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John Wilson, an Early Civil Engineer in Texas

John Wilson, an Early Civil Engineer in Texas

by Melinda Luna PE | History & Heritage Committee Chair

The Royal Indian Engineering College, Cooper’s Hill, Engham

August 2022

John Wilson was born in Cambridge England, on January 23, 1841.  His parents were John and Sara Fisher Wilson.  He attended Cooper’s Hill Civil Engineering College in 1870 where he received a degree in civil engineering.

 He started his career as a public works director in India until 1882 when he immigrated to the United States.  He started his experience in the US as a construction engineer in Philadelphia.

 He moved to Texas in 1892 traveling to El Paso.  As a consultant, he studied the Brazos River and created a report for the upper reaches that included a look at navigation.    He worked on surveying land in the Sierra Madre between 1895 to 1898.  In 1899 he built an electric railway.  He married Elizabeth Ellen Barrow in December 26, 1904.

 He became an engineer with the Barstow Irrigation company from 1904 to 1906.  This Barstow Irrigation company irrigated with water from the Pecos River and canal.  In 1906, the El Paso Times reported that 36 miles of laterals were built to irrigate 40,000 acres of land.  In times of low flow from the Pecos River water was also used from Toyah Lake.   A dam was built to pond water.  With Land promotions, people moved to the area to grow grapes, peaches pears, and melons.  A power plant was built.  The farmers in the area won a silver medal for grapes at the Worlds Fair.  He was also a candidate to be the City Engineer in El Paso.  The Pecos river experienced a flood the dam failed and was not repaired.  With droughts in 1907 & 1910, the company failed. 

 He was named to the Board of Water Engineers from 1913 to 1917.  The Board was created by the state and subdivided the state into three water divisions.  With Wilson’s work in West Texas, he was named a member of water division No. 1 which covered West Texas.    In 1914, he investigated water rights for the irrigation districts in West Texas.  On the Board of Water commissions, he worked with E. B Gore and J.C. Nagle.  With Nagle stepping down from the Commission Wilson was named Chairman.  In 1915 he traveled to the irrigation districts visiting Amarillo, Fort Stockton, San Angelo, and others.  On one of his last trips in 1917, before he stopped working on the Board, he updated the Commission on water conditions and traveled to the Pecos valley and Palo Duro Canyon.    Members only served a six-year term.  The purpose of the Board of Water Engineers was to be informed of the available water supply in the state.  The board cooperated with the United States Geological Survey to do daily reports of stream flow in the rivers of Texas.  The Board wrote reports of their inspections and findings. At this time Texas was growing, and water was a valuable resource that had not been studied before.  Only 8 major reservoirs existed in Texas.    

 While Wilson is not well known, he did contribute to water management in the early days of Texas.  John Wilson died on June 28, 1921. 

Pecos River East of Alpine Between Langtry and Del Rio N 238

Photos Credit: 1968/089-507, L.L. Cook Company collection. Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.