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John Ripley Freeman papers

Identifier: MC-0051

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Scope and Contents of the Collection

The John Ripley Freeman papers span the period 1827-1952. The bulk of the material falls between 1876 and 1932, the years Freeman worked as a consulting engineer and insurance executive. Approximately half the collection is correspondence. The remainder includes photographs, draft and published reports, maps, diaries, computations and data, clippings, and reprints. The papers have been arranged in five series: Series 1, Personal, Biographical, and Family Papers; Series 2, Correspondence; Series 3, Subject Files; Series 4, Hydraulic Project Records; Series 5, Hydraulic Projects in China Records; Series 6, Writings.

The materials in these series suggest a number of subject strengths, including hydraulic systems and structures; the daily activity of a consulting engineer at the turn of the century; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, particularly the choice of site and construction of its Cambridge campus; the German-American intellectual exchange and its influences on engineering in the United States between 1910 and 1932; hydraulic research and hydraulic laboratories; fire prevention and earthquake engineering; and investment practices around the turn of the century, especially mining speculation.

The primary strength of the collection is in hydraulics. The collection contains over 80 linear feet of project files that record Freeman's work on dam construction, the planning of aqueducts, reservoirs, irrigation systems, and hydroelectric plants, and the analysis of water supply systems. Freeman was active in diverse aspects of hydraulics, from understanding the geology of dam foundations to estimating the cost of alternative construction proposals. His work on dam design accounts for much of his hydraulic project records. Records on dam design include, for example, material on the San Pablo Dam, an earthen dam in the East Bay region of San Francisco (box 71); the Calaveras Dam in the central valley of California (boxes 60-61); the Hauser and Holter Dams in Montana (boxes 97-99); and the Wyman Dam on the Kennebec River in Maine (box 89).

Freeman frequently called on William Otis Crosby, an MIT classmate, to help him with the geological analysis of a project site. Crosby was often consulted on dam projects, including the Keokuk Dam in Iowa. This dam on the Mississippi River was one of the largest Freeman designed. The materials in boxes 80-89, particularly the audit and progress reports, display Freeman's approach to cost estimation and construction supervision. Other Keokuk materials include over 1000 photographs showing various stages in the construction of the spillways, turbines, and other portions of the dam.

The records on the Hetch Hetchy plan for the City of San Francisco (boxes 67-71) reveal the politics behind competing proposals for an additional water supply. In 1912, Freeman recommended the damming of the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park, 172 miles east of the city. Since the reservoir would cover public land, the proposal had to be approved by the US Congress. Despite the protests of John Muir and other naturalists, the plan was eventually accepted by Congress, and approved by the city over other systems. Construction of Freeman's system was finally completed in the fall of 1934, two years after his death. His plan included several sites for hydroelectric power development, and the aqueduct from Yosemite to the San Francisco Bay did not require pumping stations.

Freeman conducted similar investigations of water supply resources for Los Angeles and San Diego, California (boxes 54-57); Denver, Colorado (boxes 73-74); Hartford, Connecticut (box 74); Portland and Waterville, Maine (box 90); Baltimore, Maryland (box 90); Boston and Springfield, Massachusetts (boxes 93-95); Helena, Montana (box 97); Newark, New Jersey (boxes 100-101); New York City (boxes 101-106); Asheville, North Carolina (box 109); Vancouver, British Columbia, (box 115); and Mexico City (boxes 117-118).

As a part of his work for the Boston Metropolitan Water Board, between 1895 and 1991 (boxes 93-94), he appraised mill property in the Boylston-Clinton area of central Massachusetts. These mills were endangered by a reservoir proposed for an additional water supply to Boston, now known as the Wachusett Reservoir.

Later in his career Freeman was commissioned by the Chicago Sanitary District to study variations in water level of the Great Lakes (boxes 76-80). In 1926 he completed a 900-page report that dealt not only with the question of diverting Lake Michigan water into the Mississippi River system, but also with navigable channels, rainfall patterns, evaporation rates, geological uplift, and ice obstruction in each of the Great Lakes and their connecting rivers.

