A Man, A Plan, A Canal – And a Lifetime of Important Infrastructure Projects

June 26, 1967

Civil engineer John G. Claybourn, who made significant contributions to river and harbor improvement projects in a number of countries, died Ann Arbor, Michigan, at the age of 81. He had been born in Albert Lea, Minnesota, in 1886. His uncle Ephraim S. Claybourn was an engineer who played a prominent role in the construction of the Panama Canal; his duties included designing and building drydock shops for that project and serving as superintendent of all of the U.S. government’s floating equipment within the Canal Zone.

John Claybourne c. 1930

John G. Claybourn, who attended the College of Engineering at the University of Minnesota for three years, began work with the Panama Canal’s dredging division in 1914. He steadily rose through the ranks, becoming superintendent of the division in 1921. As superintendent, Claybourn oversaw maintenance work on the canal and in particular the clearance of landslides and acquisition of dredging equipment.

Along with carrying out those duties, Claybourn took the lead in designing the Panamanian town of Gamboa as not only a residential community for various canal employees and their families but also the new base for the dredging division. More than eight decades later, Gamboa continues to serve as the headquarters for that division. Claybourn’s other major contributions to the Panama Canal included devising the plans for the third set of locks for the waterway during the 1930s.

Claybourn remained superintendent of the Panama Canal’s dredging division until 1948. Both during and after his years working at the canal, Claybourn found time to serve as a consultant for several river and harbor improvement projects elsewhere. Starting in 1917, for example, he helped with modernization efforts for the Canal del Dique in Colombia. The other Latin American countries in which he provided expertise on water transportation infrastructure were Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Venezuela.

In the early 1950s, Claybourn traveled well beyond the Western Hemisphere to assist with efforts to rebuild infrastructure in Burma (also known as Myanmar) that had been severely damaged a few years earlier during World War II. Claybourn helped restore the transportation network on the Southeast Asian country’s Irrawaddy River and develop the Dalla Dockyards area near the city of Rangoon (present-day Yangon).

Claybourn wrote several books concerning his work on behalf of the Panama Canal. In addition, an extensive range of his papers on the Panama Canal and other projects are now part of the collection of the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan.

For more information on John G. Claybourn, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_G._Claybourn.

Information on the collection of his papers housed in the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan is available at https://quod.lib.umich.edu/b/bhlead/umich-bhl-85953?view=text.

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