Biography of George W. Vaughn

George W. Vaughn. Constructive enterprise in America had had its most notable triumphs in railroad building. In that field American ingenuity, indomitable energy and resourcefulness, have been displayed at their best. The history of railway building on this continent had many splendid names, and some of the greatest of them belong to Kansas.

Not least among them was the late George W. Vaughn, or Major Vaughn, as he was more generally known, who died at Leavenworth February 3, 1916. He had a national reputation in engineering circles, and was a man, who, from the common walks of life, attained wide fame.

He was born in Genesee County, New York, in the Town of Perry on November 24, 1829. It will not be inappropriate to recall the fact that at the time of his birth there was hardly a mile of railroad construction in the United States. His life spanned the entire period of railroad progress not only in America but practically in the world, since even in England Stephenson and his associates were only making experiments with locomotion by means of railroads.

He was reared on a farm. His educational opportunities were confined to the public schools. This lack of schooling was more than equalized by an intellect of a superior order. He was particularly gifted in mechanics, not merely with the skilled operation in handling of tools, but with a constructive and original genius. His parents moved to Cuyahoga County, Ohio, in early days, and from there when a young man he went to Munson in the same state, where on September 5, 1849, he married Almina B. Parlin.

While the attention of the world was still focused on California as a land of gold and adventure rather than on a country of oranges, flowers and sunny climate, Mr. Vaughn went to the Pacific Coast by way of the Isthmus of Panama. The year 1855 found him in charge of the construction of a dam across one of the California rivers. This produced what was perhaps the first water supply for the purpose of hydraulic mining. That was his first important achievement as an engineer and was followed by plans for a series of dams for various California streams. Returning to the States he took Government land surveying and laid out a large portion of Northwest Minnesota. He was placed in charge in 1857 of the construction of the first division of the Winona and St. Peter Railroad in Minnesota. From that time forward his life was a strenuous one. In 1858 he was chief engineer of the Cairo and Fulton Railroad in Missouri. In 1859 he built thirty miles of levee in Chico County, Arkansas. During the Civil war period he was engaged in numerous minor undertakings, including service as custodian of Government property at Memphis, and was also employed in making Government surveys in Minnesota.

Major Vaughn came to Kansas at the close of the Civil war. For a time he was in mercantile pursuits at Ellsworth, which town he surveyed and laid out. It was named for Colonel Ellsworth, one of the first to fall in the Civil war. Major Vaughn decided after a time that Leavenworth offered a more desirable residence on account of the better educational advantages offered for his children, and in 1869 he purchased a home in that city. He located at Leavenworth when nearly every shipment of merchandise to that point came by river on steamboats. During his early life in that city he was elected and served several years as city engineer. During 1869 he served as division engineer on the Leavenworth, Atchison and Northwestern Railway, now a part of the Missouri Pacific Railway. In 1870 and 1871 he was chief engineer of the Kansas Central.

His larger career in western railroad work began in 1872 as chief engineer of the Wyandotte, Kansas City and Northwestern Railroad in Missouri, running from Kansas City to Lexington, Missouri (now also part of the Missouri Pacific). From 1874 to 1876 inclusive he was general manager in charge of operation of this road. In 1878 he again became chief engineer of the old Kansas Central Railroad, and from 1877 to 1880 was assistant chief engineer of the Denver and Rio Grande. There his genius in surmounting seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the mountains and gorges through which that line passed placed his name securely among the eminent construction engineers of the time. In this work he was in charge of the location and construction of two lines over the Continental Divide; one at Marshall Pass and one at Ten-Mile Pass.

In 1880 he became chief engineer of the north end of the Mexican Central Railroad, at an annual salary of $4,000. From 1882 to 1886 he was chief engineer of that system and the Mexican National Railway with headquarters at the City of Mexico, drawing a salary of $8,000 a year.