In a similar manner, when he was asked to study the 1916 Catawba Dam failure (box 109) and flood in North Carolina, he went beyond his employer's original request. In this case he encouraged companies with investments in that region, such as the Southern Power Company, the Southern Railroad Company, and the Aluminum Company of America, to cooperate with the US Geological Survey in gathering data important for safe design of dams and bridges throughout southern Appalachia.

The Great Lakes study, though commissioned by the Chicago Sanitary District, did not directly address sanitary conditions. Several of Freeman's hydraulic projects did, however, involve sanitary engineering questions. Boston-based projects involving sanitation included studies for the Charles River Dam Committee, the Metropolitan Park Commission, and the Metropolitan Sewerage Commission (boxes 91-92). The records on two of his projects in the Pacific Northwest, the Cedar River watershed study for the Seattle Waterworks (box 112) and the construction of the Coquitlan Dam in British Columbia (boxes 113-115), also include sanitation materials.

The collection documents Freeman's approach to his work as a consulting engineer, both in the hydraulic project records of series 4 and 5 and in the autobiography and diaries of series 1. The autobiography covers only the first half of his life, 1855-1896. Family letters in series 1 also reveal the travel, study, and consultation that characterized Freeman's career. The following paragraph, taken from a letter Freeman wrote to his son Roger in November 1913, gives an example of the pace which he maintained to stay abreast of projects located across the continent:

My itinerary ran as follows: First, a day with the Board of Water Supply in New York City; an evening in Washington with certain city officials of San Francisco at a Hetch Hetchy conference; thence down to Knoxville, Tenn., and back into the heart of the mountains and in the midst of the land of feuds, where I spent two or three days studying some dam sites for the Aluminum Company, where we are planning for two dams much higher than anything built anywhere in the world, namely 200 feet drop; thence to Chicago and submitted my cross examination on the lake levels case as affected by the study for the erosion of the ledge by the current coming over the dam; thence for a day's visit with your Uncle Hovey, while waiting for my Canadian friends to arrive with their private car; thence a two day ride thru Minnesota, Dakota, and Canada, out to within one day's ride from the Pacific Coast, studying plans and blueprints on the way with the Chief Engineer and with the Assistant to the President of the C.P.R. [Canadian Pacific Railroad], relative to a dam for their great irrigation project, in which they are going to have more land served by the ditches of this one project than the total area of the State of Rhode Island. The dam is on a clay base and there are some grave questions to be studied and they wanted somebody from the outside to take the responsibility before they shut the by-pass. (box 5, folder 13)

Because of Freeman’s continuing interest in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) after his graduation in 1876, his papers contain a variety of materials on the Institute. In series 3, boxes 41-43 contain subject files on MIT. Also, series 2 contains considerable correspondence between Freeman and Institute administrators and faculty members, particularly for the years 1890-1907. Soon after his graduation he became secretary of his class within the MIT Alumni Association.

In 1893 Freeman was appointed to the MIT Corporation, the official governing body of the Institute. He served on the Corporation for forty years, an active member until his death in 1932. He was involved with the proposals to merge MIT and Harvard University in 1897 and 1904. He supported an alliance between the two schools only if the independence of MIT’s administration could be preserved. The proposed cooperation was abandoned in 1905 because of legal complications and a lack of alumni support. A substantial amount of material on these proposals exists in the correspondence files. Folders in boxes 19, 20, and 21 of series 2 contain letters and circulars on the 1904-1905 proposal and a related alumni group, the Technology Fund Committee.

Series 3 also contains correspondence, 1907-1932, about MIT labeled "MIT Corporation" by Freeman (boxes 41-43). These letters pertain to Corporation matters, department Visiting Committees, and Freeman's more general interests in faculty appointments, hydraulic research, seismology, visiting lecturers, and German engineering and scholarship. According to the 1931 biographical sketch written for Freeman's testimonial dinner (boxes 2 and 131), when President Henry S. Pritchett left MIT in 1907 he asked Freeman to be a candidate for president of MIT. No record of this request was found, however, in either the correspondence files of series 2 or the MIT subject files of series 3.

