Alfred Noble Papers: 1863-1922
Summary Information
Title: Alfred Noble Papers
Creator: Noble, Alfred, 1844-1914
Dates: 1863-1922
Extent: 2 linear feet (partially microfilmed), 1 oversize folder
Soldier in the 24th Michigan Infantry during Civil War, later civil engineer concerned largely with construction of bridges and canals, especially improvements of St. Mary's Falls Canal, and consultant engineer to Panama Canal project. Correspondence, Civil War diaries, essays on proposed Nicaraguan Canal, printed materials, maps, and other miscellanea; also photographs.
Call number: 852070 Aa 2; Ac
Language: The materials are in English.
Repository: Bentley Historical Library
1150 Beal Ave.
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-2113
Phone: 734-764-3482
Fax: 734-936-1333
Home Page:
Finding aid prepared by: Thomas E. Powers and Sheon Montgomery

Access and Use
Acquisition Information:

These materials were donated in 1978 by Mrs. James B. Moore (Donor no. 6220).

Access Restrictions:

The collection is open for research. For the portion of the collection that has been filmed, patrons must use the microfilm.

To protect fragile audiovisual recordings (such as audio cassettes, film reels, and VHS tapes), the Bentley Historical Library has a policy of converting them to digital formats by a professional vendor whenever a researcher requests access. For more information, please see:


Copyright is held by the Regents of the University of Michigan but the collection may contain third-party materials for which copyright is not held. Patrons are responsible for determining the appropriate use or reuse of materials.

Alternate Format:

In 2001, the Papers series of this collection was microfilmed. These materials are listed as Roll 1 on this finding aid.

Preferred Citation:

item, folder title, box no., Alfred Noble Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan


Alfred Noble was born in Livonia, Michigan, on August 7, 1844, to Charles and Lovina (Douw) Noble. He started to school when he was four years old at the district school, and later attended the Union School in Plymouth, Michigan. He also worked on the family farm with his three brothers, all of whom died while still young.

On August 9, 1862, Noble and several friends enlisted for three years in Company C of the 24th Michigan Infantry, mustering on August 15, 1862. The 24th served in many of the principle engagements of the war. According to his diary, at the Battle of Gettysburg (where 80% of the 24th was lost) Noble found himself separated from the 24th on the first day of the battle and it was two days before he found out about the death of his good friend and tentmate, John Ryder. Noble was never wounded in the war and was hospitalized only once with illness. Noble mustered out with the rank of Sergeant on June 30, 1865.

Following the war, Noble served for two years in a clerical position with the War Department in Washington, D.C. During this time he saved his money and studied with tutors to prepare for college, which enabled him to enter the University of Michigan as a Sophomore in the fall of 1867. Noble was a member of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity and in his Junior year he served as vice-president of the class of 1870. While an undergraduate, Noble spent over a year working as Assistant Engineer on a government project performing harbor surveys in Michigan. Despite his absence from campus, Noble kept up his studies and graduated with his class in June 1870, receiving his degree in Civil Engineering.

Noble continued to work on the harbor surveys until October 1870, when he was put in charge of the canal improvements at Sault St. Marie, Michigan. In 1873 he became U.S. Assistant Engineer for improvements on the St. Mary's Falls Canal and the St. Mary's River. Completing this project in 1882, Noble went on to several prominent engineering projects, including the Shreveport Bridge, Louisiana; the Washington Bridge, New York City; the Leavenworth and Bellefontaine Bridges across the Missouri River, and Alton Bridge across the Mississippi; and was General Assistant Engineer of the Northern Pacific Railroad.

Noble was appointed by three U.S. Presidents to serve on various boards and commissions which were charged with the responsibility of first selecting the best route for a canal to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and then of determining the type of canal constructions most appropriate. Appointed by President Cleveland in 1895 to serve on the Nicaragua Canal Board, Noble toured both Nicaragua and Panama as potential canal sites. In 1899 Noble was selected by President McKinley as part of the Isthmian Canal Commission to propose a route for a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. As a member of the International Board for Consulting Engineers for the Panama Canal in 1905, Noble and four of the board members were able to convince President Roosevelt and the U.S. Congress in a minority report that a sea-level canal was not possible, and that instead the oceans should be linked together through a series of locks. Noble later consulted on various problems during construction of the Panama Canal.

From 1910 to 1914 Noble operated a private practice, and was solicited for consultation by both the U.S. and Canadian governments. Noble was also active in a number of national and regional engineering societies. For a more complete list of his professional achievements, professional memberships, honors and papers, see the Memorial publications within this collection.

Noble married Georgia Speechly, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, on May 31, 1871. One son, Frederick C., survived to adulthood. Alfred Noble died in New York City on April 19, 1914, due to complications following emergency surgery.

On March 15, 1922, the American Institute of Consulting Engineers dedicated a bronze memorial tablet to Alfred Noble, which is installed on the wall immediately to the left of the main door of the United Engineering Building in New York City.

