Col. Isaac Williams Smith


The Portland, Oregon Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, originally chartered in 1903, is honored to be named after Col. Isaac Williams Smith, a pioneering gentleman of chivalrous qualities whose dedication to duty and selfless contributions to his country are the epitome of the ideals and the character of the Confederate soldier that we cherish, and are sworn to defend.

Isaac Williams Smith was born February 15, 1826 in Fredericksburg, in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, the son of an Episcopalian preacher, Reverend George A. Smith, and his wife, Ophelia Williams Smith.  Isaac’s maternal grandfather, Captain Philip Slaughter, served the Continental army for eight years during the Revolutionary war, and it was on the Slaughter plantation that the battle of Slaughter was fought between Generals Pope and "Stonewall" Jackson in the War Between the States.

Isaac Smith attended the Fairfax Institute at Clarens and the Virginia Military Institute at Lexington, Virginia from 1844 until graduating in 1847.  After graduation, Smith served as assistant surveyor on many projects including serving under Captain Emory on the survey of the northeastern boundary between the United States and Canada.

In 1847 Smith was appointed Second Lieutenant in the 8th U.S. Infantry, and soon transferred to Company K, U.S. regiment of Voltigeurs, going to war with Mexico.  At Vera Cruz Lieutenant Smith was connected with the detachment of Major Lally and engaged in a running fight while marching toward the city of Mexico.  At Cordova he was taken ill and confined several months in the Castle of Perote (also known as the San Carlos Fortress).

Then returning to the States, he was placed in the recruiting service and stationed at Baltimore.  At the close of the war and disbanding of his regiment, Mr. Smith returned to his profession of civil engineer.  He then worked as assistant surveyor and astronomer on the survey of the parallel between the Creek and Cherokee Indian nations under Lieutenants Sitgreaves and Woodruff.  He was also assistant astronomer and first assistant surveyor of the parallel between the states of Iowa and Minnesota.  In 1853 he joined the United States Engineer Corps, under charge of Lieutenant Williamson, and came to the Pacific Coast to make the Government survey of the Southern Pacific railroad for a proposed transcontinental railway route, ordered by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis.  Arriving at San Francisco, they were escorted by the command of Captain (later, General) Stoneman and worked on the line toward Fort Yuma.

Continuing this service until 1855, Mr. Smith was then sent to Olympia, Washington Territory, where he conducted the surveys of public lands and also superintended the building of lighthouses at Tatoosh Island and Shoalwater Bay; the first lighthouses built north of the Columbia River.  This work was accomplished, in his own words, “with considerable difficulty and peril, journeys to and from the works being made either in small rowboats or Indian canoes through waters that were of a very treacherous character and often with only Indians for crew."

During the Yakima Indian war, Smith served as aide-de-camp on the staff of Captain Isaac Stevens, then Governor of the Territory, and in command of the volunteer forces engaged in subduing the Indians.  He saw much active service.  After the close of the war he was engaged for a year or two as United States Deputy Surveyor, under his lifelong friend Major James Tilton, also a veteran of the Mexican War.  He then filled an appointment as United States Surveyor-General for Washington Territory and surveyed several of the meridian and standard parallel lines then being established through the trackless and all but impassable forests of western Washington, including the Puget Sound Guide Meridian from the area just north of Seattle to within feet of the international boundary with British Columbia.

In 1858, Smith was appointed Lighthouse Agent for Washington territory.  Then in 1860, he was appointed Register of the United States Land Office for the Olympia District, which included the entire Washington Territory.

When news arrived that the Federals had invaded his home state, Smith was forced to flee north to British Columbia.  Due to his well known Southern sympathies, he feared being arrested by the local authorities.  He was also unable to get a settlement of his accounts because of this.  He briefly worked at the gold mines in Cariboo, British Columbia, just long enough to raise the money necessary to return to his native state of Virginia.

Upon reaching Virginia, Smith worked as an Assistant Professor for a short time at VMI, before being appointed Captain in the Engineer Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, in charge of the pontoon service.  He worked in and around the Richmond area at the Army of Northern Virginia’s Engineers headquarters for most of the War.

Isaac Smith’s brother, Confederate Col. George Hugh Smith (who served as Colonel of the 62nd Virginia Infantry), wrote a short bio on his brother and submitted it to the archives at VMI stating that in July of 1863, Capt. Isaac Smith was in Baltimore, Maryland.  It was while there that he learned of the battle at Gettysburg, and that his cousin and childhood friend Col. Waller Tazwell Patton had been severely wounded.  Making his way to Gettysburg, Isaac Smith was at his friend’s bedside at the makeshift hospital at Pennsylvania College when he died.  Tazwell Patton’s brother, George Smith Patton, was killed later in the War at Third Winchester.  Smith, his brothers George and Francis, and the Patton brothers all grew up together and were all graduates of VMI and all served as officers in the Confederate Army.  After the War, Isaac Smith’s brother, George Hugh Smith, would marry George Smith Patton’s widow, becoming the step grandfather to World War 2 General George S. Patton.

Isaac Smith was instrumental in the defense of Petersburg (where he was brevetted Colonel) and Richmond, and he was present at the surrender of Confederate forces at Appomattox.  Smith returned home with, in his own words, “an old gray uniform, much tattered and worn, a good horse, and a large amount of experience.”

After the war, Smith worked as an auditor for the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, and in the Spring of 1868 he went to Mexico where he served as district engineer on the Imperial Mexican Railroad from Vera Cruz to Mexico City.  He returned to the Pacific Coast in 1869 and worked as surveyor and engineer on various railroad surveys in California, Oregon.  In 1870, he was placed in charge of surveys along the Columbia and Cowlitz Rivers for the Northern Pacific Railroad.