In the full maturity of his powers, Major Vaughn in 1886 and 1887 was called to the service of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway as chief engineer in charge of construction of the line from Kansas City to Chicago, the Chicago, Santa Fe and California Railway. That was one of the most notable feats of railway building in the past century. While the plans for the construction originated in the minds of A. A. Robinson, another great Kansan, the man who carried out the plans so thoroughly and with such rapidity of execution was George W. Vaughn, and he deserves and had always received a large share of credit for that achievement. In 1890 he became consulting engineer of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe System, which important position he held, at different periods, for many years. In 1891 he was elected a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers. In 1892 he was chief engineer of the branch of the Santa Fe from Prescott to Phoenix, Arizona, and the ensuing three years were spent as chief engineer and vice president in charge of operation from Ash Fork to Phoenix, but he did not like the routine of the office and when the construction was completed he resigned, in 1895.

His last, and by many experts considered his greatest work as a railway engineer, was the period from 1897 to 1907, when he had charge of the elevation and depression of terminals known as “The 16th and Clark Sts. Track Elevation,” which comprised the elevation of the tracks of nine railroads, operating 1,000 trains per day and was accomplished without the stoppage of traffic for one day. This was followed by the “Joint Track Elevation for the Ills. Cent., A. T. & S. F., & C. & A. Rys.,” to extend the tracks three miles west from Eighteenth Street at a cost of $1,000,000 per mile. With a minimum of precedent to guide him in this task, he accomplished it without the slightest interference with the regular schedules of the trains, and it was a feat which when completed brought to Mr. Vaughn a more than national if not international reputation. Subsequently he was employed in the track elevation work at Joliet, Illinois, until 1911.

For sixty years he had lived an active and strenuous life. He had accomplished big things, and his work is a lasting monument to his memory. Without special training he had carried to successful conclusion undertakings which trained experts had pronounced impossible. In every generation there are men who refuse to accept the limitations prescribed by experience. To say that a thing is impossible is merely to excite their zeal and arouse every energy within them to perform the impossible. Such a man was the late Major Vaughn.

With the evening shadows of life hovering over his head he returned to his old home in Leavenworth and there spent the remainder of his days. His noble wife died June 22, 1911. To their union were born three children: Clarence G., Jessie P. and Mabel M. Jessie P., who was born at Memphis, Tennessce, December 10, 1860, was married May 30, 1882, to Fred P. Hoeck, and she died at El Paso, Texas, August 28, 1882. The daughter Mabel, who was born at Leavenworth, Kansas, September 12, 1873, was married October 24, 1899, to Edward B. Pierce, and she is the mother of three children.

Clarence G. Vaughn, only son of the late George W. Vaughn, when the brevity of his life and the strength of his body are considered, had a career as a construction engineer which bears most favorable comparison with that of his honored father. He was born in Geauga County, Ohio, at Chardon, September 23, 1853. His education came from the public schools, for the greater part at Leavenworth. At sixteen he was employed as a chainman with a surveying party on the line of the old Kansas Central Railway. Thus he gradually grew in experience and skill in engineering work. Among his youthful experiences were interspersed a period as clerk in the bookstore of Mr. Crewe at Leavenworth. At the age of twenty he resumed railroad work with his father, becoming assistant engineer of construction on the Lexington branch of the Missouri Pacific Railway. After the completion of this road he served as a conductor for several years, living in the meantime at Independence, Missouri. Later he assisted his father in construction work on the Denver and Rio Grande, went with his father as assistant on the northern branch of the Mexican Central, and still later was principal assistant engineer of construction of the Mexican Central Railway at Mexico City. Retiring temporarily from railroad work he lived in Kansas City and kept books, and while there was also unsuccessful candidate for the office of city engineer. Later he was employed as a draftsman and constructing engineer for the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway at Milwaukee. This entailed considerable outside work, and through exposure he contracted pneumonia and for many months was entirely incapacitated for service. His next post was as principal assistant engineer of the New Orleans and Northwestern Railway under Chief Engineer W. D. Jenkins. When this road was completed as far as Bastrop, Louisiana, it went into the hands of a receiver, and Mr. Vaughn became chief engineer. Continuing as such until 1899 he then went with the Southern Pacific Company as chief engineer of construction of branch lines.

