George Washington Whistler

Portrait of George Washington Whistler

Born: Fort Wayne, Indiana - 19 May 1800
Died: St. Petersburg - 7 April 1849

The son of a US Army officer, George Washington Whistler was born at the military outpost of Fort Wayne in May 1800. He graduated from West Point Military Academy in 1819, and served in the Army Corps of Engineers, rising to the rank of Major before he retired his commission in 1833. He joined the Boston and Ohio Railroad, and was sent to England to learn more about railroad technology. He worked on the construction of several US railroads, including the Baltimore and Susquehanna, Stonington, Western, Boston and Lowell, and Boston and Providence, co-designing the famous Canton Viaduct.

'American' bridges over Obvodny Kanal in St Petersburg, Russia
"American" bridges over Obvodny Kanal inspired by George W. Whistler

In 1842, on the order of Emperor Nicholas I, Whistler was invited by Russian engineer Pavel Melnikov work on the St. Petersburg - Moscow (Nikolaevskiy) Railroad. Whistler became personally acquainted with the Tsar, whom he impressed with his energy, talent, and manners. He brought to Russia the latest American equipment and methods, including blueprints for a new bridge system invented by William Howe, which he used to build the American Bridges across the Obvodny Canal.

The entire construction of the double-track, 685km long road was (with a full assortment of technical equipment, including rolling-stock, repair, maintenance and station service) was completed in seven years. It is claimed that Whistler was the originator of the wide five-foot rail gauge that has been used in Russia ever since. While work continued on the railroad, Whistler also designed the Arsenal, fortifications and docks at Kronshtadt, and consulted on the design and construction of the Blagoveshcheenskiy (Annunciation) Bridge.

Modern high-speed trains follow the route designed by George W. Whistler between Moscow and St. Petersburg
Modern high-speed trains follow the route designed by George W. Whistler

Nicholas I was so impressed by Whistler's work that he awarded the American the Order of St. Anne 2nd Class in 1847 and offered him the chance to settle in Russia. Unfortunately, an epidemic of cholera obliged Whistler to send his family to England in 1848. He himself contracted the disease and, although he recovered, his weakened state exacerbated by his extremely heavy workload led to a fatal heart attack in April 1849. Whistler had seven sons and a daughter from two marriages. George William Whistler, from his first marriage, stayed in Russia and worked as a railroad engineer like his father. More famously, James Abbot McNeill Whistler, the eldest son of his second marriage, began to study art at the Imperial Academy in St. Petersburg, and went on to become one of the greatest American artists of the 19th century.

Works: American Bridges, Blagoveshchenskiy (Annunciation) Bridge

Address: 34, Angliiskaya Naberezhnaya

Connected with: James Abbot McNeill Whistler