“Where Professionals Connect”
By Mark Bernstein
Reprinted with the author’s permission from Ohio Magazine, February 1987
The legend says that while moving earth for Huffman Dam northeast of Dayton in 1918, workers uncovered a rounded granite boulder that the chief engineer directed be set to one side, so it could one day be used as his grave marker. Nearly sixty years later, says the story, when the stone was hoisted onto a flatbed truck for delivery, an axle supposedly broke beneath the weight. Even in legend, Arthur Morgan had no small intentions.
The man himself had little time for legends or art. The facts and what could be done with the facts were the driving force in his life. And the facts of his long, long life are impressive.
He moved earth, a great deal of it. The work on the Miami Conservancy District, of which the Huffman Dam was a part, required 21 draglines, 29 locomotives and 200 dump cars. That project, undertaken to secure Dayton against a recurrence of the 1913 flood, was so successful that most in the Gem City today are unaware of it.
He moved earth, and he poured concrete. As first chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, he directed construction that in aggregate was twelve times the size of the Egyptian pyramids. Franklin Roosevelt, hesitating to dismiss this increasingly unmalleable subordinate, explained, "He builds good dams."
He moved earth, and he poured concrete, but his primary interest was in moving men. Life was limited, Arthur Morgan believed, not by human nature, but by the meanness of prevailing patterns. Progress would come, he held, when better patterns were presented, presented so convincingly as to win the hearts and the energies of men.
Years later, his elder son Ernest recalled how his father would muse over the image of a wild duck, flying with broad even strokes to a blue speck on the horizon that only it could see. Arthur Morgan was that voyager, and the speck for which he was bound was utopia.
Arthur Morgan was born in 1878 a few lots north of Hope Avenue, on the street next uphill from the River Road, a half mile downstream of the center of Cincinnati. His father dabbled; selling notions on the streets of the city, attending irregular surveying classes in Lebanon, and one day packing up the family to seek opportunity in the north.
St Cloud, Minnesota, was the end of the line, a raw frontier town at the northern-most navigable point on the Mississippi. There Morgan had a sickly childhood: meningitis nearly killed him, and measles weakened his sight, but he could feel and hear the conflict between his parents. His mother was a hardshell Baptist, pious and determined; his father's broader outlook covered a drinking problem sufficient to keep the Morgan family dry for three generations.
Dinner was the ground where the battles were fought, battles in which Arthur could not resist joining. He resolved to master his rage. "Once at dinner I was more than halfway through the meal and had not lost control of myself," he recalled. "I got up and left the table, so as to encourage myself with having made a record."
He made a record, he mastered his anger, but he swallowed the conflict without digesting it. The tension remained, taking the form of a ferocious drive for which St. Cloud offered no sufficient object.
So he lit out for the territories; not heart free like Huck Finn half a century before, but almost with a sense of being driven. Traveling with a high school friend, he wrote his sister of stopping at a store to wait for a man who was said to have work. Young men lounged around the porch, he wrote, "whittling their lives away, and are probably there yet. I happened to think, 'What if I should catch the same lethargy?' and we got up and left."
Moving on alone, Morgan floated a 3' wide log thirty miles down the Mississippi from Anoka and began working his way to Colorado. He picked fruit. He set type. He delivered goods. He mined coal. He bought fifty 30-cent editions of Ruskin, Carlyle, Goethe, Emerson and Kipling and tried selling them to miners with singular lack of success.
Honest work, all of it, but Morgan interpreted that phrase somewhat more broadly than most. He had vowed to take no employment that "in its essential character was not a contribution to human well-being." His favorite job was at a lumber camp in the Rockies. The scenery was spectacular, and the once frail youth enjoyed his association with the lumbermen. But Morgan learned the mill was sawing wood to be used to construct a gambling hall at a nearby mining camp. Morgan was opposed to gambling - years later he would boast that he didn't know one playing card from another - so he quit.
While in Colorado, Morgan completed his formal education, taking a scattering of classes for a part of a year at the University of Colorado. His eyesight and resources would not sustain the effort, however, and so, alone and dead broke, he returned home.
But not particularly in defeat, and after scrabbling a few other odd jobs, he entered the surveying business with his father, at the son's insistence, as Morgan & Morgan rather than Morgan & Son. Photographs from the period show eyes that look determined, slightly challenging and just a wee bit squeamish.
Despite the prickliness of his conscience, he had a good eye for life's practicalities. After much thought, he decided to become a water control engineer; he loved the outdoors, but more to the point, water control was an undeveloped field, one in which his lack of training might be a relatively small handicap.
He had a gift, as well, for self-promotion. Minnesota had no statewide standards for drainage control, and in l904 - at age twenty-six - Morgan volunteered to draft them for the state engineering society. Given a task no one else wanted, Morgan worked assiduously, and the following year the society adopted his proposals, which were then written into law by the state. The governor offered Morgan the post of state engineer.
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