John L. Savag


John L. Savag

Civil Engineer – Public Servant – Designer – Builder – International Consultant – Inventor

Water Control Structures – Reclamation – Irrigation – Scholarship

Twelfth National Honor Member Nominated by the University of Colorado Chapter

It takes scholarship, character, practicality, and an innate sense of social purpose to plan, design, and construct a dam; and the Fraternity could not have selected a more perfect symbol of its objective than the name of John Lucian Savage. He was one of those engineers whose life history could be epitomized in a few words because it was so uniform; or it could be described in great detail because it involved such wide and notable accomplishments. With one organization for almost his entire career, he was responsible for the design of structures that have made him known throughout the United States and the entire world.

Mr. Savage was born near Cooksville, Rock County, Wisconsin, on December 25, 1879, and resided in Wisconsin until his graduation from the University of Wisconsin in 1903, with a degree of bachelor of science in civil engineering. After a brilliant career, he died at Englewood, Colorado, on December 28, 1967, aged 88 years.

Many legends become woven about the history of all great men. A news item said to have appeared June 1, 1890, under a Cooksville, Wisconsin, date line, reads as follows:

“Johnny Savage, eleven-year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. Edwin P. Savage, graduated from the sixth grade of the Cooksville School in the annual spring exercises this afternoon. When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, the serious-faced lad replied, “I want to build things—big things, like dams and waterways and irrigation projects. I want to help make land useful that is now going to waste. I guess I want to be a civil engineer.”

Although the details of this statement cannot now be verified, the fact is manifest that John Lucian Savage did become a civil engineer—one of the greatest.

His high school experience involved two years in a private school at Spring Green, Wisconsin, where he was the only Latin scholar, then a year of high school at Evansville, Wisconsin, and the last two at Madison, Wisconsin. At the University of Wisconsin, he proved to be an earnest student and was elected to Tau Beta Pi in his junior year. Despite his intensive studies, he found time to work on THE BADGER BOARD, his school publication, and took an active part in the activities of the civil engineering society on campus.

There is some evidence that his first engagement was as a teacher at Purdue University, when he received his first opportunity to work for the U.S. Reclamation Service (later to become the Bureau of Reclamation). His conscience would not let him accept this much coveted opportunity after such a brief length of service at Purdue; but, fortunately, there were some broad-visioned administrators at that university who were willing to release him. Thus, beginning in 1906, Jack Savage’s life story is in fact the story of the reclamation of the west. Hundreds of reclamation dams in Arizona, Wyoming, Montana, Oregon, Idaho, and California, including such structures as Arrowrock Dam, American Falls Dam, Owyhee Dam, Cle Elum Dam, Hoover Dam, Grand Coulee Dam, and Shasta Dam were designed by, or under the expert influence of this man.

At a time when other eminent engineers were arguing theoretically that Hoover Dam could not be built, Jack Savage drew his plans after careful study of the site, and of the experimental tests on Stevenson Creek Dam. To his credit should also be recorded the Madden Dam in Panama and the $30,000,000 Cove Creek Dam, the first keystone in the development of the Tennessee River valley. For the design of the latter dam, Mr. Savage was loaned to the Tennessee Valley Authority. He also designed the Isabello project in Puerto Rico for the Puerto Rican government, the Barahona project in Santo Domingo for the West Indies Finance Corporation, and the international boundary project in Texas and New Mexico for the U.S. Department of State.

Writing, invention, and lecturing served as avocations for Mr. Savage in his “spare” time. He was the co-inventor of needle valves and inventor of joint grouting systems and other hydraulic devices. Another outstanding example of his inventive genius is in the artificial cooling of mass concrete which he introduced into the construction of Hoover Dam. The engineers were faced with the necessity of producing a monolithic and crack-free mass of concrete of enormous dimensions, in a placing period of two years. This problem was overcome by providing both circumferential and radial contraction joints, and circulating natural and artificially cooled water through pipes imbedded in the concrete at predetermined intervals. This removed the setting heat, and in a few months accomplished the same amount of cooling shrinkage without cracks which would otherwise have taken one hundred years by natural processes.

He also directed the study by which arch dams could be designed, safely and economically, by a so-called trial-load method, which avoids the inconsistencies that were known to exist between actual measured stresses and deflections in constructed dams on the one hand, and the values computed by former methods on the other.

Mr. Savage wrote several technical papers and prepared many reports and articles for technical societies and for engineering magazines. At one time, with the assistance of R. S. Lieurance, he conducted a lecture course for graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the design of high masonry dams.

In addition to all of his other activities, Mr. Savage served the American Society of Civil Engineers on its Special Committee on Irrigation Hydraulics and on the ASCE Arch Dam Committee. He represented the U.S. Department of the Interior on the American Standards Association work, and was a member of both the American Concrete Institute and the Colorado Society of Engineers.

He was a member of Tau Beta Pi and of Sigma Xi. On May 19, 1934, with appropriate ceremonies at Denver, Colorado, Mr. Savage was initiated into the Colorado chapter of Chi Epsilon as a Chapter Honor Member. He was elected to the grade of National Honor Member and elevated by the Supreme Council at ceremonies in Blanchard’s Lodge in the mountains near Boulder, Colorado, January 25, 1946.

It is characteristic of our National Honor Members that their careers are marked by spiritual as well as material “monuments,” for the most part not inscribed. He has shown that, as a career-man in the U.S. Reclamation Service, Jack Savage had high responsibility for the creation of many water control structures. These are material “monuments.” His widely-known humanity and awareness of his responsibility to his profession are his spiritual “monuments.” To compose an adequate testimonial of his worth to the world in his lifetime would be a forbidding task; and in the case of John Lucian Savage, it is typical that he was content to let them all stand and “speak” for themselves. His services have been widely acclaimed by his contemporaries, however. He received the honorary degree of doctor of science from the University of Wisconsin in 1934. The Colorado Engineering Council in 1937 gave him its Gold Medal Award for distinguished service. In the same year, he was singled out to go to London and deliver a lecture on the Hoover project as guest of the Institution of Civil Engineers of Great Britain. In his post-retirement consulting practice, he served with distinction as advisor to Punjab, India, Chungking, China, the Canal Zone, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, Mexico, and other places around the world.

To many, Jack Savage was a confidant, a companion, and a friend. His simplicity, his kindliness, and his readiness to lend aid and encouragement endeared him to all. His qualifications as a man no less than his accomplishments as an engineer, made him an exceptionally outstanding professional man.

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