Columbians Ahead of Their Time
 William Barclay Parsons
William Barclay Parsons

"The underlying principles of the present state of world culture, or civilization as it is usually and erroneously called, rest on engineering."

William Barclay Parsons (1859–1932)
Civil Engineer
Columbia College 1879, Mines 1882
Trustee 1897–1917
Chair of Trustees 1917–32

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an era in which civil engineering was transforming the world, William Barclay Parsons stood out by serving his country, his city, and his college. In 1894, he became chief engineer of the New York Rapid Transit Commission, designing the original plan for the Interborough Rapid Transit subway, which opened in 1904. His thorough examinations of Manhattan's topography resulted in his use of the less expensive and more efficient cut-and-cover construction method for the first subway lines. Parsons's engineering firm, today's Parsons Brinckerhoff, Inc., built docks in Cuba and hydroelectric plants across the United States. As a consultant to the Panama Canal Commission, Parsons recommended a canal route across Nicaragua at sea level, but was overruled by U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt. He also served as chief engineer of the Cape Cod Canal, which opened in 1914, and as chief surveyor of China's 1,000-mile route from Hankow to Canton, a line still in use today.

As a Columbia College undergraduate, Parsons captained the tug-of-war team, was elected class president and cofounded the student newspaper, the Spectator, and he remained closely connected as an alumnus and trustee. Commissioned as a colonel in the Spanish-American War, Parsons was promoted to general in World War I and maintained his chairmanship of the trustees while overseas, communicating with President Nicholas Murray Butler on important University issues. Parsons later served as chairman of the Joint Board of Administrators of Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, whose building rose directly above the 168th Street subway station that he was instrumental in constructing. Parsons was the direct descendant of Henry Barclay, the second rector of Trinity Church and King's College governor.

The Butler era

Parsons's role in the life of the city and the college

Columbia University Medical Center

Celebrating its 75th anniversary

The Subway Project

Improving the stations at 116th, 125th, and 168th streets.

Write Columbia's History

Columbia's history, as seen by those who have studied, taught, and worked here.

Columbians Ahead of Their Time

Columbians have changed the world and how we see it.

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