HERBERT BAMBER: The Extraordinary Engineer of Highland, Michigan
Herbert Bamber as a young man, date unknown. (Photo courtesy Elizabeth Buell Baldwin)
Herbert's sister Mary Elizabeth married Leslie Albert Buell, a local farmer, on November 23, 1887. Soon after their marriage, Mary and Leslie moved to Minneapolis, Kansas where their only child, Herbert Joseph Buell—named after Mary's beloved brother—is born. Mary lived until 1948 when she passed away at the age of 84. Mary's granddaughter, Elizabeth Buell Baldwin, who now resides in Garret Park, Maryland, shared the photographs of Herbert for this article.
HERBERT'S FORMATIVE YEARS
Until the eighth grade, Herbert attended the one-room West Highland schoolhouse, just over a mile from his house.
When Herbert begins his journals, he is sixteen years old and first mentions attending school on August 30, 1875. "…The Fall Term of our District School began today with Miss Atha Ruggles as teacher."
The interior of the West Highland one-room schoolhouse where Herbert attended until the 8th grade. (Photo courtesy Diane Needham, HTHS)
"September 8: ...Father takes me to Milford and with twenty others take the 10 AM train for Detroit....We arrive at Philadelphia and disembark at the Centennial Depot about 10 PM. The party from Milford with myself put up for the night at the Lancaster House, a temperance hotel kept by New York parties. Several...hotels were burned this evening ….Monday, September 11: Enter the exposition grounds of main building. Purchased a guide book and commence my examination of the grand show..."
Of the eleven journals discovered, Herbert fills two complete journals with his notes on the exhibits and experiences from his eight wondrous days in Philadelphia.
In the spring of 1877, Herbert is 18, and has outgrown his District school. He begins attending the nearest "high school" in the neighboring township of Milford.
"April 2. After finishing the Winter Term of School at home and assisting in getting up a years supply wood, I commenced this day a term of School at the Milford Union School. I am boarding with Uncle Carlos Hayes..."
"[June] 21st – The Spring Term of the Milford Union School closed today. And thus ended the first term of my attendance at a school other than one of our common district schools. Although I have not made the progress which I expected to make when I began the term. I found the facilities offered for study and the acquisition of knowledge much better than those of the averge [sic] district school."
" February 25th, Monday: As father had favored my attending school at the Agri. Coll Lansing, I decided last Friday evening to visit the College and ascertain what I could in regard to the institution. And as the Spring term begins tomorrow I took the train at Howell for Lansing this forenoon at 11:50."
Herbert Bamber, likely in his college years. (Photo courtesy Elizabeth Buell Baldwin)
Throughout the following months, in addition to his classroom work, we find Herbert digging trenches, sharpening fence stakes, and getting an introduction to logging—standard fare for an agricultural college. Herbert enjoys his college life, he studies hard and is getting high grades throughout. However, in November he remarks: "My years work at College has not been as satisfactory as it might have been. I have had a good standing in classes but for some reason or another I fail to accomplish as much as I expect to."
In December of 1878 Herbert begins a teaching job back in Highland Township at the Lyman School, it being a common practice for college students to teach in their community. As Herbert notes in 1879, "About 2/3 of the Junior Class are teaching this winter, many for the first time."
 "December 8th, Sunday: The first Monday (Nov. 25) after arriving home from Lansing I began teaching in District No. 6 of Highland. Board & $80 for 16 weeks....I find that is not such a school as one might wish for. Have the names of 29 scholars on the rolls. Most of the larger scholars rather dull. Some rather disagreeable."
He then observes, "I thought that my first three days teaching were the hardest three days labor I ever was called upon to perform."
Throughout the winter and spring Herbert continues to struggle with his teaching duties. At the end of the term in March 1879 he writes, "My school closed Mar. 15. It was not a success in all respects. Personally I did not seem to please the people of the district." However, always an optimist, his next entry reads, "Have enjoyed myself first rate the past winter"—an unexpected comment after his disappointing teaching experience.
Back at college Herbert joins a fraternity and is elected President of the Class of '81, but by October 1879 Herbert is back home teaching again. "Friday I engaged the Perry school....I am to get $30 per month and board." Perry was a small village about forty miles from Herbert's home.
After a year and a half of teaching Herbert concludes, "I have about decided that teaching is not my forte, not the profession for which I am permanently adapted."
In April of 1880 Herbert is stricken by an "attack of ague," the nineteenth-century term for the malarial symptoms of recurring fever, chills, and sweating.
He returns home from Lansing to recover but his condition becomes so dire that he abandons the next two terms. In the fall he talks of studying at home through the winter and taking his examinations for courses he missed when he returns to school in the spring.
During his last term of college, in June of 1881, Herbert mentions civil engineering for the first time. "Vacation has come and gone. This term I am taking Constitutional Law and Civil Engineering with the seniors and Entomology with the Juniors."