Collection Scope and Content Note

The Alfred Noble Papers collection consists of several letters and diaries documenting his service with the 24th Michigan Infantry during the Civil War and correspondence, construction documents and other material relating to his work as a civil engineer on a number of major projects including the St. Mary's Canal, the Harlem Tunnel in New York, Panama Canal, Alton Bridge on the Mississippi and a proposed Nicaraguan Canal. The collection is organized in two series, Papers and Printed Works, 1853-1906. The Papers series is available on microfilm.

Subject Terms

This collection is indexed under the following headings in the finding aid database and catalog of The Bentley Historical Library/University of Michigan. Researchers desiring additional information about related topics should search the catalog using these headings.

  • Bridges.
  • Canals.
  • Engineers -- United States.
  • Nicaragua.
  • Panama Canal (Panama)
  • Sault Sainte Marie Canal (Mich.)
  • Soldiers -- Michigan.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865.
  • Diaries.
  • Photographs.
  • Noble, Alfred, 1844-1914.
  • United States. Army. Michigan Infantry Regiment, 24th (1862-1865). Company C.
  • Noble, Alfred, 1844-1914.
  • United States. Board of Consulting Engineers for the Panama Canal.
  • Abbot, Henry L. (Henry Larcom), 1831-1927.
  • Aldrich, J. Frank.
  • Angell, James Burrill, 1829-1916.
  • Cleveland, Grover, 1837-1908.
  • Goethals, George W. (George Washington), 1858-1928.
  • Osborn, Chase S. (Chase Salmon), 1860-
  • Pinchot, Gifford, 1865-1946.
  • Rea, Samuel, 1855-1929.
  • Roosevelt, Theodore, 1858-1919.
  • Taft, William H. (William Howard), 1857-1930.
  • Walker, John G. (John Grimes), 1835-1907.
Contents List
Request materials for use in the Bentley Library
Container / Location Title
Papers [series]

The Papers series consists of four subseries: Biographical Material, Civil War Materials, Professional Papers, and Miscellanea.

Roll   1  
Biographical Material

The Biographical Material is a single folder of general biographical information. Additional professional information can be found in the Memorials, described below.

Civil War Materials

Within Civil War Materials, there is one folder of Letters, 1863-1864, consisting of three letters. The first, written in September 1863, was written to Mr. and Mrs. George Ryder, relating Noble's thoughts about his childhood friend and tentmate, John E. Ryder, who was killed at the Battle of Gettysburg. The second letter was written to Noble's mother in early January 1864, and relates problems in assisting with "Mr. Ryder's paperwork," as well as general camp information. The third letter was written by Henry C. McFarlan in May 1864 from Camp Draft in Jackson, Michigan to his Uncle Charles; it relates his failed attempt to join the Navy, and his subsequent muster into the 6th Michigan Heavy Artillery for one year.

Roll   1  
Letters 1863-1864

The Diaries, 1863-July 1865, include brief and impersonal entries regarding his daily infantry activities. There are two New Testament Bibles which Noble carried during the war, and a Miscellanea folder, mostly of official documents.

Roll   1  
1863-July 1865 (3 volumes)
Roll   1  
Transcript 1863
Roll   1  
New Testament Bibles (2 volumes)

(not microfilmed)

Roll   1  
Miscellanea 1861-1902
Professional Papers

The Professional Papers subseries consists of eight folders of Correspondence from throughout Noble's career, arranged chronologically. A detailed Inventory of the notable contributors follows the contents list. There are also several Construction Documents, including a Notebook of Estimates for Construction of Bridges, ca. 1886-1900, a folder of information related to the construction of the Harlem River Tunnel, 1908-1912, and 3 items in the oversize folder. There are also three Addresses given by Noble, Citations and appointments, and three folders of Memorials, 1814-1922. Three of the Memorials are professional publications which include details about Noble, particularly of his professional career, honors and memberships. There are also two special gift memorials presented to Noble's family. These are both beautifully hand-lettered and hand-illuminated, and both are signed by the same artist.

Roll   1  
1882, 1887
Roll   1  
Roll   1  
Roll   1  
Roll   1  
Roll   1  
Roll   1  
Roll   1  
Construction Documents
Roll   1  
Notebook of Estimates for Construction of Bridges, ca. 1886-1900
Roll   1  
Harlem River Tunnel 1908-1912
Roll   1  
Oversize items (3 items (in oversize folder))

(not microfilmed)

Roll   1  
"The Development of the Commerce of the Great Lakes," 1903
Roll   1  
"The Nicaragua Canal"
Roll   1  
"The Isthmian Canal from an Engineer's Standpoint"
Roll   1  
Citations, etc. 1898-1914

(also 4 items in Oversize Folder not microfilmed)

Roll   1  
Memorials 1914-1922 (3 folders)