In 1871, he designed and oversaw construction of the locks and a canal around the falls of the Willamette River in Oregon City, a work of great magnitude and importance. The original contractors failed to show satisfactory results after a year.  The work was carried forward by Colonel Smith, with great speed, on his own.  A large State subsidy depended on the work being completed in time.  The Colonel accomplished the desired end, and not only secured for the company the desired subsidy, but turned over a work which, for excellence of design and thoroughness of execution, marked him as an engineer of notable skill and ability.

In December of 1873 Smith platted the gas and water lines for the city of Tacoma.  Smith then worked in British Columbia in the employ of the Dominion Government where he conducted a survey of the Fraser River from Soda Creek to Lytton to examine the feasibility of steamship travel.

In February, 1875 he visited Peru to assist in building a trans-Andean railway, but the country became embroiled in a civil war and all railway construction stopped.  He returned at once to California and made surveys in Arizona for the Southern Pacific Railroad.  A year later, in association with Colonel George H. Mendall of the Corps of Engineers, he made an exhaustive study of, and report upon, the water supply for the City of San Francisco.  As Colonel Mendall's chief assistant, he had charge of the extensive surveys, including all the available sources of supply.  From 1876 to 1878 he served on the Board of Railroad Commissioners for the State of California, and was appointed chief engineer of the Sacramento River Drainage Commission.  In the Spring of 1880, Colonel Smith was chief engineer for the Board of State Harbor Commissioners of California, in which capacity he designed the sea-wall for the water front of San Francisco, and constructed upwards of a mile of it.

Later in 1880, he was placed by the Northern Pacific Railroad in full charge of the Cascade Mountain surveys to find the most practical route across to Tacoma.  The route finally adopted through “Stampede Pass” was surveyed and mapped under his direction.

In September, 1881, he was appointed chief engineer of the Oregon Pacific Railroad Company, then constructing a line eastward from Yaquina Bay, Oregon. He remained with this company two years, completing the line as far as Corvallis (about 60 miles), and then resigned, and returned to Tacoma, Washington, where he made a report of the water supply of that City. During the years 1883 to 1885, he was chief engineer for the Tacoma Light and Water Company, designing and constructing the gas and water plants for that City, at an expense of nearly half a million dollars, and superintending the works for some months after completion.

Smith was then called to the work of determining the future water supply of the City of Portland, Oregon. The cost of the proposed scheme being too great for the financial ability of the City at that time, he was placed in charge of the existing system, as engineer and superintendent. This, his magnum opus, was the last of a long series of beneficent works he had constructed for the comfort, health, and safety of mankind; and he was happily permitted to live to see it completed, and in successful operation.

In January of 1886, Isaac Smith led a survey to discover a new water source for Portland. He surveyed many areas to locate a long-term, realistic, and cost-effective location, and ultimately discovered that what became “Bull Run Reservoir” was ideally suited for the purpose. He designed and supervised the building of the 24-mile pipeline from the newly surveyed Bull Run Reservoir to Portland, where the city still gets its drinking water to this day. For several months the survey party fought through country described by another member of the survey team as "rugged wilderness, unsurveyed and unknown. The only trails are those of elk, deer, etc. There is not a trace of civilization in any direction." Construction of the new water system began in March, 1893, and was completed January 1st, 1895, at a cost of nearly $3,000,000.

"For several years his leisure moments were spent in the preparation of a treatise on the 'Theory of Deflection and of Latitudes and Departures, with Special Application of Curvilinear Surveys and Alignments of Railway Tracks,' which he published; and, only a few months before his death, he prepared a paper on the 'Flow of Water in Wrought and Cast Iron Pipes from 28 to 42 Inches, Diameter'. He became a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers on October 1, 1878.

One of his colleagues in the Society had this to say about him: “Colonel Smith's reputation as an engineer of ability and integrity became established early, and his services were continually in demand. I can truly say that there was nothing in my whole acquaintance with him but that tended to increase my admiration and respect for the man.”

Another later wrote, "I shall always feel that it has been one of the privileges of my life to have known as intimately as I did a man of the character of Colonel Smith."

And yet another opined, "There is one trait which characterized the Colonel to a marked degree, and that is his absolute integrity and incorruptibility;— another trait of his character was his thorough unselfishness. He was not only a devoted son and brother; but, in his intercourse with the men in his employ, he was always thinking of their comfort and welfare, rather than his own. Certainly, in all my experience, I do not know of another man who could equal the Colonel in his rare combination of strength and purity and gentleness of character. ... I shall always feel that it has been one of the privileges of my life to have known as intimately as I did a man of the character of Colonel Smith."

“The Colonel” as he was called, was extremely dedicated to his work. He took to his bed on Christmas Day, 1896, with pneumonia. Over the next three days he suffered bouts of chills and fever. His last words before death were, "How is the wingdam in the Sandy getting along? I hope the cost of it will not exceed the estimate of $600. I would not like to have the cost exceed the estimate." Isaac Williams Smith died of pneumonia in Portland on January 1, 1897. He never married.

His obituary in The Oregonian newspaper called this devotion to duty his "sterling and unapproachable integrity...his great but unostentatious love for all created things." It went on to state that Isaac Smith was “one of nature’s noblemen, a man of lofty nature, who could not stoop to give place in his large and generous heart to anything that partook of the small and petty in act or sentiment. His life was colored strongly by his sense of duty, his sterling and unapproachable integrity…”

His brother stated in a letter, “I know of no other man so universally esteemed and admired by all those who knew him; the saying may be applied to him that ‘the world does not always know the great men.’”