The Institute occupied land in Boston's Back Bay from 1865 until 1916, when new buildings across the Charles River in Cambridge were completed. In the decade before this move, Freeman assisted in choosing a new location for the Institute and planning its buildings. The site on the Charles was familiar to Freeman because he served in 1903 along with President Pritchett on the Charles River Dam Committee, surveying the areas in Boston and Cambridge surrounding the Charles River basin. In 1911 Freeman volunteered his services to President Richard C. Maclaurin to study the landfill at the proposed Cambridge site and the space requirements of the various Institute departments. He produced a report on the new campus, including architectural plans for the "New Tech" (boxes 41-42). These plans were eventually superseded, but Freeman's work on foundation borings contributed to the planning of the Cambridge campus.

During the last twenty years of his life, Freeman maintained a strong interest in European, especially German, engineering. He sponsored visiting lecturers from Germany and the translation of German monographs on civil and mechanical engineering, and he kept abreast of European laboratory techniques. The book Der Wasserbaulaboratorien Europas, a review of German hydraulic research compiled by German scientists and engineers at Freeman's request, was translated as Hydraulic Laboratory Practice under his editorial direction (box 39). Other examples of Freeman's interest in European scholarship can be found throughout the subject files, including the file on Italian hydraulics in box 33, the work on the translation of Armin Schoklitsch's book in box 42, and the files of correspondence with Karl Terzaghi, an Austrian expert in soil mechanics in box 52.

A direct contribution of Freeman to the German-American intellectual exchange was his donation of $25,000 to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the Boston Society of Civil Engineers, to provide scholarships for young engineers to study at German universities. The first of the "Freeman Scholars" were chosen in 1927, and three were sent overseas each following year. Freeman personally kept in touch with each student (boxes 36-37).

Freeman visited many German hydraulic laboratories on his journeys through Europe (see materials on "European Tours" in box 35). In the 1920s he tried to convince various American universities and the United States government to build a laboratory on the scale of those in Germany. Freeman helped Senator Joseph E. Ransdell of Louisiana draft a bill to establish a National Hydraulic Laboratory. The bill passed in May of 1930. Freeman's information gathering and political lobbying on behalf of the National Hydraulic Laboratory are recorded in a lengthy correspondence file dating from 1922 to 1932 (boxes 43-46). The plans proved too costly to be used by the Bureau, but they illustrate Freeman's points on methodology. Ideas for this laboratory also came from Freeman’s early contacts with New England hydraulic engineers, such as Hiram F. Mills and James B. Francis.

In 1917 Freeman was appointed to the newly formed National Research Council (NRC), whose purpose was to secure scientific information for the Council of National Defense. Boxes 47-48 contain correspondence, minutes, and reports collected during his service with NRC. This material represents the extent of Freeman's involvement in World War I and includes correspondence with members of Congress on defense.

During the 1920s, Freeman was on the Board of Visitors for the National Bureau of Standards (box 31). When its director, Samuel W. Stratton, left the Bureau to become president of MIT, Freeman was instrumental in finding his replacement, George K. Burgess.

Freeman was appointed to serve on the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics in 1918 by President Woodrow Wilson, but there are no materials on the committee in the collection. He resigned from this post after a year of service.

Freeman was a member of the Boston Society of Civil Engineers (President, 1893-1894); the American Society of Civil Engineers (President, 1921-1922); and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (President, 1904-1905). Only a few folders in the collection pertain directly to these societies (box 28). Other materials relating to the professional societies can be found under "Freeman Fund" and "United Engineering Society" (box 52).

As an inspector and later president, of the Associated Factory Mutual Fire Insurance Companies, Freeman applied his engineering experience to insurance matters. Though he spent roughly half his work days on insurance matters, the Freeman papers do not contain as much material on fire prevention as they do on hydraulics. The records of his work for the Factory Mutual Companies (boxes 28-31) include notebooks of data and computations for experiments he conducted in Lowell, Massachusetts, and Nashua, New Hampshire, soon after joining the companies' Inspection Department in 1886. His experiments on the hydraulics of fire-fighting equipment were designed to produce data on the most efficient methods of fire protection for factories, mills, and large office buildings. Freeman recorded some reminiscences of this work in an autobiographical sketch that describes his work with the Factory Mutual Companies between 1886 and 1912 (box 1). In 1904 Freeman went to Chicago to inspect ruins of the Iroquois Theatre, where a disastrous fire had killed over 500 people. During the course of his investigation, he conducted a survey of theater buildings. Later he wrote a report that recommended standards for the fire-proofing of theaters, and in December 1905 he published a book entitled On the Safeguarding of Life in Theatres (box 120). Materials on the Iroquois Theatre include many photographs and clippings along with the survey and report in boxes 32-33.

