Henderson, Cornelius Langston 1888(?)–1976
Cornelius Langston Henderson 1888(?)–1976
Cornelius Langston Henderson was a pioneering African American civil engineer who broke racial barriers in his field to work on two historic projects in the Great Lakes area during the 1920s. Henderson spent all of his career with the Canadian Bridge Company, an Ontario-based firm that created massive steel trusses, cables, and other segments of a suspension bridge that spanned the Detroit River between the United States and Canada. As a structural steel engineer, he helped to design and oversee the installation of these steel sections, and is credited with giving the Canadian approach a particular grace. Henderson was also involved in similar engineering work for an underground tunnel, opened in 1930, that allowed for automobile traffic between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.
Henderson was born in 1887 or 1888 in Detroit, a city where his family had strong roots. A relative, the Reverend James Henderson, was pastor of Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church in the city, and was considered a leading African American citizen of the day. As a child, however, Henderson moved with his family to Atlanta, Georgia, when his father was hired as president of Morris Brown College. As a young adult, he enrolled in Payne University in Alabama, from which he graduated in 1906.
Racial violence and the oppressive segregation laws in the South drove Henderson northward, like many other African Americans at the beginning of the 20th century. He entered the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to study civil engineering. When he graduated in 1911, he became only the second African American to graduate with such a degree. Despite his impressive academic honors, Henderson had trouble finding work for a time because of racial barriers in the field. He contemplated taking a teaching job at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. “He didn’t talk racial-wise,” his son, Cornelius Henderson Jr., told the Detroit Free Press’s Jeanne May in 1987. “Nobody much talked racial-wise. They knew it was hard to get jobs, but—you just went out there and did what you had to do to get a job.”
Fortunately, Henderson found work across the border from Detroit in Walkerville, Ontario, with the Canadian Bridge Company. He was hired at an entry-level position in the drafting department, where he spent the first four years of what would become a nearly 50-year career with the company. Henderson eventually advanced to other positions that better utilized his civil-engineering credentials, especially when the company won two lucrative contracts in the 1920s from ventures that planned to physically link the cities of Detroit and Windsor. The two were separated by the Detroit River, which is linked with Lake Erie, and the spot was a major transportation hub on the Great Lakes. The river was narrow, however, and shipping traffic came to a standstill when ice formed during the winter months. Commerce between the cities, conducted by ferries and freight carriers, also suffered.
A railroad tunnel had been completed underneath the Detroit River in 1910, and in the 1920s Henderson worked on an ambitious project for which Canadian Bridge had been hired: the creation of a tunnel allowing
Career: Canadian Bridge Company, Walkerville, Ontario, Canada, design engineer, 1911-58.
Member: National Technical Association, president; Engineering Society of Detroit.
automobile traffic between the United States and Canada at a juncture close to the downtown areas of both cities. He supervised the construction of the steel tubes for the tunnel—cylindrical sections were installed aboveground at the shorelines, and then a trench was dug deep underneath the Detroit River. The steel tubes were welded together, waterproofed, and covered over. During the final leg of the project, the tunnel was connected to the entry and exit points on either side of the border. Completed in 1930, the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel was considered an engineering marvel of the day.
As a structural steel designer, Henderson was also involved with another important project for which his employer had been contracted to provide steel materials. Plans for a bridge to connect Detroit and Windsor were officially underway by 1921, but the project was both a costly and controversial one. A coalition of Great Lakes shippers objected to the planned bridge, since an easy overland span would shorten the transit route for goods between the eastern United States and the Midwest. Despite the controversy, construction on the bridge began in 1927. It was designed as a suspension bridge, and the Canadian Bridge Company was contracted for the Canadian side of the project, in part, because of their ability to keep up with advances in steel technology. New engineering methods ensured that long steel cables and trusses could be used as an integral part of the bridge design. Previous attempts to span the river had called for traditional stone or masonry arches, which meant that ship traffic would be slowed and even endangered.
The Ambassador Bridge, so named in 1928 because it spanned two countries, was heralded as a symbol of the friendly ties between the United States and Canada. The bridge opened for business in November of 1929 to great fanfare. It bridged a two-mile span a few miles south of downtown Detroit and Windsor, and stood 152 feet above the river at the center, a height that easily allowed the largest vessels to pass underneath. Canadians and Americans lined up all night in their cars to cross when the structure opened. Early in its history, pedestrian traffic was also allowed. For a few short years, the Ambassador Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world, and was also one of the first bridges designed exclusively for automobile traffic. It remains the longest suspension bridge at an international border. The opening of the Ambassador Bridge occurred just two weeks after the 1929 stock market crash, which ushered in the Great Depression. In 1930, 1.6 million vehicles crossed the Ambassador Bridge, a figure that would not be exceeded for 15 years. Henderson worked for the Canadian Bridge Company for 47 years, and retired in 1958. The company eventually became the Canadian arm of U.S. Steel. He worked on many other engineering projects around the world during his long career, and traveled to Australia, New Zealand, South America, and the Caribbean for his job. Before his retirement, Henderson served as president of the National Technical Association, and was a member of the Engineering Society of Detroit. As a hobby, he enjoyed playing the violin. Henderson was also involved in the design of Detroit Memorial Park, the first African American cemetery in an area of Detroit occupied exclusively by African Americans. After his death on August 23, 1976, he was buried at Detroit Memorial Park. His son Cornelius also became a civil engineer, and worked for the city of Detroit for many years.
Mason, Philip P. The Ambassador Bridge: A Monument to Progress, Wayne State University Press, 1987.
Notable Twentieth-Century Scientists, first edition, Gale, 1995, pp. 895-896.
Detroit Free Press, February 16, 1984, p. 1B; July 15, 1987, p. 4A; November 29, 1993, p. 5B.
Detroit News, August 24, 1976.
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