Our Family Forest - The Cushing Family

John Francis Cushing

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"The narrative of Mr. Cushing's progress and success in the engineering and business world should be inspirational to any reader. Born the son of a village blacksmith, learning this trade and that of a cooper, while pursuing his elementary and High School studies, his educational ambition and industry mastered all obstacles, and secured to him university training for his splendid participation in the complex affairs of the modern world. During his twenty-eight years of loyal service to the Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Company, as a consequence of his sturdy character, unusual industry, keenness of mind, and noteworthy application, he advanced persistently to the pinnacle of this great national organization ..., [serving as President and Director from 1922 to 1935]."

[From a memoir published by the American Society of Civil Engineers]

At first, I didn't want to overwhelm a hundred year family history with the story of one indivdual. I intended a paragraph about John F. "Frank" Cushing's rags to riches story and association with Notre Dame. While reading histories of Notre Dame and the Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Company, memorials and obituaries, and mentions of Frank in the Notre Dame Alumnus magazine over many years, and viewing many photos from his album, it became clear that I could not do justice to him with a couple of paragraphs. Perhaps because I have so much information, and some first hand accounts from one of his sons, I've been swept up not only with the character of this individual, but also the times in which he lived, and this era of the history of the University of Notre Dame. So here goes ...

Nebraska beginnings: John Francis Cushing was the second of three children, born May 21, 1882 to Francis and Flora (Patchen) Cushing in the town of Arapahoe, Nebraska.  His sisters, Kate and Lizzie, were two years older and younger, respectively.  He had other relatives in the area, too.  In the late 1870s, after learning the blacksmith trade as an apprentice in Portage, Wisconsin, Francis had moved to Nebraska with his brother, Adam, and Adam's inlaws, the Patchen family.  Francis married one of the Patchen girls, Flora, in 1878.  I believe that their great age difference - he was 28, she just 16 - may have been a factor in their later divorce.  Adam and Eliza's boys, Frank and Adam, were just one year older and younger than our Frank Cushing, respectively, and lived at first just a few miles away in Burton's Bend (now Holbrook), then in Kearney, about 50 miles away. (These two families later moved together to Oregon for a few turbulent years, so I assume they were good friends, too.) Flora's Patchen family lived initially just 15 miles away in Medicine Creek, though by 1885 they had moved to Cedar Rapids, about 170 miles away by road.  Ada Patchen Kreizel visited Frank many years later in Chicago and says they grew up together in Cedar Rapids, so Frank must have seen a lot of his Patchen cousins, too.  In the early 1880s, Edmund Cushing/Cussen moved from Massachusetts to nearby Furnas county. Although 30 miles away, widowed and childless, the families must have been fairly close for Edmund to travel so far to be near his brothers, Francis and Adam, and a connection with Edmund turns up a few times over the next couple of decades.

Problems out west:  Being the well-respected blacksmith in Arapahoe for 10 years, Francis had spent lots of time with horses, and had hoped to one day start raising them.  So when Frank was six years old, in about 1888, Francis and Adam set out on the Oregon Trail with their families to Umatilla county, in eastern Oregon. Unfortunately, something went wrong.  What we know and my speculation is described back on the main Cushing page.  Here, I'll stick to my narrative about John F., aka Frank.

It appears that the Cushings lived on a ranch in Umatilla county, boarding horses while Francis also continued blacksmithing. When Francis, Flora, Adam and probably Eliza were charged with a crime, it seems they fled to Cedar Rapids, Nebraska, home of the Patchens. Charges against Flora (and probably Eliza) were dropped, Francis and Adam were extradited to Washington, and their families returned, as well. Exact locations are a little murky. I believe the alledgedly stolen goods were stolen in Washington, but held on the Cushing ranch in Oregon, so this trial took place in Tacoma, Washington and Francis was incarcerated in Walla Walla co., Washinton in 1891.  Flora and the kids are listed in the 1892 state census living in Walla Walla co. Two months later, Flora, of Umatilla county, Oregon, married Ben Nobles, of Walla Walla county, Washington in Umatilla county. So Frank and family moved around quite a bit between about 1890 and 1892. He probably spent a lot of time with his cousins, Frank and Adam, during these years, as well as some Patchen cousins back in Cedar Rapids. Soon after Frank's 12th birthday, in 1894, his dad was pardoned and the two of them returned to Cambridge, adjacent to Arapahoe, where Francis tried to resume his blacksmithing business.