Late in his career, Freeman began to study seismology. He was particularly interested in the work of Japanese engineers such as Kyoji Suyehiro (see correspondence with Suyehiro in box 51). Between 1923 and 1932, Freeman analyzed methods of construction that best resist earthquake motion. He wrote a book, Earthquake Damage and Earthquake Insurance, which covered topics ranging from construction techniques for buildings in earthquake zones to rate structures for companies insuring risks in regions such as southern California. Like his promotion of hydraulic research, Freeman called for increased observation and analysis to expand on his work in earthquake engineering. Materials on his study of earthquakes and on his book are in box 34.

Freeman's career was punctuated with frequent investment ventures, often involving mines and nearby milling operations. William O. Crosby, his geologist classmate, was involved in investigating some of these mines. See, for example, Crosby's report on the Centennial Mining Company in box 33. Reports, correspondence, and reprints on these investments can be found throughout series 3 under the names of the companies involved. Freeman also speculated in land development. Volumes on these ventures are to be found under titles such as "Forestry" and "Tule land." Tule land is found in the delta of California's Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. Freeman was instrumental in the agricultural development of this land.


  • Creation: Bulk, 1876-1932 1827-1952
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1876 - 1932


Access note

This collection is open.

Digital Access Note

Some parts of this collection are available online. Links to specific online digital items are found within their entry in this finding aid.

Conditions Governing Use

Access to collections in the Department of Distinctive Collections is not authorization to publish. Please see the MIT Libraries Permissions Policy for permission information. Copyright of some items in this collection may be held by respective creators, not by the donor of the collection or MIT.


John Ripley Freeman, 1855-1932, BS 1876, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was an internationally active hydraulics engineer who served as a consultant on water power, river control, water supply, and allied problems of hydraulic engineering. He worked also in the area of fire protection and prevention and studied the role of design and construction in relation to earthquakes. Mr. Freeman was elected a member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Corporation in 1893 and served on the Corporation until his death in 1932.

John R. Freeman consulted widely in the United States. Among many projects, he investigated the feasibility of damming the Charles River to create the Charles River Basin in Boston, Massachusetts, worked on the survey of the Greater New York water supply, and in California, in San Francisco on the Hetch-Hetchy Dam project. He also led many projects abroad, and acted as consultant to the government of China on projects relating to the Grand Canal and the Yellow River (Huang He). He also served on US government advisory committees.


132 Cubic Feet (125 record cartons, 16 manuscript boxes, 1 half legal manuscript box, 3 flat storage boxes, 3 oversize folders, 1 volume, 5 microfilm reels in one microfilm box)

Language of Materials



The collection documents the activities of John Ripley Freeman, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and later a member of the MIT Corporation. Freeman worked as a consulting engineer for almost sixty years, 1876-1932. Project files containing correspondence, photographs, drafts and published reports, maps, diaries, computation and data, clippings, reprints and transcripts of testimony record his work on over 100 projects in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Panama including the Keokuk Dam in Iowa; the Great Lakes Study for the Chicago Sanitary District; the Charles River Dam Committee and the Metropolitan Water Board in Boston, Mass.; a study of the Catawba Dam failure in North Carolina; improvement of the Grand Canal and prevention of floods on the Yellow and Hwai Rivers in China; and eight major projects in California, including the construction of the Hetch Hetchy Dam. Reports, data, correspondence and notes document his studies and investigations for the Associated Factory Mutual Fire Insurance Companies; also included are reports and correspondence, drawings, notes, and photographs about his studies on the site and construction for a new MIT campus in Cambridge, Mass. Correspondence, minutes, and reports reveal his activities on the Board of Visitors to the National Bureau of Standards, as a member of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics during World War I, and as a consultant to the National Research Council, as well as in many local New England government and civic organizations. Additional materials record Freeman's promotion of German-American intellectual exchange and influence of these exchanges on engineering in the United States, 1910-1932; his involvement in hydraulics research and hydraulic laboratories; activities in fire prevention and earthquake engineering; and mining speculation and other investment practices. Diaries and autobiographical materials help document both his personal and professional life.


