Tom A. Blair
Tom A. Blair
Railroad Engineer – Builder – Innovator – Soldier – Administrator
Transportation – Mining – Hydraulics – Bridges – Research – Management
Seventeenth National Honor Member Nominated by the University of Colorado Chapter
The first year after his graduation from the University of Colorado (1914), Tom A. Blair spent as instructor at his alma mater. Thereafter, with relatively minor interruptions, except for service in the First World War, he dedicated his life to the planning, construction, and maintenance of the Atcheson, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad.
Tom Blair was born at DeBeque, Colorado, June 1, 1892. He graduated from the University of Colorado in 1913. Having attracted the attention of Dean Milo S. Ketchum (first National Honor Member), of the College of Engineering, he assisted the dean in preparing the manuscript for his structural engineers’ handbook. When he graduated, he served one year as instructor under Dean Ketchum. He entered the service of the San Miguel Land and Development Company of Telluride, Colorado, and was promoted to transitman four months later. On December 24, 1916, he was appointed office engineer on a construction project involving the building of 85 miles of branch line railroad costing $2,434,000. Two months after the entry of the United States in World War I, he enlisted as a private in Company B, Engineers, Colorado National Guard (June, 1917), and within a short time was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant. This company became Company B, 115th Engineers, 40th Division, with Mr. Blair as first lieutenant. In 1918, the company commander became ill and he was put in command of the company. He brought his outfit back to the United States for discharge. As an officer and company commander, Blair merited and received the confidence and devotion of his men. His qualities of leadership were unexcelled in the regiment.
Two months after the entry of the United States in World War I, he enlisted as a private in Company B, Engineers, Colorado National Guard (June, 1917), and within a short time was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant. This company became Company B, 115th Engineers, 40th Division, with Mr. Blair as first lieutenant. In 1918, the company commander became ill and he was put in command of the company. He brought his outfit back to the United States for discharge. As an officer and company commander, Blair merited and received the confidence and devotion of his men. His qualities of leadership were unexcelled in the regiment.
In the two years after leaving the army, Tom Blair was with the Wyoming Highway Department as resident engineer at Sheridan, Wyoming, and with the A.T.&S.F. railway as office engineer at Shattuck, Oklahoma. In 1921 he worked for the United Comstock Mining Company at Cold Hill, Nevada, a 2,000-ton-per-day gold and silver mining operation reclaiming the waste that had been used to backfill slopes around the old Yellow Jacket at that point. Mr. Blair had an important part in developing the hydraulics for the flow wheel of the mill for this operation.
The crossing of the South Canadian River at Canadian, Texas, was one of the most challenging on the Santa Fe System. The original bridge was constructed in 1887 and was continuously washed out. The line was relocated to secure a more favorable location; but trouble still continued. Finally it became necessary to replace the trestle approaches and to protect the approach fill. Engineer Blair was placed in charge of the construction of a new bridge, consisting of six 115-foot deck girder spans on each end and four 260-foot truss spans, at a cost of $1,400,000.
As a roadmaster at Pueblo, Colorado, during 1925-1926, Tom Blair had probably the best maintained tract on the Santa Fe Railroad. During that same period, he was assigned the task of developing a car using a series of gyroscopes and floating axles, to make a continuous tape of track conditions as it passed along the tracks. The car and tape indicated low joints, difference in cross level, the lean of cars, and gave a first class picture of the condition of the curves. The heavy oil traffic in the Panhandle of Texas made it mandatory to provide additional trackage through that territory. On October 1, 1925, Mr. Blair was placed in charge of a three and one-half million dollar, double-track project, 75 miles long, between Pampa and Canyon, Texas. On the completion of this work in 1927, he was appointed division engineer at Slaton, Texas. After two years at that location, he was placed in charge of the construction of a 72-mile branch line extending from Paisan to Presidio, Texas, and costing $4,350,000. Returning to the operating department in 1931, Mr. Blair served as a division engineer at La Junta, Colorado, and Slaton, Texas, until 1936. During this period he supervised the rebuilding of a number of bridges on the Old Orient Railroad, and reduced this work to an assembly-line basis.
The only time in his busy career that he was away from the practice of engineering was 1936-1937, when he served as trainmaster of the Panhandle Division of the Santa Fe Railroad. The need for engineering talent along maintenance lines resulted in calling him back to La Junta as a district engineer in 1937. The following year, he was made chief engineer of the Western Lines, serving in this capacity until 1943.
Because of the need of expanding facilities to take care of the heavy traffic resulting from World War II, and the complications in maintenance resulting from the shortage of both labor and material, it was necessary to augment the Chief Engineer System’s staff to handle this work, and Tom Blair was appointed Assistant Chief Engineer System at Chicago, Illinois, where he served until April 1, 1948, at which time he was appointed Chief Engineer System.
Throughout his entire career, Engineer Blair lent enthusiastic support to inventors and developers of roadway machines. While chief engineer at Amarillo, he developed plans for a large machine for cleaning the ballast on the shoulders of the track. This machine was built and placed in service soon after he became Assistant Chief Engineer System at Chicago. Later, his support to the inventors of various machines for mechanically removing the ballast between ties has resulted in the commercial production of a number of machines for this purpose, the latest being what is called the undertrack ballast plow, which is able to remove enough inter-tie ballast in an hour to keep a surfacing gang busy for a week. He has encouraged the construction of multiple tampers.
As a result of his interest in research, Brother Blair was appointed to the Research Committee of the Association of American Railways. He was also a member and chairman of the Detector Car Committee of that association, Blair’s insistence on securing some means of detecting flaws within the limits of the joint-bar area resulted in the use of the reflectoscope and other supersonic instruments.
Tom Blair belonged to a number of engineering societies such as ASCE and the American Association of Railways (formerly AREA), having joined the latter in 1928. He served on a significant number of AAR research committees, and was a member, vice-president, and president of the association between the years 1947 and 1952. He was widely known as a man of integrity and outstanding character, distinguished by his loyalty for the men who worked for him and for those for whom he worked.
He was elected Chapter Honor Member of the University of Colorado chapter of Chi Epsilon on November 18, 1951, traveling by plane from Chicago, Illinois, to Boulder, Colorado, for the event. The Centennial of Engineering was celebrated in Chicago, Illinois, in September, 1952, with the Fraternity as a participant. As a part of that celebration, an initiation and banquet was held at the Illinois Institute of Technology, with the Illinois Tech chapter as hosts; and there Tom Blair was elevated by the Fraternity to the grade of National Honor Member. He was the seventeenth so honored in the (then) thirty-year history of the Fraternity.