The Miscellanea subseries contains four folders. One has general Essays, probably associated with Noble's classes at the University of Michigan, on such diverse topics as "The Imprisonment and Release of Jefferson Davis," "Money-making," and "The Pneumatic Dispatch." Of note in the General Materials folder is a Certificate of Copyright, No. 1350, issued on May 14, 1870 to Alfred Noble for the book, Tables for Obtaining Horizontal Distances and Differences of Level, from Stadia Readings, and a White Star Line Rate Sheet (No. 21) for 1900. In Photographs, there are three graduation photos from 1870, including one of a large group of young men. One photo was taken later in Noble's career for professional publication. There is also a photo of the International Board of Consulting Engineers for the Panama Canal, 1905, which is signed by each of the members. The final item in this subseries is the Farm Journal of Charles Noble of Livonia, Michigan, 1870-1879. Charles Noble is Alfred's father.

Roll   1  

(Probably related to student tenure at the University of Michigan, 1867-1870)

Roll   1  
General Materials
Roll   1  

Portraits, also group portrait of Board of Consulting Engineers for the Panama Canal, ca. 1905

Roll   1  
Farm Journal of Charles Noble of Livonia, Wayne County, Michigan 1870-1879
Printed Works 1853-1906 [series]

(not microfilmed)

The Printed Works, 1853-1906, series consists of 13 volumes, arranged chronologically. These include a history of the 24th Michigan Infantry by O.B. Curtis and three volumes of Specifications and Contracts for tunnel projects in New York. The rest of the volumes concern the various sites under consideration for the Atlantic to Pacific canal project.

Box   2  
Narrative of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Herald by Berthold Seemann. London: Reeve and Co. 1853 (2 volumes)
Box   2  
Junction of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by a Navigation across the Isthmus of Darien without Locks by Berthold Seemann. London: Saunders and Stamford. 1853
Box   2  
Descriptive Account of Captain Bedford Pim's Project for an International Atlantic and Pacific Junction Railway Across Nicaragua by John Collinson. London: J.E. Taylor and Co. 1866
Box   2  
The New Route of Commerce by the Isthmus of Tehauntepec by Simon Stevens. London: Chiswick Press. 1871
Box   2  
The Panama Canal by John Bigelow. New York: Press of the Chamber of Commerce. 1886
Box   2  
History of the Twenty-Fourth Michigan of the Iron Brigade, Known as the Detroit and Wayne County Regiment by O. B. Curtis. Detroit, Michigan: Winn & Hammond. 1891
Box   2  
United States Senate, Report 783, Part 2 Isthmian Canal: Views of the Minority of the Committee on Interoceanic Canals, May 31, 1902
Pennsylvania, New York and Long Island Railroad. Specifications and Contracts
Box   2  
North River Division. Construction of Tunnels under Manhattan and North River. 1903
Box   2  
East River Division. Construction of Tunnels under Manhattan, East River and Long Island City. 1903
Box   2  
North River Division. Construction of Tunnels under Bergen Hill, Section K. 1905
Box   2  
Report of the Board of Consulting Engineers for the Panama Canal Washington: United States Government Printing Office. 1906 (2 volumes)
Additional Descriptive Data
Selective Index of Correspondents
Abbott, Henry Larcom, 1831-1927.
  • Mar. 12, 1906
Aldrich, J. Frank.
  • Mar. 14, 1896
Angell, James Burrill, 1829-1916.
  • July 2, 1895; Jan. 1, 1900; May 13, 1905; Apr. 11, 1907
Cleveland, Grover, Pres. U.S., 1837-1908.
  • Mar. 31, 1895
Goethals, George Washington, 1858-1928.
  • Nov. 18, 1907; Mar. 5, 1910; Feb. 16, 1911; May 3, 1911; Apr. 9, 1915
Osborn, Chase Salmon, 1860-1949.
  • Oct. 22, 1903; Jan. 10, 1911; Oct. 4, 1911; Oct. 10, 1911
Pinchot, Gifford, 1865-1946.
  • June 29, 1903
Rea, Samuel, 1855-1929.
  • Dec. 27, 1901; Mar. 8, 1907; Apr. 20, 1907; May 28, 1908; Dec. 29, 1909; Jan. 4, 1910; Jan. 6, 1910; Dec. 1, 1910; Nov. 16, 1912; Nov. 6, 1913
Roosevelt, Theodore, 1858-1919.
  • Feb. 19, 1904; Feb. 20, 1904; Mar. 18, 1909
Taft, William Howard, 1857-1930.
  • Apr. 8, 1905; Apr. 21, 1905; 1906?; Dec. 3, 1906; Dec. 8, 1906; Mar. 3, 1907; Mar. 5, 1907; Apr. 2, 1915
Walker, John Grimes, 1835-1907.
  • Mar. 28, 1899; June 10, 1899; July 15, 1899; July 4, 1903; Feb. 26, 1904