Materials are stored off-site. Advance notice is required for use.

Source of Acquisiton

The papers were given to the Department of Distinctive Collections (formerly the Institute Archives and Special Collections) by the Freeman family between 1974 and 1983; additional papers were received in 1984.

Location of Copies

There are two microfilm reels in box 138 of diaries housed in box 2 and box 3 covering the years 1904 through 1915. There are three microfilm reels in box 138 of the California Hetch Hetchy Dam project materials housed in folders 1-26 of box 67.

Location of Digital Copies

Select items from this collection were reformatted for the 2016 celebration of MIT's 1916 move to Cambridge. Images are organized by folder barcode on the Z Drive\Dissemination. Included are JPEG files for each item within the folder and PDF files that include all items in the folder (1 PDf file per folder). Also available are TIFF files for each item within the folder (master copy for preservation).

Related Materials in the MIT Archives

Masschusetts Institute of Technology, Office of the President records, 1897-1932 (AC 13)

William Otis Crosby papers (MC 68)

Dugald C. Jackson papers (MC 5)

Separated Materials note

While doing research on land subsidence along the Massachusetts coast, John R. Freeman acquired manuscripts of the early nineteenth century civil engineer Loammi Baldwin from the family home in Woburn, Massachusetts. (See material on Charles River Dam and Boston coastal subsidence in boxes 91-92 of this collection) Baldwin materials dated 1824-1829 and 1845 included correspondence, data on tide marks, briefs, and sketches. They have been separated from the Freeman papers and described as a separate collection in the Institute Archives & Special Collections (Loammi Baldwin Papers, MC 69).

Bibliography: Works about Freeman

  • Sear, Walter E. "John Ripley Freeman." American Society of Civil Engineers Transactions 98 (1933): 1471-1476.
  • Supplement to the John Fritz Medal Book. American Society of Civil Engineers, 1934.
  • Bush, Vannevar. "Biographical Memoir of John Ripley Freeman, 1855-1932." National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoirs 17 (1935).
  • "John Ripley Freeman, '76 (1855-1932)." Technology Review 35 (November 1932): 64, 70.
  • Spofford, Charles M. "John Ripley Freeman (1855-1932)." Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 69, no. 13 (1935): 504-507.
  • MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections Exhibit on John Ripley Freeman and the Panama Canal:
  • Freeman, John Ripley. "Autobiography of John Ripley Freeman," unpublished. MIT Libraries: TC140.F78.A3