Teen years in Cambridge:  We know little about the years in Cambridge. Years later, Harriet Webber Cushing recounted that when Francis returned to Cambridge, he was shunned as an ex-convict. Even so, we know that Francis had lots of supporters in the area, as evidenced by the pages of names who had signed the petition for his pardon a year earlier. RJ Trant allowed Francis and Frank to set up a tent on their property, where they lived until Francis could get himself established.  This could not have been an easy time for Frank.  Francis set up a blacksmith and wheelright shop for general blacksmithing and wagon repairs.  Frank attended the public schools and while at Cambridge High School met his future wife, Harriet Webber, one of the five Webber girls being raised by their recently widowed mother. Frank and Harriet graduated in 1900. An obituary states that Francis was a well-read man whose life's ambition was the education of his son.  The obituary also makes no mention of his daughters, and I would guess that given the distance from Nebraska to Washington, possibly the estrangement of Francis and Flora, and the meager finances of these same, contact between Frank and his mother and sisters was probably limited to letters.  After his graduation, Frank worked as an apprentice blacksmith to his father. At some point, at his father's urging, he enrolled in classes at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.  Then, in 1902, he enrolled at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. Later that same year, Frank and Harriet were engaged.

Notre Dame, part I: We have to speculate as to why Frank, with meager finances, would enroll in a school 800 miles away.  I had considered that maybe it was the more affluent Webber family that decided to send Harriet to St. Mary's College in South Bend, not that far from family in Milwaukee.  But the Webbers were Methodists and were unlikely to be interested in a Catholic education for their daughter.  The primary reason for selecting Notre Dame may have been Francis Cushing's strong Catholic faith. Founded in the 1840s by a French missionary priest in what was then the wild frontier, and a small boarding school for young boys in its early years, Notre Dame must have earned by 1900 quite a reputation as a young university to be known in Nebraska. Perhaps Francis was personally disappointed with how life had turned out after leaving Wisconsin (imprisonment, divorce, financial upheaval, ...).  Perhaps in his declining years he was worried that his son would have no family nearby to help begin his own life and hoped for support from his siblings or more opportunities in the more developed cities back east, like Chicago and Milwaukee. Perhaps Frank was interested in carrying on his father's business, but Francis felt his son would always be under the shadow of his ex-convict parent.  Perhaps Frank's studies at the University of Nebraska had been academically or spiritually disappointing, or a professor or aquaintance at UN had recommended that he apply to Notre Dame. Or some combination of all of these. Whatever the reason, Frank enrolled at Notre Dame in 1902.

Frank must have been a good musician: his senior year Notre Dame yearbook showed him as one of nine cornet players in the marching band, but one of only two in the much smaller orchestra.  Given the number of photographs he left, I would guess he was also an early photography enthusiast. In September of 1904, Francis passed away in Cambridge.  Frank was able to return to Notre Dame with some financial help from Uncle Edmund, but would be unable to return for his Senior year. When Frank informed Fr. Morrissey, then president of the university, of his situation, Fr. Morrissey told him to come back. The priests and brothers would find him work to do at school to support himself and that he could pay back his schooling costs someday when he was able.  Frank did return to Notre Dame and graduated in 1906 with a degree in Civil Engineering.  He owed the University $500 upon graduation, which he paid within a few years, but he always felt a debt of gratitude toward his alma mater. His fiancée, Harriet Webber, attended and graduated from the neighboring St. Mary's College. In Cambridge, she had been an organist at the Methodist church. Before marrying Frank, perhaps before attending the Catholic St. Mary's College, she converted to Catholicism. In 1906, Harriet and Frank moved to Chicago where he began work and later that year they were married.

Great Lakes Dredge & Dock:  Lydon & Drews dredging company was founded in 1890 in Chicago, successfully completed several marine projects and had opened branches in other cities around the Great Lakes. In 1905 they changed their company name to Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Company and soon hired some of their first engineers, including William Feeley and James Dubbs, two 1906 Civil Engineering graduates from Notre Dame and classmates of Frank Cushing.  After short stints with a paving company and then the City of Chicago, Frank took a job as a timekeeper with GLD&D in 1907.  As best I can tell, he would have been essentially a clerk keeping track of employee hours for accounting, payment and billing purposes.  I suspect Frank had been discouraged by his first year of work in Chicago, perhaps worried about supporting his new family, his first child, Francis, having been just born, and was told by his classmates of an entry level postition in their office that would get his foot in the door there, which he took. By 1912, he was the Chicago Division Engineer (director of engineering for the Chicago branch). In 1918, he was promoted to Assistant General Manager, Vice President in 1921, and in 1922 he was named President, a position he held until his death in 1935.

