Guide to the Rankin Johnson Papers, 1895-1910 AIS.1965.01

ULS Archives & Special Collections

Summary Information

ULS Archives & Special Collections
Rankin Johnson Papers
Johnson, Rankin, 1873-1957
Collection Number
Date [inclusive]
10.0 linear feet (15 document boxes; 1 Panorama Print)
Rankin Johnson was a civil engineer who built railroads in Mexico and Bolivia and later headed a transit company in Trenton, New Jersey. Later in his life, Johnson gained prominence in the field of transit for his innovative use of publicity (1917), total conversion from trolleys to buses (1934), and control of bus traffic by supervisors stationed at sidewalk telephones (1939). The collection includes correspondence, letterbook, cables (coded and clear text), notes, speeches and memoranda relating to Rankin Johnson's career as engineer for the Mexican International Railroad and the Bolivia Railway Co.; major correspondents include James Metcalfe, Henry Ruhlender, James Speyer, Henry Burnett, and Herbert Knox Smith. Digital reproductions of two photo albums are available online.

Preferred Citation

Rankin Johnson Papers, 1895-1910, AIS.1965.01, Archives & Special Collections, University of Pittsburgh Library System

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Rankin Johnson (1873-1957), a civil engineer who built railroads in Mexico and Bolivia and later headed a transit company in Trenton, New Jersey, was born October 16, 1873 at Rutland, Vermont. He was the son of James Gibson and Mary (Rankin) Johnson, grandson of Lorenzo Dow and Mary (Burges) Johnson, and great grandson of Jeremiah and Mary Duesbury (Gibson) Johnson.

The Johnson family, whose members made distinguished contributions in many fields, was originally from Massachusetts, and claimed descent from John Alden and from Thomas Burgess, an officer under King Charles I of England. Five of the family fought in the Revolutionary War. Rankin Johnson's great great uncle, Tristam Burgess (d. 1853), was a U.S. representative from Rhode Island. His grandfather, Lorenzo, was an evangelist and preacher. Of Johnson's five uncles, the first became chief of the U.S. Lighthouse Service; the second practiced law, after having served as consul general at Beirut; the third was an engineer and managed the Huntington railroad, mining, and ranching interests in Mexico; the fourth was a surgeon who owned a private hospital in Washington, D.C.; and the fifth became a captain in the U.S. Cavalry, eventually commanding Ft. Reno, at that time an Indian Territory. Johnson's father, after intending to become a lawyer, became a Congregationalist minister, serving in Rutland, Vermont, Chicago, Illinois, Japan, and Farmington, Connecticut. His brother, Burges Johnson (1877-1963), was an editor, publisher, educator, and author. Rankin Johnson and his wife Kate were married some time before 1916 and had four sons: Rankin Jr., Tristam B., Edward, and Burges.

Rankin Johnson went to school in Rutland, Vermont, and then to the Sheffield Scientific School and Yale University from which he received a B.S. degree in civil engineering in June 1895. Through the influence of his uncle, Loren Johnson, in July 1895 he obtained employment with the Huntington Controlled Mexican International Railroad, which ran from Eagle Pass, Texas, to Durango. He became, successively, chainman (1895); rodman, coal mine surveyor, and assistant engineer in the road department ( 1896); engineer in charge of constructing a branch line (1898); and assistant chief engineer (1899), in which capacity he was responsible for all location and construction of the railroad. In July 1906 he accepted a job offered by Speyer Co. which had contracted with the Bolivian government to build and operate a thousand mile railroad, in six lines, at the second highest railroad altitude in the world. That autumn Johnson began work at La Paz as general manager and chief engineer of the Bolivia Railway Co. which was not formally incorporated until February 1907. In addition, he had general charge of governmental relations and organization of the work in Bolivia, including that performed by the South American Construction Co., a Speyer subsidiary. In 1909 he had charge of the Bolivian end of negotiations to sell control of the Bolivia Railway to the British owned Antofagasta (Chile) Railway Co. When the sale was completed, he declined offers by the Bolivian government to represent them in dealings with all railroad companies and interests, and by the Antofagasta Railway to represent them in Bolivia and Chile.

