Parsons, William Barclay, 1859-1932

Alternative names
Birth 1859-04-15
Death 1932-05-09

Biographical notes:

William Barclay Parsons (1859-1932) was an American civil engineer.

From the description of William Barclay Parsons papers, 1880-1939. (New York Public Library). WorldCat record id: 144652400

From the guide to the William Barclay Parsons papers, 1880-1939, (The New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division.)

Civil engineer.

Parsons was associated with the Rapid Transit System of New York, made a survey of Chinese railroads, 1898-1899, was on the Board of consulting engineers for the Panama Canal, 1905, and Chief engineer for the Cape Cod Canal, 1905-1914. He served in both the Spanish-American War and World War I. He is the author of THE AMERICAN ENGINEER IN CHINA, 1900, and other works relating to engineering. (Columbia University A.B., 1879, C.E., 1882).

From the description of Papers, 1899-1915. (Columbia University In the City of New York). WorldCat record id: 122622146

William Barclay Parsons was born to prominent family in New York City in 1859. After studying abroad during his teenage years Parsons attended Columbia University where here received degrees in 1879 and 1882. In 1885 Parsons founded his civil engineering firm that is now Parsons Brinckerhoff.

In 1895, after several years of civil engineering work, Parsons was appointed chief engineer for New York's Rapid Transit Commission, which was charged with designing and building a subway rail system. After spending the year 1899 in China surveying the country's railway system (which is documented in Parson's book An American Engineer in China ). Parson's returned to New York to begin the construction of the city's first subway line. The Interborough Rapid Transit line was completed in 1904.

Parsons was elected to the New York Public Library's Board of Trustees in 1912, replacing Alexander Orr (Chairman of the IRT). After working on the Cape Cod and Panama Canal projects Parsons joined the 11th regiment of US Army Engineers in 1917 to report on engineering problems facing the U.S. military in WWI. After the war Parsons attained the rank of Brigadier General and published his account of the war in his 1920 book T he American Engineers in France . Shortly thereafter Parsons published Robert Fulton and the Submarine in 1922.

Parson's died suddenly in 1932. The Bulletin of The New York Public Library notes that until his death Parsons maintained a deep interest in all that pertained to the welfare of the Library. In 1934 his engineering library (consisting of 1,191 volumes, 27 pamphlets, 53 boxes of maps) was purchased by the New York Public Library.

In addition to his work for The New York Public Library, Parsons was a trustee of the Carnegie Institution, chairman of the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center administrative board, and chairmen of the board of trustees of Columbia University.

From the guide to the William Barclay Parsons collection of Robert Fulton manuscripts, 1796-1919, bulk 1804-1815, (The New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division.)


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Ark ID:


  • Railroads
  • Mining schools and education
  • Engineers--Diaries
  • Subways--Design and construction
  • Local transit
  • World War, 1914-1918--Transportation
  • Engineering--History--16th century
  • Canals
  • World War, 1914-1918--Personal narratives


  • Civil engineers
  • College trustees


  • Cape Cod Canal (Mass.) (as recorded)
  • Panama (as recorded)
  • China (as recorded)
  • Panama Canal (Panama) (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • New York (State)--New York (as recorded)
  • New York (State)--New York (as recorded)
  • Massachusetts--Cape Cod (as recorded)