We have wondered what projects he may have been responsible for in his many years in Chicago.  We know from pictures that even as president he was often in the field supervising work at some level. Applications for the four patents issued to John F. Cushing that I have found were filed while he was Assistant General Manager (Cofferdam Construction, Cutter for Hydraulic Dredges, and Breakwater, file dates 1919 and 1921) and while he was President (Ball Joint for Conduits, file date 1933), and a technical paper was authored when President (Economical Design of Hydraulic Pipe-Line Dredge, published 1932), all indicating that even as he rose through the executive ranks he stayed involved in the technical challenges of company projects and construction of state-of-the-art equipment.  Frank's youngest son, born while hewas company president, recalls that his father used to tinker in a workshop to try to figure out how best to tackle some sort of problem. As Division Engineer, he may have been involved in some supportive or managerial role in the construction of the Michigan Avenue Bridge (and other projects of that time), but William Mulcahy was the principle GLD&D engineer for that Chicago landmark, constructed between 1918 and 1920, when Frank was Assistant General Manager.  The strongest credit we know of so far comes from a memoir published by the American Society of Civil Engineers after his death:

     Some of the more recent outstanding projects completed under Mr. Cushing's direct supervision were the Chicago River straightening (1928-9), Damen and Ogden Avenue improvements, South and Lincoln Park extensions ('20s & '30s?), A Century of Progress and Skyride (1933-34 World's Fair), at Chicago, extensive dredging contracts at New York, NY., Cape Cod Canal, in Massachusetts, Buffalo, NY., Toledo and Monroe Harbors, Ohio, the Calumet and Indiana Harbors steel breakwaters, in Indiana, and a multitude of river and harbor improvements throughout the Great Lakes and along the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts.

According to this same ASCE memoir and Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Company: A Century of Experience 1890-1990, A History, by Paul R. Dickinson, Frank's success derived from three factors. His analysis of the company's equipment needs, the efficiency of the equipment as it aged, and cost vs. benefit of investment in new equipment convinced the board of directors to make significant new capitol outlays that positioned them to underbid competitors and gave them the capacity to take on any job.  He was committed to the development and support of his employees, whether to share management responsibilities, operate dangerous state-of-the-art equipment, or assist promising young employees.  The third factor in his, and GLD&D's, success was his persona: leadership, engineering expertise, integrity, commitment to quality, and "boundless energy".

His ambitious 8 year plan for the company required heavy investment in equipment to allow Great Lakes to win contracts because of their modern operating efficiencies, their state-of-the-art technical capabilities, and their shear size. When the tug John F. Cushing was christened in 1928, it was the largest tug on the Great Lakes, built with an unusually low pilot house to allow it to pass beneath Chicago's many bridges. The reconstructed hopper dredge Michigan had twice the capacity of any ship of it's kind in the world. The state-of-the-art New Jersey, with it's 30 inch diamter discharge pipe, was the largest, most powerful hydraulic dredge in the world.  In A Century of Progress, Dickinson points out that "most of the Chicago shoreline - and its protective jetties, breakwaters, piers, and yacht harbors - from Foster Ave., on the north to 59th Street on the south was done by Great Lakes." This includes "Lincoln Park, the downtown Chicago lakefront, and a number of beaches on the southside."

In 1929, Frank tried to get Great Lakes to expand its operations to the West Coast. When they declined, he bought two hydraulic dredges in San Francisco himself and started his own company, Hydraulic Dredging Company.

Exemplifying his committment to his employees, and the benefits of efficient operations, Dickinson (author of GLD& D history) states that most of Frank's salary came from a profit sharing arrangement he negotiated: $25,000 salary plus 10% of any company profits over $700,000 per year. While this made him one of the highest paid executives in the country during some boom years, during the early '30s, while the country struggled through the Great Depression, GLD&D's contracts earned little to no profit (and little to no profit sharing for the boss) but kept the company's employees working and the equipment running.

Family life: I have only snippets of home life for the Cushings, and that mostly from the later years of Frank's life, when they lived in their enormous home on Edgemere Court in Evanston. They were certainly living the good life in his last few years.  We have pictures and stories of ... Frank's 16-cylinder Cadillac that he drove to work every morning. (A perk from Great Lakes Dredge & Dock.) William (?) and Julia Kassaw, the African-American brother and sister who lived in an apartment over the garage.  William was Harriet's chauffeur (she did not drive) and the family's yardkeeper, handyman and general service man. Julia was the housekeeper and cook. (Harriet generally cooked on "cook's night off", Sunday evenings, I believe.) A swimming pool in the basement. A billiard table. A large ballroom. The Cushings once hosted the Notre Dame football team for a dance before the Northwestern game. Harriet was appalled to discover players drinking her bottles of cream, thinking it was milk.  Their son, Frank junior, in the Notre Dame band, thought it unfair that only the football team was invited, so invited the Band, as well. So there were small groups of marching musicians throughout the evening. Fishing in Oregon, Atlantic City, Miami, Palm Beach. Havana.  Hawaii.  Frank made regular trips to the West Coast, both for business trips related to his Hydraulic Dredging Company, and north to Portland to visit family: Kate and Leon, mother and Ben Nobles.  A golf picture with 15-year old son, Jerry.  Frank was a member of the Edgewater Golf Club.  He was also a member and two-time president of the Illinois Athletic Club.  Kids at Camp Rockne and Camp We-Ha-Ke.  Camping in Wyoming and Chief Lake. Yellowstone.  The girls were sent away to boarding school, in part because after the Lindbergh kidnapping wealthy families feared for their childrens' safety, especially their daughters. The billiards table. A boxing fan. R.J. Trant, old family friend, visiting from Cambridge, Nebraska.  Frank must have been some sort of "home town hero" back in Cambridge; a postcard tells of a picture of the launching of the John F. Cushing hanging in the lobby of a Cambridge bank.  Ada Patchen Kreizel, cousin, visiting from Cedar Rapids, Nebraska. A membership to the Order of Hoot Owls, a very popular weekly radio variety show broadcast from Portland. Tickets to the 1935 World Series in Chicago.