Returning to the United States, he opened an office in New York City in September 1909 as a consulting engineer. After attempting unsuccessfully to obtain a suitable position with an American railroad, in 1911 he became vice president of the Trenton and Mercer County Traction Corporation, incorporated in New Jersey in 1910, which after 1929 was called the Trenton Transit Co. For a while he continued his consulting work on a part time basis before becoming president of the transit company some time before 1917. After 1933, when the company went into receivership, he served as court appointed receiver. Johnson gained prominence in the field of transit for his innovative use of publicity (1917), total conversion from trolleys to buses (1934), and control of bus traffic by supervisors stationed at sidewalk telephones (1939). He also contributed several short pieces to Transit Journal. His active role in management ceased in 1941, when the company merged with the Trenton Street Railway Co.

Johnson's professional affiliations included the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance of Way Association, the American Railway Master Mechanics Association, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the Master Car Builders Association. He died of a heart attack at his house in Princeton, New Jersey, on November 2, 1957.


'Personal Mention', Electric Railway Journal, 37 (1911), 995.

Moody's Manual of Public Utilities, volumes for 1918-1941, passim.

Who's Who in the East (1930), s.v. Johnson, Burges.

National Cyclopedia of American Biography. Current. Vol. A (N.Y., 1930), p . 243. ( Burges Johnson)

Rankin Johnson, 'Popular Appeal an Important Factor', Transit Journal, 79 (1935), 323.

'Trenton Likes the Bus' 5 Transit Journal, 79 (1935), 1935.

'Trenton Keeps them Rolling', Transit Journal, 83 (1939), 523, 75.

Burges Johnson, As Much as I Dare: A Personal Recollection (N.Y., 1944).

Poor's Register of Directors and Executives (1950), s .v. Johnson, Rankin.

Catalogue of Yale University Alumni 1925-1954 (New Haven, 1955), s .v. Johnson, Rankin Jr.

New York Times, November 4, 1957, p. 29, col. 4: obituary of Rankin Johnson.

New York Times, April 1, 1963, p. 35, col. 8: obituary of Burges Johnson.

The New York Times Obituaries Index 1858-1968 (N.Y., 1970) .

'Going at Publicity Whole Heartedly', Electric Railway Journal, 50 (1917).

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Scope and Content Notes

The papers of Rankin Johnson consist of photographs and correspondence dealing with the Mexican and Bolivian railways and other South American railroads. The papers provide insight into the early history of railroad development in Central and South America as well as the export of American technical expertise to the less developed countries of the world.

Johnson's employment by the Mexican International Railroad Company (Compania del Ferrocarril Internacional Mexicano) mainly in Durango, Mexico, is not extensively documented here; the papers do support the view, however, that Johnson's responsibilities were centered at the Coahuila Coal Company and the Alamo Coal Company, which had extensive holdings in Mexico's best coal fields along the Sabinas River, and were counted on to furnish the Mexican International Railroad with profitable and dependable business.

Rankin Johnson traveled widely throughout Bolivia and, to a lesser extent, Peru and Chile between 1906 and 1909. The largest part of Johnson's Papers relates to his reconnaissance of all the rail lines proposed by the Bolivia Railroad Company, their condition and their requirements.

The most important aspect of Rankin Johnson's Papers documents his responsibility in the negotiations which culminated in the sale and control of the Bolivia Railroad Company by American interests to the Antofagasta (Chile) Railroad which was controlled by English interests (1909). This settlement resolved a long standing dispute with Chile in regard to its occupation of the former Bolivian province of Antofagasta under the Pacto de Trequa (Pact of Truce) of April 4, 1884. Earlier, before Johnson's arrival in La Paz, secret negotiations between Bolivia and Argentina had caused Chile to change its conciliatory attitude which had been leading toward an agreement to provide landlocked Bolivia with a seaport. Johnson's Papers document that Bolivia wanted to avoid hostilities with Chile by compelling the Chileans to make concessions. Ismael Montes, who became Bolivian President in 1904, and the Bolivian Congress saw that it was necessary to yield to the best terms they could. Since Johnson was in charge of government relations at the Bolivia Railroad Company his papers document extensively the results of these negotiations with the government and include correspondence with the Bolivian President.

