Picture the University of Michigan one hundred years ago. The local livery had just become a taxicab company. North campus did not exist yet. The civil engineering department was located in the West Engineering Building on Central campus, and it was headed by Dr. Henry Earle Riggs.
Riggs was born on May 8, 1865, in Kansas. Special occasions from his childhood in Kansas included Fourth of July celebrations and circus days. He described these events fondly in his book, titled, “Our life was lived while the old order changed: A story for our children.”
Riggs was homeschooled until the age of 14, when he entered the preparatory department of the University of Kansas. After two years of preparatory schooling and five years of undergraduate courses, he graduated with his A.B. degree. At 21 years old, he was the youngest graduate in the engineering class.
After graduation, Riggs became engaged in railroad construction in Nebraska, Missouri and Texas. In the spring of 1890, he became the Chief Engineer of the Toledo, Ann Arbor and North Michigan Railway. During his six years with that railway, plans for complete changes of the line and grade of the road were made and largely carried out. The car ferry steamships were introduced on Lake Michigan and terminals were built at Toledo and other Lake Michigan landings.
Riggs married Emma Hynes in California on October 1, 1890. Afterwards, they moved to Toledo, Ohio, where they lived in a series of different houses from year to year as the family grew. In 1899 the Riggs family moved to Maumee, Ohio.
In 1896 Riggs partnered with Walter Sherman, the former Chief Engineer of the Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad, to form a general engineering practice in Toledo. Riggs & Sherman took on municipal as well as railroad work. They were engineers for the design and construction of some 500 miles of electric and steam railroad, the latter consisting of city belt lines, terminals and industrial branches. The municipal department designed and constructed sewers and waterworks, and paved a large number of smaller cities and towns in the states of Ohio, Michigan and Indiana.
In 1900 Governor Hazen S. Pingree of Michigan selected Mortimer E. Cooley to make a valuation of the railroads of Michigan. This called for a report on the value of all the railroads of the state. At the time there was not a uniform system of railway accounting, and records were uncertain and unreliable as far as the railway costs. Cooley knew Riggs through the Michigan Engineering Society. He selected Riggs to be in charge of civil engineering for the valuation project. Riggs served the project well, and he wrote in his book, “If I am known as a specialist in engineering…it is in the field of valuation of public utility properties.”
Between 1904 and 1928, Cooley served as the dean of engineering at the University of Michigan. In 1909 Riggs wrote an extended paper on the subject of the Michigan railroad valuation. At Dean Cooley’s suggestion, Riggs presented the paper to the University and it served as the thesis on which the University awarded Riggs his civil engineering degree in 1910.
In March 1911 the Riggs family moved to Ann Arbor, as he spent about half his time working in that area anyway.
Cooley offered the position of University of Michigan Civil Engineering Chair to Riggs in the summer of 1911. Riggs turned it down because at the time the department did not include any work in railway, highway or sanitary engineering, but was confined to structural engineering.
In December 1911 the offer was made again. This time Riggs was to propose a plan to re-organize the department. Riggs created a plan and submitted it to Cooley to discuss with the Regents.
In April 1912 the plan was adopted and four full professorships were created. Riggs left Riggs & Sherman and became the chair of the department, a position he held until his retirement in 1930. As chair, Riggs taught railroad engineering courses while other professors taught courses on structural, hydraulic, sanitary and municipal engineering.
In 1937 the University granted Riggs the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Engineering. Riggs wrote, “The granting of this degree – the highest, rarest and most esteemed degree which any engineer can get – by the great University of Michigan, which has always been most conservative in the granting of honorary degrees, was to me the greatest honor that ever came to me.”
Riggs passed away on July 5, 1949. His legacy lives on in the department through the painting of him that still hangs in the department’s administrative office. About once a year a member of his family stops by to have their photo taken with the painting.
The painting is not the only way Riggs’ legacy remains part of the community. The Dr. Henry Earle Riggs Memorial Fund, which was established in 1944 by William Bouton Tohm and his nephew, John C. Thom, supports graduate students engaged in the advancement of scientific knowledge in chemistry and engineering. This perpetual fund has supported more than 100 students in the past 15 years alone.
To learn more about Dr. Riggs, visit the University of Michigan Bentley Library to read his book, “Our life was lived while the old order changed: A story for our children.”