While his father had gained fame by his ingenuity in surmounting the obstacles of the western mountains, and in the difficult feats of track elevation in a crowded city, the son found his great task in the great stretches of swamp and lowland through Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas. He constructed many miles of trestle work through these swamps and he was regarded as second to none in the engineering skill required for such work. His previous illness and the malarial country in which he worked had by this time begun to affect him again, but he bore up bravely, and from 1899 until 1907 he accomplished some of his best work. This was the building of various lines through the almost impassable swamps of Louisiana. It was by sheer force of will and in spite of increasing bodily infirmities, that kept him at his task. In the meantime he had established a home at Natchez, Mississippi, and there death came to him August 4, 1908.

He was twice married. On September 23, 1874, he married Mrs. Susie Nelson at Independence, Missouri. She was the daughter of Alonzo P. Keane, and the widow of Benjamin Nelson, by whom she had one son Adolphus Keane Nelson. Mrs. Vaughn died May 31, 1890, leaving one son, Clarence Keane Vaughn. On October 13, 1891, Mr. Vaughn married Mrs. Carrie Shields Poole.

The only son and only child of Clarence G. Vaughn is Dr. C. K. Vaughn of Leavenworth, Kansas. The only descendants in the male line of the late Maj. George W. Vaughn are Dr. Clarence Keane Vaughn and his two sons–G. W. Vaughn, Jr., and C. K. Vaughn, Jr. While in his younger years Doctor Vaughn gained considerable practical experience in railroad engineering work, he soon definitely determined as a choice of career the medical profession, and had earned a high place in that vocation.

He was born in Leavenworth, Kansas, July 7, 1875. He received his education in the various towns where his parents resided and his mother who was a cultured woman did much to train him in his studies and also in the principles of character which have been most valuable to him in subsequent years. He attended a Catholic Brothers school at Natchez and was also a student at Marquette College in Milwaukee. At the age of sixteen he went to Prescott, Arizona, and worked as a chainman in some of the preliminary surveys of the Santa Fe, Prescott and Phoenix Railroad which was then being constructed by his grandfather. He won promotion until in 1893 he was instrument man on construction of the United Verdi and Pacific Railroad, a narrow gauge line built chiefly for carrying ore and supplies from the Clark mines to the main line. He remained as instrument man a year. Then leaving the service he took up the serious study of medicine as a resident student in the Natchez Charity Hospital at Natchez, Mississippi. In 1895 he entered the medical department of the University of Virginia, but the next year became a student in the Memphis Hospital Medical College at Memphis. While a student at Memphis he took the competitive examination that gave him the position of assistant physician at the Shelby County Poor and Insane Hospital. On graduating from the Memphis Hospital Medical College in 1898, Doctor Vaughn at once located in Leavenworth, and had since carried on a general practice.

On June 6, 1900, he married Miss Maude Preston Fairchield of St. Joseph, Missouri. They are the parents of two children: George W. Vaughn, Jr., born June 15, 1901, and Clarence Keane Vaughn, Jr., born February 25, 1904.



Connelley, William E. A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans. Chicago : Lewis, 1918. 5v. Biographies can be accessed from this page: Kansas and Kansans Biographies.

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1 thought on “Biography of George W. Vaughn”

  1. Simply stated, the last name mentioned in this wonderful article, Clarence Kean Vaughn Jr. was my grandfather. My name is Julie J. Vaughn. My father was CK Vaughn’ Jr’s only child, Clarence Keane Vaughn lll (1928 – 2014) and my son and only child is Tyler Vaughn Marsden. I’ve been researching my great great great grandfather Major Vaughn and the Santa Fe Railroad specifically in Prescott AZ.

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