An important part of the Bolivian Chilean negotiations of 1908-1909 involved surveys and plans for the construction of a railway between Africa on the coast and the Bolivian capital, La Paz; documentation of this project and resulting negotiations to provide the Bolivians free transit through Chilean territory to certain towns on the coast form a large part of Rankin Johnson's Papers. Johnson's correspondence also contains valuable information concerning the agreement by Chile to pay Bolivia's cash indemnity and lend certain pecuniary assistance to the construction of other necessary railways.

On arriving in Bolivia, Johnson studied the existing transportation system serving the tin mines and rubber plantations, the country's principal exports; his observations and recommendations for the economic development of the region is included in his correspondence of 1907. Later correspondence discusses assistance from the U.S. Government in providing aid to the Minister of Agriculture.

Little of Rankin Johnson's correspondence relates to social conditions or living conditions in Bolivia; however, a few of the photographs provide excellent documentation of the Bolivian Indians and their environment. Primarily the photographs illustrate construction projects initiated by the Bolivia Railroad Company.

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Administrative Information

Publication Information

ULS Archives & Special Collections, June 1976

University of Pittsburgh Library System
Archives & Special Collections
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Revision Description

 Description of oversize material added to the finding aid. February 2011

Access Restrictions

No restrictions.


Permission for publication is given on behalf of the University of Pittsburgh as the owner of the physical items and is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained.

Acquisition Information

The Rankin Johnson Papers were a gift in 1965 from his son, Tristam B. Johnson, who was acting on behalf of his brothers.

Processing Information

This collection was processed by Mark Brown in June 1976 and Ida Selvan in June 1981.

Existence and Location of Copies

Portions of the collection have been microfilmed. Two photo albums have been digitized.

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Controlled Access Headings

Personal Name(s)

  • Johnson, Rankin, 1873-1957


  • Business and Industry
  • Civil engineers -- United States
  • Personal papers
  • Railroad companies -- Bolivia
  • Railroad companies -- Mexico
  • Railroad engineering
  • Transportation
  • Transportation -- New Jersey -- Trenton

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Previous Citation

Rankin Johnson Papers, 1895-1910, AIS.1965.01, Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh

Johnson, Rankin, 1873-1957, Papers, 1895-1910, Archives of Industrial Society, University of Pittsburgh Libraries

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Collection Inventory

Series  I. Correspondence, 1896-1910 

Scope and Content Notes

The letters of Rankin Johnson relate to his personal, business, and professional interests during the periods when he was employed as Assistant Engineer for the Road Dev. by the Mexican International Railroad (Compania del Ferrocarril International Mexicano) in Mexico (1895-1906) and when he was General Manager/Chief Engineer for the Bolivia Railway Co. in Bolivia (1906-1910).

Subjects include equipment, personnel, reports, duties of department heads, salaries, possible sites of railroads, political implications of methods of financing railroads, land concessions, economic evaluation of potential development, industries, Antofogasta Railway, purchase of Guaqui LaPaz Railroad, memorandum of agreement between the Chilean government and a contractor for the construction of railroads on a commission basis, conservation proposals for Bolivia South Am. Construction Co.

In a letter to Rankin Johnson from James Metcalfe, dated March 15, 1907, Metcalfe advised the liberal use of the term "plant" and suggested it cover "only such things as are of little use to railroad company when finished like mules, wagons, drills, etc." Henry Ruhlender, in a letter dated May 14, 1907, suggested the "use of prisoners for price equal to maintenance" in construction work. In a letter dated March 28, 1907 to Herbert Knox Smith of the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor, Bur. of Corps., Rankin Johnson comments on the ecology of Bolivia and requests information as to type of trees, vegetables and fish which might be used in the Lake Titicaca. Herbert Knox Smith, in a letter of September 4, 1907, tells of the Bur. Of Corps. "trust busting program" and his report on Standard Oil. A letter from Hiram Bingham, dated May 3, 1909, comments on ruins of an Inca Palace and possibly of securing museum pieces for Yale University.

Major correspondents include: James Metcalfe (Pres., Bolivia Railway Co.; Vice Pres., Manila Railroad Co.; Pres., Speyer Co.); James Speyer (Vice Pres., Speyer Co.); Henry Burnett (Ass't. General Manager, Havana Central Railroad); Henry Ruhlender (Bolivia Railroad Co.); Herbert Knox Smith (U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor, Bur. of Corporations).

