Herman Haupt—railway engineer, inventor, author, and administrator—was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania into a middle-class family. When Haupt was eleven, his father died, and the family fell into poverty. Haupt was very intelligent, however, and his congressman helped him gain admission to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he graduated in 1835. Disdainful of the stringent discipline of the army, he resigned his commission at the end of September 1835 and worked briefly as a draftsman for several Pennsylvania railroads. In January 1836, at only nineteen years of age, he was appointed assistant engineer for a railroad running from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to Hagerstown, Maryland. In 1838, Haupt married Ann Cecilia Keller of Gettysburg; they had eleven children, eight of whom lived to adulthood.
In 1840, while working on the building of Pennsylvania’s York and Wrightsville Railroad, Haupt learned that no one had measured the strength of American bridge trusses. He invented a mathematical system for gauging the pressure exerted on bridge supports in order to fill this gap in engineering knowledge. He summarized his ideas in an 1841 booklet, “Hints on Bridge Construction,” which was revised and published in 1851 as “The General Theory of Bridge Construction.” This landmark work led to a series of short-term teaching assignments culminating in two years as a professor of mathematics at Pennsylvania College.
In 1847, Haupt joined the Pennsylvania Railroad as the assistant to the chief engineer, becoming general superintendent with responsibility for construction, passenger, and freight operations. After battling with the Pennsylvania canal commission and his own company’s trustees, he resigned in 1852 and joined the Southern Railroad in Mississippi as chief engineer. This proved to be a brief hiatus from the Pennsylvania Railroad, which soon asked him to return. Despite a successful tenure in which he generated revenues by encouraging industries to locate along the railroad’s lines, he joined the Troy and Greenfield Railroad in 1856 to oversee its Hoosac Tunnel project in Massachusetts. His timing could not have been worse. The financial panic of 1857, combined with the political influence of the competing Western Railway Company and his own difficult relations with state railroad authorities, drove him to the brink of bankruptcy and out of the railroad business.
In April 1862, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton asked Haupt to come to Washington to oversee the Union’s efforts to construct and maintain railroads for the military. Haupt designed, built, and repaired critically important railway lines and bridges. Though he urged the war department to assign a single person to control the military railroads used for moving troops and materiel, such coordination proved beyond the War Department, and he did the best he could with the limitations he faced. He titled himself “Chief of Construction and Transportation, U.S. Military Railroads,” though his authority never extended beyond ground held by the Army of the Potomac. Despite the absence of the centralized authority he craved, Haupt nonetheless met the logistical challenges he faced in order to facilitate the efficient movement of troops, casualties, and materiel. One of his most impressive accomplishments was his ability to anticipate the army's logistical requirements before and during the battle of Gettysburg, including reconstructing nineteen bridges destroyed by the Confederate forces.
An inveterate tinker and doodler, Haupt invented coastal defense systems, water-propulsion engines, and a type of torpedo. Ironically, he also pioneered ways to wreck track and blow up rolling stock. Most importantly, the institutional protocols he had devised for the construction and maintenance of military railroads proved effective and efficient, outlasting his own brief tenure in the military and contributing to the Union victory in the Civil War.
In 1864, Haupt published, Military Bridges: With Suggestions of New Expedients and Constructions for Crossing Streams and Chasms, by which time his command was engaged in guarding railroads and his own role in the military had come to an end. Massachusetts governor John Andrew, who had opposed Haupt’s efforts to obtain repayment for the costs of building the Hoosac Tunnel, demanded that Haupt accept his commission as brigadier general. Haupt refused because he wanted to continue waging his battle for reimbursement for losses incurred on behalf of the Troy and Greenfield, so Stanton fired him. The state of Massachusetts offered Haupt $53,000 (he had claimed $400,000) to repay him for the losses incurred in building the ill-fated railroad. When he and his partners finally received some $150,000 in 1884, his personal losses totaled nearly half a million dollars.
After leaving the army, Haupt enjoyed limited success as an entrepreneur. He invested in a farm and a resort in Virginia, superintended the short-lived Richmond and Danville Railroad project, and supervised the building of an oil pipeline in Pennsylvania which lost a rate war with Standard Oil. After these failures he served for three years as general manager of the Northern Pacific Railroad before being forced out by investors unhappy over high operating costs. His efforts to complete the Dakota and Great Southern Railroad foundered in the slump following the financial panic of 1883. He championed mass transit systems using compressed air as a means of propulsion, and invested in a company producing condensed and powdered milk. Earning little from his jobs or his investments, he turned to writing, publishing works on tunneling, street railways, compressed air transit, the election of 1900, and his own life. He lived off the largesse of others for his final decade, and he died of a heart attack on a train while returning to Washington from a meeting in New York City. Despite his lack of success after the Civil War, Haupt is remembered for his contributions to the Union war effort and for his pioneering engineering texts.