Today in Transportation History – 1919: A Chinese Railroad Pioneer

Zhan Tianyou, an engineer who was responsible for the first railroad built in China without any foreign assistance, died in the city of Hankou in central China at the age of 57. He had born in 1861 in the present-day city of Guangzhou in southern China.

In 1872, Zhan was selected to receive an education in the United States as part of a program called the Chinese Educational Mission. Zhan went to New Haven, Connecticut, where he attended a public high school and then was admitted to the Sheffield Scientific School of Yale University. Zhan majored in civil engineering, with an emphasis on railroad construction.

Zhan graduated from Yale in 1881. After returning to China, he took part in efforts to complete the Kaiping Railway. This railroad was being built in northern China to connect the city of Tientsin (now Tianjin) with coal mines about 70 miles away near the city of Tangshan. Starting out as an intern engineer, Zhan was eventually promoted to a district engineer for the project.

Zhan’s next big assignment started in 1902 when Chinese Empress Dowager Cixi sought to have a railroad line built so that she could more easily travel out of the capital city of Peking (known today as Beijing) to visit the tombs of her ancestors. Zhan was appointed chief engineer for this project, and he managed to build the 23-mile railroad line within budget and under a tight deadline.

In 1905, Zhan was made chief engineer for another major project: the construction of a railroad linking Peking with the trade city of Kalgan to the north. The project was made all the more challenging because the government decided that it should be built without any foreign assistance or capital. Under Zhan’s leadership, the unprecedented Peking-Kalgan Railway was completed not only under budget but also two years ahead of schedule.

Zhan belonged to the American Society of Civil Engineers. In addition, he was a founding member of the Chinese Institute of Engineers.

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