Notre Dame, part 2: In 1929, Frank was elected to serve on the lay board of Trustees of the University. At the time, Fr. Charles O'Donnell, a 1906 classmate, was president of the University.  Three years later, in 1931, Frank and Harriet made a gift of $300,000 dollars for the construction of a new engineering building. According to the (GLD&D's history book), this gift was especially remarkable given the context of the depression, and must have been not a simple transfer of excess wealth, but a difficult financial committment to the school that he felt had opened the door to his success in life.  In his letter to Fr. O'Donnell, Frank writes of the need for schools like Notre Dame to produce engineers who possess both the training to do their job and the strength of character to do their job right, in order to ensure the safety and safeguard the lives of those who will use their creations.  He further writes that it is at colleges like Notre Dame where "the thought needs to be instilled that men owe it to their profession not to lay it down, finally, exactly as it was when they took hold of it, but to pass it on a finer thing, enriched and advanced and more valuable to the world because of the use they made of it." He also a mentions a "a debt of gratitude which I can never fully discharge", a reference to Fr. Morrissey's decision to allow Frank to complete his studies at Notre Dame when he could no longer pay his tuition.

A sense I picked up while reading through all the Notre Dame Alumnus magazine articles was that Notre Dame Alumni were very serious about their Catholic faith.  There was a real concern that unless supporters and alumni made significant financial commitments to the University, Catholic education generally and Notre Dame specifically would not survive. Notre Dame Clubs in the 1920s were hosting annual Notre Dame Nights and providing scholarship money to area students, as they do today.  In Chicago, committees of well established alumni (engineers, doctors, municipal workers, financial investors, etc.) were advising and helping Notre Dame alumni find jobs in the area. (Frank Cushing was chairman of this Vocational Committee in 1928.) There was a strong identity with the "Notre Dame Man" that very much included Catholic faith and a sense of service, whether helping the poor, guiding the young, or protecting, in one's profession, the public who could come to harm through sloppy or incompetent work.

A sense I picked up while reading about John F Cushing is an excitement of the times in which he lived.  An excitement to which he contributed through bold action and complete faith in eventual success. The excitement was at Notre Dame, in the new facilities being constructed (Cushing Hall, Hurley Hall, the stadium, Morrisey, Howard, Alumni, and Dillon Halls, the (South) Dining Hall ....) and in the football team under Knute Rockne. It was in Chicago with the straightening of the Chicago river and the Skyride and World's Fair (Century of Progress).  It was at Great Lakes Dredge and Dock, with the construction of the largest ships in the industry, such as the Michigan, twice as large as any hopper dredge operating at the time, or the tug John F Cushing, the largest tug on the Great Lakes. Lindbergh crossed the ocean, Americans could fly coast-to-coast, radios, electric refrigerators (no more blocks of ice!), electric vacuum cleaners (no more beating the rugs!), and direct dial telephones were becoming household items. Like a roller coaster: for some the changes were undoubtedly coming too quickly, but for those participating in these advances it must have been a thrill.

excerpts from letters, eulogies, ND statement, memoir, etc. God and logarithms

add lots of photos ...

He died in 1935 in United Airlines' first major commercial airplane crash, in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Harriet continued to raise their family. A master bridge player, she spent her remaining years visiting family (sisters and children) and competing in Bridge tournaments. She remained in Chicago until about 1959, then lived with her children until she passed away in 1971. As of 2006, approximately 160 of their descendants are living.  About half of them/us assembled at Notre Dame in 2006 to celebrate family and commemorate the 100th anniversary of Frank's graduation from Notre Dame.

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Copyright © Michael Cushing.

johnf.shtm; last updated 12 March 2015