Bibliography: Works by Freeman

  • Freeman, John Ripley. Earthquake damage and earthquake insurance; studies of a rational basis for earthquake insurance, also studies of engineering data for earthquake-resisting construction. New York, London: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1932. MIT Libraries TH1095.F7 1932
  • Freeman, John Ripley. Experiments upon the flow of water in pipes and pipe fittings made at Nashua, New Hampshire, June 28 to October 22, 1892, by John R. Freeman, C.E. New York: The American Society of Mechanical Engineers, 1941. MIT Libraries TC174.F7x 1941
  • Mills, Hiram F. Flow of water in pipes, by Hiram F. Mills, with historical and personal note by John R. Freeman and introductory outline by Karl R. Kennison. [Providence? RI, 1923]. MIT Libraries TC174.M5x 1923
  • Verein Deutscher Ingenieure. Hydraulic laboratory practice, comprising a translation, revised to 1929, of Die Wasserbaulaboratorien Europas, published in 1926 by Verein Deutscher Ingenieure; including also descriptions of other European and American laboratories and notes on the theory of experiments with models, edited by John R. Freeman. New York: American Society of Mechanical Engineers, 1929. MIT Libraries TC158.V4 1929
  • Freeman, John Ripley. On the proposed use of a portion of the Hetch Hetchy, Eleanor and Cherry valleys within and near to the boundaries of the Stanislaus U. S. national forest reserve and the Yosemite national park as reservoirs for impounding Tuolumne river flood waters and appurtenant works for the water supply of San Francisco, California, and neighboring cities. A report to James Rolph, Jr., mayor of San Francisco, and Percy V. Long, city attorney, by John R. Freeman, civil engineer ... with letter of transmittal to the ... secretary of the interior and the Advisory board of army engineers. San Francisco, July 15, 1912. San Francisco: The Rincon Publishing Company, 1912. MIT Libraries TD225.S25.F7 1912
  • Freeman, John Ripley. On the safeguarding of life in theaters; being a study from the standpoint of an engineer, by John R. Freeman. An address made at the opening of the annual meeting of the Society in New York City December 4, 1905. [New York] 1906. MIT Libraries TH9445.T3.F8
  • Freeman, John Ripley, 1855-1932. Regulation of elevation and discharge of the Great Lakes, designs for gates, sluices, locks, etc., in the Niagara and St. Clair rivers, by John R. Freeman ... Dec. 30, 1925. Revised to Oct. 1, 1926. Providence: Akerman Standard, [1926]. MIT Libraries TC423.3.F7 1926
  • Massachusetts. Committee on Charles River Dam. Report of the Committee on Charles River Dam, appointed under resolves of 1901, chapter 105, to consider the advisability and feasibility of building a dam across the Charles River at or near Craigie bridge. Boston: Wright & Potter Printing Co., State Printers, 1903. MIT Libraries TC425.C4.A3
  • Massachusetts. Metropolitan Park Commission. Report on improvement of the Upper Mystic River and Alewife Brook by means of tide gates and large drainage channels, by John R. Freeman. Boston: Wright & Potter Print. Co., State Printers, 1904. MIT Libraries TC425.M9.M2x 1904
  • Fisher, Edwin Augustus. Report to Hon. Harold W. Baker, city manager, of a study of flood conditions in the Genesee River, having specific relation to a civic center, also to the general subject of flood protection for the city of Rochester, together with a digest of former reports - also a reference to the large floods of 1935, 1936 and 1937 in the eastern part of the United States, 1925-1937, by Edwin A. Fisher, Perfecto A. Covas, John R. Freeman. Rochester, NY: [Printed by Henderson-Mosher] 1937. MIT Libraries TC425.G32.F53x 1937
  • Freeman, John Ripley. Report upon New York's water supply, with particular reference to the need of procuring additional sources and their probable cost, with works constructed under municipal ownership made to Bird S. Coler, comptroller, by John R. Freeman, civil engineer, March 23, 1900 (with notes added while revising proof-sheets) New York, Martin B. Brown co., printers, 1900. MIT Libraries TD225.N5.F855
  • Providence (R.I.). Commission on East Side Approach. Reports of the Commission on East side approach, created by City council resolution no. 49, approved February 8th, 1910, including the reports of Engineer John R. Freeman relative to improved highways and parkways for the east side of Providence. [Providence] Loose leaf mfg. Co., city printers, 1912. MIT Libraries F89.P9.P85x 1912

Processing Information note

There are 149 containers in MC 51 as of March 2010. Boxes 5, 6, 41, and 42 were reboxed in 2010 from record cartons to 4 manuscript boxes each. Oversize folders have container number labels.


Guide to the Papers of John Ripley Freeman
Finding aid prepared by Roland Madany
(copyright 1980)
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Processing of the collection was funded in part by a grant from the US Office of Education, Title II-C.

Revision Statements

  • 2021 August 2: Edited by Lana Mason to remove aggrandizing terms in the biographical and scope and content notes description.
  • 2023 February 13: Revised by processing archivist Chris Tanguay to enhance description.
  • 2023 September 12: Revised by processing archivist Chris Tanguay to add description of the contents of box 137, which was omitted from the original finding aid.

Repository Details

Part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Libraries. Department of Distinctive Collections Repository

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