common Councils as chief engineer and surveyor for the newly consolidated city and county of Philadelphia. Subsequently reelected to this position for three five-year terms, he organized the city’s Department of Surveys & Registry Bureau and oversaw the design and construction of a new drainage system for the expanded city, including the channeling in large sewers of the flood-prone Cohocksink and Mill creeks. He encouraged and directed the expansion of the city’s street railway system from two to eighteen lines, many laid out to his specifications. He served as engineer and surveyor in the establishment of Fairmount Park in 1867 and its expansion in 1868, ensuring the city of Philadelphia of a supply of pure and safe drinking water by preserving the Schuylkill River and Wissahickon Creek from industrial development. He was the designer and builder of the iron and granite Chestnut Street Bridge, completed in 1866, and the associated regrading of Chestnut Street to span the Schuylkill and railroad right-of-ways on both banks, and also of the double-decked Fairmount (Callowhill Street) Bridge, completed in 1875, crossing both the Schuylkill and the adjacent Pennsylvania railyard to service the increased vehicle and streetcar traffic that would be generated by the impending Centennial Exposition. Both bridges have since been demolished and replaced. During the Civil War, in preparation for the feared invasion of Pennsylvania by the Army of Virginia under Robert E. Lee, he prepared defense and navigational surveys of the Lower Susquehanna River Valley and, assisting Alexander Dallas Bache, produced maps of proposed fortification sites around the perimeter of the city of Philadelphia.

In 1872 Kneass resigned his municipal post to return to the employ of the Pennsylvania Railroad as assistant to President J. Edgar Thomson. Continuing in this capacity under PRR presidents Thomas A. Scott and George B. Roberts, in 1880 he was also appointed president of numerous Pennsylvania subsidiaries, among them the Pennsylvania & Delaware Railroad, the Trenton Railroad, and the Columbia, Port Deposit & Western Railroad, and made director of the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, & St. Louis Railroad (Panhandle Route). In 1878 he was elected president of the Eastern Railroad Association, which he transformed into an influential trade organization. Kneass was also a prominent member of the American Philosophical Society, the Franklin Institute, and the American Society of Civil Engineers and was a charter member and early president of the Engineers’ Club of Philadelphia. Kneass died in Philadelphia.

In both the public and the private sectors, Kneass’s engineering achievements were significant factors in the nation’s economic development. For the city of Philadelphia, enlarged in 1854 from the colonial limits established by William Penn, Kneass oversaw the creation of a municipal infrastructure worthy of the nation’s second largest city and serving as a foundation for its role as a late nineteenth-century industrial center. For the Pennsylvania Railroad, Kneass’s plans for the road over the difficult barrier of the Alleghenies achieved the long-sought aim of a direct rail link between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, providing the region with a means to compete for western trade with New York’s Erie Canal and the South’s Baltimore & Ohio line. In later years, as assistant to three of the Pennsylvania’s chief executives, Kneass oversaw the expansions and consolidations that transformed the PRR into the nation’s largest rail system, stretching from New York City west to Chicago and the Mississippi Valley.


For more information on Strickland Kneass, see J. Thomas Scharf and Thompson Westcott, “Surveys and Surveyors” in History of Philadelphia (1884). Kneass’s work for the Pennsylvania Railroad is detailed and illustrated in Edwin P. Alexander, On the Main Line: The Pennsylvania Railroad in the Nineteenth Century (1971), and for the city of Philadelphia in Robert F. Looney, Old Philadelphia in Early Photographs, 1839–1914 (1976), and Russell Weigley et al., Philadelphia: A 300-Year History (1985).