One of the first buildings to be built on Tulane’s St. Charles Avenue campus, the Civil Engineering building, front, known as Blessey Hall, stands to this day.
As Dr. Bob Bruce, retired Tulane University professor and holder of the Catherine and Henry Boh Chair in Civil Engineering, explains, Tulane University, in its reorganization after Hurricane Katrina, eliminated “three of the five departments in the school of engineering: civil engineering, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering – which are the traditional disciplines in engineering.” The school kept two departments “biomedical engineering and chemical and bio-molecular engineering” – both of which are more science-oriented.
Back in 1882, before Tulane University had actually begun, the Board of Administrators of the Tulane Education Fund specifically noted in their minutes the need for practical instruction in “Civil, Mechanical and Mining Engineering and Architecture.” When the school got up and running in ‘84, the “Industrial and Mechanical Department” was on the first campus on Baronne at Canal streets. When the university moved to its current location in ‘94, it had two divisions: the College of Technology and the College of Arts and Sciences. The College of Technology offered courses in Mechanical, Electrical, Civil and Chemical Engineering as well as Architecture.
Engineering buildings were among the first constructed on the St. Charles Avenue campus. What was known as the Civil Engineering building, fourth from St. Charles Avenue on the downtown side of the campus, originally stood alone. According to Bruce, the building “had a steam generating plant with a big smokestack. It also had vegetable gardens out front and mule stables attached in rear.”
Students in the early years were all male and they attended class in coats and ties. Engineering courses emphasized the practical: The late New Orleans engineer Waldemar S. Nelson, reminiscing in Dr. Bruce’s 1994, Engineering a Century history of the school, noted that his father had purchased woodworking tools when the engineering school eliminated its carpentry lab – bridges were often made of wood in those days. Nelson himself spent time in forge practice, using an anvil and blacksmith’s coal to shape steel chisels and make forged welds. Until around ‘50, the School of Architecture was part of the College of Engineering. Architect Charles Ledner credits his engineering courses with giving him a firm grounding in construction.
Civil engineering students, besides surveying the Tulane campus, also spent time each summer in Survey Camp – tenting on a primitive campsite near Jackson, La. The rough summer work began in 1918 but ended in the ’70s when female students, who weren’t invited to the camp, were allowed to graduate without it. The male students, perhaps tired of a life with latrines, launched a protest and the camp requirement ended, according to Oliver S. Delery, president of the engineering student body at the time.
Delery happily dropped the camp tradition but he worked to revive another custom. Delery’s grandfather, Charles Kelly, had been an engineering graduate and he was well aware that there had been an annual St. Patrick’s Day Dance, honoring the patron saint of engineers. “We decided to try to bring it back that year. It was a huge success – a lot of the faculty and students came – it was a lot of fun,” Delery says.
Another custom involved the Blarney Stone – nearly half a ton of granite now on its own pedestal in the rear courtyard of the old civil engineering building. According to Bruce, the stone appeared around 1945, and was regularly moved as a prank, either by the business school or the geology students. By ‘94, at the school’s centennial, students offered to bring the stone back from where the geology students had put it and alumni provided the pedestal. Delery worked on the project. “I met with the students who enthusiastically made a plan – figured out how much it weighed, how much lifting capacity we would need and how we could transport it back,” Delery says. Since the operation was supposed to be secret, students would have to elude campus security. Meanwhile, Delery had his own plan. “I decided to contact university security and the president’s office. I explained to them what the students were trying to do and asked if they would assist by turning a blind eye to our little project.” The midnight caper went off without a hitch.
The engineering students were rowdy celebrants at Tulane football games – one game a year was specially set aside for engineers and students attended in railroad engineer caps, according to Bruce. One special engineering cheer was:
“E to the X, DY DX
E to the X, DX
Cosine, secant, tangent, sine –
Three point one four one five nine!
Slide rule, slip stick, BTU –
Square root, cube root,
Over his Tulane career, Bob Bruce noted two major changes: the undergraduate student body gradually became more feminine and the graduate student body included more foreign students. Tulane engineering graduates were prized. “I had a national firm call me recently from Kansas City offering to hire our entire senior class sight unseen,” Bruce says.
Tulane students, of whatever gender or origin, were innovative and practical – Baldwin Wood, whose pumps have enabled New Orleans to dry itself out over a century, was an 1899 Tulane graduate. Tulane grad Harold Rosen was one of the inventors of the “spin-stabilized geosynchronous communications satellite.” So, thanks to Tulane engineers, New Orleanians have a better chance at recovering from the hurricanes that can now be predicted.
In her dissertation, Katherine Raymond, daughter of an engineer, also did something for our future. “I was still an undergrad when I took High Performance Concrete, which was a graduate course. That was what got me interested,” she admits. Her dissertation topic was “The Shear Behavior of High Performance Concrete Bulb-Tee Girders.” Testing was done in Skokie, Ill., on 96-foot-long concrete girders manufactured in Pass Christian, Miss. The girders were first tested for fatigue, then cut in half and each end tested for shear – “a specific way of failing.”
“The idea was to analyze how current specifications could be applied to girders made of local materials and used to build bridges in Louisiana,” Raymond explains.
Raymond gave as her reason for her research, “so we can have better bridges for Louisiana: ones that will last a lot longer, [and] be more cost effective.” When you drive safely over the new twin span to Slidell, you’ll benefit from her work.
As Bob Bruce wrote in a short piece entitled “The Elimination of Civil Engineering,”
“Generations of civil engineering students
have passed through these portals
bringing joy and enthusiasm and hard work.
Now, the students are gone
and the faculty and staff have departed.
Today, there is only silence.
One retired Professor remains
to close the doors
observed only by a security camera.
What is left are shadows, memories and accomplishments.
This moment in time demands to be noticed.”