The Birth of a Leading Figure in Large-Scale Transportation Infrastructure Projects

May 25, 1878

U.S. Army officer and civil engineer Frederick Mears, whose legacy includes notable large-scale transportation infrastructure projects in various regions of the world, was born in Omaha, Nebraska. Mears enlisted in the Army in 1899. He was assigned the following year to the Philippines, where he handled several engineering assignments. Mears left the Philippines in 1906 to help with the building of the Panama Canal. 

Mears’ specific role in the development of that historic waterway involved massive changes to the Panama Railroad, which had been in place there since the 1850s. The route of the railroad had to be relocated to accommodate the construction of the canal and clear the way for its supporting infrastructure. In addition, such other major upgrades as heavy-duty, double-tracked rails were needed so that the Panama Railroad could effectively carry manpower and materials across the isthmus for building the canal. 

Mears started out as a track foreman for the project and eventually became chief engineer and then the railroad’s general superintendent. He played a pivotal part in the creation of the Panama Canal by ensuring that trains provided a steady supply of workers, equipment, and other supplies for that huge enterprise. 

In 1914, Mears took on a whole new set of similarly daunting challenges when he was appointed to the Alaska Engineering Commission. His main task for that assignment entailed building the 470-mile-long Alaska Railroad, which was completed in 1923. Mears took time away from that project to serve in France during World War I as commanding officer of the 31st Railway Engineers and then general manager of the U.S. Army Transportation Corps. 

After the completion of the Alaska Railroad, Mears resigned from the Army. He died in 1939 at the age of 60.​

Photo Credit: Public Domain

For more information on Frederick Mears, please check out Mears, Frederick | Alaska History and Mears family papers – Archives and Special Collections (

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