Correspondence, 1906-1908 1
Correspondence, 1909-1910 2
Letterbook, October 

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Series  II. Copybook and General Notes, October 3, 1907-May 10, 1909 

Scope and Content Notes

These copies of outgoing letters by Rankin Johnson are primarily addressed to James Metcalfe and Henry Ruhlender and deal primarily with negotiations with the Bolivian government on railway concessions, business investments, and loans. Rankin Johnson reports in interviews with President of Bolivia and relates the President's views, as well as his own personal assessments. Rankin Johnson comments in a number of letters on the internal political life of the country.

The cables from 1907-1908 are coded, clear text, transcriptions and confirmations of cables in regard to Bolivian government railroad policy, railroad and banking syndicate with director membership (cable July 31, 1907), government loan negotiations, modifications to concession, and matters relating to construction of railroad.

Memoranda, 1903-1908. (1 folder) Mainly deal with contracts, government relations, concessions, state of surveys, and construction, engineering parties and expenditures during Bolivian period; contains a translation of a report of the Minister of Finance to the President of the Republic of Mexico relating to railway matters (1903). V. Memoranda note books. 11 volumes.

Construction data notebook, ca. 1895-1900. 1 v. Although Rankin Johnson largely records construction data such as material and specifications, he does record such items as hospital fund and stamp tax law. VII. Notes. (1 folder) Relate to business loans, construction estimates, speeches.

Letterbook, October 3, 1907- May 10, 1909 2
Cables, 1907-1909 
Copies of Cables,(modifications to concession of Bolivia Rwy. Co. and Lease to Antofagasta Railway and Oruro Cochabamba line), 1907-1909 3
Memoranda, 1903-1908 
Memoranda notebooks (11 volumes) 
Construction data notebooks, ca.1895-1900 
Record book of railway construction costs 
Mexican International Railroad Company, 1900 

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Series  III. Subject Files, 1904-1910 

Scope and Content Notes

The subject files contain reports, brochures, and publications of various railroads: Alaska Northwestern; Anto-Fogasta-Bolivia Railroad; Bolivia Railway Co.; Isthmian Canal Commission; Mexican International Railroad Co.; Panama Railroad Co.; Portland Railroad Co.; and South Am. Construction Co.

Subseries  1. Railroads, General File, 1904-1907 

Alaska Northwestern Railroad 4
Antofagasta, Bolivia Railroad, Report, September 15, 1907 
Antofagasta (Chile) Bolivia Railroad Co. Ltd. Tarifasy Reglamentos, 1904 

Subseries  2. Bolivia Railroad Company, Accounting and Engineering Departments, 1904-1910 

Accounting Department 
Engineering Department 
Personnel 5
Traffic, transportation, mechanical roadway depts 
Bill and translation of legislation covering executive and modification project, 1908 
Railway Co. Clasificacion y tarifa para express 
Railway Co. Contracts, deeds, forms, inventories, lease, legal documents, purchase requisitions 
Railway Co. Passbook, 1908-1909 
Rules and regulations governing hospital svc, 1906 
Rules and regulations. Tariff for transporting passengers and baggage 
Rules of the Transportation Dept., 1908 6
Rules Engineering Dept., Standard Specifications for bridge superstructure, ca. 1906 
Miscellaneous documents, presa Carretera entre Uyini Tupeza La Quiaca, S.K. Hutcheon, 1909 
Brazil Hardwood Corporation 
Exposicion internacional de ferrocarriles y transportes terrestres. Buenos Aires, May-November, 1910 
Isthmian Canal Commission 
Lima Locomotive Machine Co., Lima, Ohio. Specification sheet 
Mexican International Railroad Co. 
Panama Railroad Co. 
Portland Railroad Co., Portland, Maine. Annual Report, 1907-1910 
South American Construction Co. 

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Series  IV. Business Papers of Rankin Johnson, 1892-1909 

Scope and Content Notes

This series contains financial journal, 1892-1895; checkbooks, 1904-1906; and bank statements, receipts, invoices, and bank deposit notices.