In August 1881, Herbert graduates from the State Agricultural College of Michigan with a B.S. degree.
SURVEYING FOR THE RAILROAD
Herbert owes his first post-graduate job to a professor writing a letter on his behalf: "About four weeks before the end of last college term, Prof. Carpenter wrote to Frank Davis, an old graduate of the college who had charge of a RR survey, asking if he could give employment to some [students]. The week before the term closed he received a reply stating that three....men were wanted at $75 per month."
Typical railroad survey crew, circa 1880. Two rodmen flank the surveyor with his tripod and transit.
"I started for Chicago on Tuesday, Aug. 30....Our tickets cost us $79.50. They call for first class passage to Kansas City, 3rd class the reminder of the way."
Herbert arrives in Salt Lake City on September 8, 1881: "Salt Lake City—Our ride yesterday through the mountains was an enjoyable one as the day was fine. Some of the scenery was truly grand in its wild rough picturesque-ness....At 10 this morning we take the train and as it moves southward we see for the first time the waters of Great Salt Lake. The water as we see it is of an ocean green and the shores in many places are white with the crystallized salt."
"We visited the Mormon tabernacle and saw the new temple in process of construction....The walls of the new temple are of solid granite and nine ft. thick....The vault of the tabernacle was festooned with evergreen and the room, though simple in appointments, was impressive in its simplicity and size."
"This morning we started for our field of labor. Took the morning train for Provo on Utah Central from thence we go to Clear Creek, present terminus town of Pleasant Valley R.R."
"Camped for the first time last night with nothing above me but my blankets and the blue vault of heaven."
By February of 1882, Herbert has been surveying for the railroads in Utah for six months. He seems to enjoy the work and his journals reflect his interest in the new and different nature of this western landscape.
"Friday, February 10th: Yesterday Palmer and I ran across a tree cut down by the beavers that was at least seven feet, eight inches in diameter where it was cut."
"April 2nd: A few weeks ago the Aurora Borealis made a magnificent display of color nearly 1/4 of the firmament was of a bright pink color while the remainder being already heightened the effect by its contrast. The display lasted about half an hour."
June 6, 1882 was Herbert's last day in Salt Lake City, signifying the end of his survey work for the railroads. Herbert, at the age of 23, had successfully completed his first employment as an engineer.
"August 27th: In pursuance of plans formed last winter I matriculated at the University of Michigan last Thursday. My studies are in engineering and mathematics."
One year later, in June of 1883, while at school in Ann Arbor, and shortly after his brother, Albert, died, Herbert receives a new job offer. He writes of it from Indianapolis.
MAJOR JARED A. SMITH
"Indianapolis, Indiana, July 5th: After Albert’s death remained at home until June 11th when I returned to Ann Arbor. Found that Prof. Greene had received a letter from a Major Smith U.S.A. in charge of government work in Indiana asking for an assistant engineer and after advising me to take the position recommended me to Major Smith for it....I wrote Major Smith accepting the position offered by him; consequently I am here this place being the location of Major Smith’s office."
"Our work in the field will commence soon within ten days or two weeks and will be a survey of the Wabash River between Vincennes and Terra Haute. On July 5th Herbert writes, "Met Major Smith this morning. Think I shall like him."
From July 20th on into October we follow Herbert hop-scotching from camp to camp surveying the terrain of the sixty-mile stretch of the Wabash River bordering Indiana and Illinois.
(1883) "Sunday, October 28th: Finished our work on the river last Wednesday afternoon, i.e., having arrived at the mouth of White River we stopped work for the season....Major Smith leads me to expect to be given charge of surveying party next season if the appropriations do not fail."
Herbert is home for the holidays but after the New Year returns to Indianapolis in the employ of Major Jared A. Smith. They are engaged in the meticulous drawing, inking, and production of the Wabash River survey maps, one of the many tedious tasks of a civil engineer. In March of 1884 he writes, "Am still in Major Smith’s office....Had a talk with the Major about one week ago in which he gave me considerable encouragement to remain with him....I was led to expect to take charge of the engineering this season."
However, by August  we find that circumstances have changed. Major Smith is called to Baltimore to take charge of the 5th and 6th Lighthouse districts and Herbert accepts a position building a lock on the Monongahela River.
"Greensboro, Pennsylvania, August 12th: About the middle of June Major Smith received orders from the Chief of Engineers to take charge of the 5th and 6th Lighthouse districts, the officer in charge, General Babcock, having been drowned. Through Mr. P’s [Petitdidier's] recommendation received an offer of a position here on Lock No. 8 for the season....As the location was healthful and the work new and promising to be instructive, I accepted."
Although Herbert could not have known it at the time, the news about General Babcock drowning foreshadows a long and successful career working for the U.S. Light-House Establishment.
