The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Marston, Anson E.
(May 31, 1864–October 21, 1949)

—civil engineer, university professor, college dean, and highway commissioner—was the son of George Washington Marston and Sarah (Scott) Marston. He was born in Seward, Illinois, and attended school in Rock-ford, Illinois. He grew up on a midwestern farm and worked for other farmer in his neighborhood. He attended Berea College in Kentucky (1884-1885), then earned a civil engineering degree from Cornell University in 1889.

    At Cornell, Marston was influenced by instructor Robert H. Thurston, the first director of the Sibley School of Engineering at Cornell, who shaped many young engineers. There Marston also befriended and roomed with F. E. Turneaure, a friendship that persisted into adulthood.

    After graduation, Marston began his engineering career with railroads, including work in Michigan and Illinois and with the Missouri Pacific Railroad, assisting with projects in Arkansas and Louisiana. Returning to the Midwest, Marston joined the faculty of Iowa Agricultural College in Ames in 1892. Later that year, he married Mary Alice Day, a woman he had known since boyhood in Seward. They had two sons, Morrill and Anson.

    In his first decade in Ames, Marston focused on sanitary research and campus problems such as water and sewage issues. He also began to examine road and building materials, including road-paving stones and building stones. As a construction engineer, he developed a reputation for excellence and precision. This attracted the attention of his friend and former classmate, F. E. Turneaure, dean of engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In April 1904 Turneaure nearly hired Marston away from Ames. As a counter, Iowa State College President Albert B. Storms offered Marston a deanship and a promise to create an engineering research station. In late April, in a decision that proved transformative for the college and the state, Marston elected to remain at Iowa State.

    He worked on multiple building projects on the Ames campus, including the carillon, Marston Hall, and Curtiss Hall, as well as the campus water tower that would also bear his name. He also assisted with sanitary engineering projects across the nation and internationally. He consulted with the cities of Ames, Dubuque, Chicago, and Miami. He also worked on projects in the Everglades and at the Panama Canal. He served in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during World War I, attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel. He directed work at the Engineering Experiment Station in Ames from 1904 to 1932.

    Marston trained generations of civil engineers at Iowa State; his greatest legacy to the state of Iowa was his training of highway engineers. The first two chief engineers of the Iowa State Highway Commission, Thomas H. MacDonald and Fred White, studied under Marston for their senior theses, and numerous design engineers and county engineers learned civil engineering from Marston. In the first nine years that the civil engineering degree was offered in Ames, the number of students grew from 27 in 1897 to 278 in 1905.

    As the automobile age dawned in the state and farm machinery became larger and larger, Marston believed that local road officials did not possess the training, expertise, or vision to manage the road system. He directed students to examine improved roads during the early 20th century and then lobbied for a separate state agency to oversee the public roads. He asserted that professionally trained engineers relying on scientific and technological proficiency ought to direct the work. He also argued that road contractors should not control the design and construction of the state road system, a system that, unfortunately, led to inefficiencies and graft. He advocated the creation of a professional, independent state highway commission and defended it in its earliest days.

    Marston helped locate the Iowa State Highway Commission in Ames, initially on the campus of Iowa State, and later at its present location. It is the only state department with its main office in a city other thandes Moines. He served on the commission from its founding in 1904 to 1927, chairing it from 1913 to 1915.

    Marston participated in and served on the executive committees of many professional organizations. He was a director (1920- 1922), vice president (1923-1925), and president (1929) of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and served on the National Research Council (1919-1922). Respected beyond his expertise in engineering, he also served as president of the American Association of Land Grant Colleges in 1929.

    He continued to work with graduate students into the 1930s, with 11 assigned to him as late as 1933. He remained on the Iowa State faculty in an emeritus position until his death on October 21, 1949. On a rainy afternoon on U.S. Highway 30 near Tama, his brother Walter Marston lost control of his automobile; Anson Marston was thrown from the passenger seat and died from his injuries.
Sources Marston's papers are in the University Archives, Iowa State University Library, Ames. See also Herbert J. Gilkey, Anson Marston: Iowa State University's First Dean of Engineering (1969); Anson Marston, "The State's Responsibility in Road Improvement," Iowa Engineer 7 (November 1907), 208–15; Anson Marston, "A National Program for Highway Research," Good Roads 58 (2/4/1920), 50–62; Bruce Seeley, Building the American Highway System (1987); and William Thompson, Transportation in Iowa: A Historical Summary (1989).
Contributor: Leo Landis