Financial journal and checkbooks, 1892-1906 6
Statements, deposit slips, receipts, bank statements, 1905-1907 
Business Papers, 1908-1909 

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Series  V. Publications, 1904-1909 

Scope and Content Notes

This series contains miscellaneous items such as a dictionary and handbook for Grand Hotel, Buenos Aires, Argentina, and assorted publications and maps. Newspaper clippings located at the end of the series include information on labor, public utilities, workmen's compensation, and railway problems. Books used in railroad construction work, and Bolivian and Argentinean government publications in regard to railroads can also be found.

American Railway Assoc, Code of car service rules, 1909 7
Baldwin Locomotive Works. Locomotive data, 1904 
Master Car Builders' Assoc. Code of rules, James A. Moss Field Service, 1907 
(Bolivia) Ministerio de Hacienda e Industria de Bolivia, Emprestito de 500,000...datos e informes para su eontrataeion, undated 
Ministerio de Colonizacion y Agrieultura, Guia Sinoptica para el viajero immigrante en Bolivia, La Paz, 1907 
Ministerio de obras publicas. Especificaciones generales para rieles, eclisas, tornillos contuercas, tirafondos y eambios de via. Buenos Aires, 1907 
Bolivian gov't. docs, railroads and public works, undated 
Pamphlets about Bolivia, undated 
U.S. Interstate Commerce Commission, undated 
U.S. GPO publications in re public lands and homesteading, undated 
El Tiempo, La Paz,  La Epoea, La Paz, June 26, 1909; April 4, 1909 
Newspaper clippings 

Folder contains one oversized linen backed folded map of South America printed in Spanish, ca. 1901; one oversized linen backed map of South America printed in English, ca. 1908; and one pocket map of Brazil and Guiana in English, ca. 1908.

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Series  VI. Photographs 

Scope and Content Notes

Photographs include shots of flora, fauna, native Indians, urban and countryside, rubber plantation, Balsa log floating, railroad construction principally for Bolivia but also including Peru; contains two photo albums labeled "Bolivia To-Day--1908."

Photographs, 8-13
Bolivia To-Day [Album 1], 1908 14
Bolivia To-Day [Album 2], 1908 15

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Series  VII. Maps and Blueprints, 1894-1909 

Scope and Content Notes

This series includes maps, monthly reports, railroad routes, right-of-way for Bolivia Railway Co., and Mexico Int. Railway Co.. It also contains material for a projected railroad, Marahu-Salto Grande Railway in the State of Bahia, Brazil. See microfiche, AIS MF B 65:1.

Prolongacion de la Quiaca a Tupiza Bolivia, undated 18
Perfil General de la Prolongacion de la Quiaca a Tupiza, undated 
Desmontago de una Rueda Dentada de una, undated 
Locomotora a Cremallera Sistema "ABT", ato de Montaje, 1904 
Detalles de la Cremallera, 1904 
Locomotora a Cremallera Sistema "ABT", 1901 
Seccion la Quiaca a Tupiza, Perfil, Longitudinal, 1902 
Planimetria, 1902 
Planimetria, Trazado a Adherencia, undated 
Planimetria, Fin de la Variante a Cremallera, undated 
Ferfil Longitudinal, de la Variante a Cremallera, undated 
Viacha Oruro Line, Bolivia, Right of Way, undated 
Statement of Steel Bridges, 1909 
Statement of Culverts, 1909 
Statement of Grading, 1909 
Oruro Deep Well and Viacha Deep Well, undated 
Summaries of Engineers monthly reports, 1908 
Sketch of proposed railway system, Bolivia, 1908 
Map of located line, Potosi-Tupiza division, 1908 
Linea Hasta el Mar Pacifico, Mexico, 1894 
Durango West Line B- Second Division Projecto de Estrada de Ferro, Da Bahia de Camanu a Salto Grande, Brazil, undated 
Plan of Brick Cottage, Mexico, 1895 
Plan of Casa de Jefes, undated 
Plan of Casa para Empleados, undated 
Plan of Edificio para Talleres de Herreia y Mecanica, undated 
Plan of Edificio para Almacenes, undated 
Plan of Galpon para carros, undated 
Albums 14-15

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Series  VIII. Oversize Material 

Scope and Content Notes

This oversize material was added to the finding aid in November 2010.

Panoramic Sheet (@ 3.5 feet long), Unknown Location 71

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