His present project, however, of building a river lock, is much more of a test of Herbert's engineering skills than the surveying and mapping he has been engaged in up to now.
The Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers had a long and troubled history in regard to navigation. These rivers were considered to be essential for trade and commerce, but were largely unnavigable due to the numerous shallow stretches along many miles of the rivers.
On the Monongahela, locks and dams would provide a year-round navigable channel for the 100-mile stretch downstream from Pittsburgh. Before the Civil War, six locks and dams were completed, but the war dashed all hopes of further work and its aftermath left the rivers littered with debris and wreckage.
In 1866 Congress appropriated $55,000 to fund an immediate resumption of the projects and William Milnor Roberts, one of the most prominent civil engineers of his time, was selected to undertake the massive clean-up and renewal of the project. Roberts immediately began his survey and saw that millions of tons of coal, oil, and iron were struggling to travel hundreds of miles downriver in barges pushed by steam towboats.
He witnessed these barges, like huge floating islands, leaving Pittsburgh one behind the other, painstakingly navigating through narrow channels, round sharp bends, and between bridge piers, where a misturn of the wheel meant certain disaster. In response to this challenge Roberts deployed large snagboats and dredges and within three working seasons his efforts had greatly improved the river channel.
In 1870 Colonel William Merrill succeeded Roberts and took over the renewal of the Ohio River and its tributaries. Merrill had been first in his class at West Point and the outspoken Colonel seemed to relish lecturing Congress on its shortcomings. In 1871 he declared, "For a river one thousand miles long, with commerce estimated at over $500,000,000, the sums lately appropriated are insignificant." With his talents and reputation, Merrill was able to shake loose more funds to complete the work started by Roberts.
But it was not until June of 1880 that Congress finally appropriated $25,000 for Lock No. 8, 87 miles downstream from Pittsburgh and in 1881 Merrill began the construction. Bamber joined Merrill's group in August of 1884, continuing the work begun in 1881.
"Work was well begun. The old cofferdams had been raised and pumping was commenced immediately. Now a new coffer has been built to include the lower end of the lock, two derricks are in position with their engines and considerable excavating has been done....
Detail of an 1877 map of the Ohio River showing Blacks Island and New Cumberland, WV, where Bamber worked for Col. William Merrill, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
In May of 1885, Herbert is writing from Parkersburg, West Virginia. He says he had been sick since March and still has acute pain whenever he takes a deep breath. He reports that in April he had been given the position of inspector at the Blacks Island dam on the Ohio River, still working under Col. Merrill, and hence come to West Virginia, with the final destination of New Cumberland.
The July 1885 Official Register of the U.S., Containing a List of the Officers and Employés in the Civil, Military, and Naval Service, lists Herbert’s employment as "Inspector," employed at the "Dam at Blacks Island, Ohio River, Near New Cumberland, W. Va.", with compensation listed as "p.m. 150.00" (per month $150.00). The project description states: "Improvement of the Ohio River; operating and care of Louisville and Portland Canal; improving Falls of Ohio River at Louisville, Ky.; improvement of the Monongahela and Alleghany Rivers; construction of an ice-harbor at mouth of Muskingum River, Ohio, and of harbors of refuge near Cincinnati, Ohio, and at mouth of Great Kanawha River, W. V., in charge of—Lieut. Col. William E. Merrill, Corps of Engineers."
Although we do not see it often, Herbert's wit is occasionally evident. Regarding his new location, he writes, "New Cumberland is a village of about 1200 inhabitants, mostly children. It has an indefinite length but a limited breadth."
Just one month after his arrival, on July 19, 1885, he writes, "Received a letter from Major Smith June 24th offering me an appointment as superintendent of construction on a Florida lighthouse. With Col. Merrill’s permission, I accepted the appointment as it gave me a longer engagement than the one I have here with the same monthly salary averaging $150 per month. Expect to leave here early in August."
Herbert turns over his responsibilities for the dam at Blacks Island on Saturday, August 1st and by Monday morning he reports for work at the offices the 5th District in Baltimore, as the new Superintendent of Construction. It is three weeks before Herbert's 27th birthday, and this will be his first appointment working for the U.S. Light-House Establishment.
Part II will cover Herbert Bamber's career with the U.S. Light-House Establishment, including the building of the Mosquito Inlet light, and his remarkable journey photographing the lighthouses of America.
John Havel is a graphic designer with the U.S. EPA in Research Triangle Park, N.C. He has been fascinated by the Cape Hatteras lighthouse for many years and this study of lighthouse photographer, Herbert Bamber, is an offshoot of a larger research effort to create an accurate, photographic history and chronology of this interesting and beautiful lighthouse. He lives in Raleigh with his wife, Aida, who helps John with lighthouse research.
If you want more information on Herbert Bamber, such as Part II of this article, contact John Havel through info@outerbankslighthouse society.org.