Charles Simeon Denison


Engineering & Drawing 1872-1913

CHARLES SIMEON DENISON was born at Gambier, Ohio, July 12, 1849, son of the Reverend George and Janett Belloch (Ralston) Denison. He is descended in the eighth generation from Captain George Denison, of Stonington, Connecticut, who came to America in 1631. The paternal grandmother, Rachel Chase, was a sister of Bishop Philander Chase and United States Senator Dudley Chase. On his mother's side he is descended from the Ralstons of Falkirk, Scotland, of which family he is the third generation in America. His father was a graduate of Kenyon College and a graduate student at Yale, and later Professor of Mathematics in Kenyon. Upon the death of the father the family removed to Lockport, New York, where the son was fitted for college. In 1867 he entered Norwich University, Vermont, and after one year changed to the University of Vermont, where he was graduated Bachelor of Science in 1870. In the following year he took the degree of Civil Engineer, and in 1874 received the degree of Master of Science from the same institution. He has been connected with the University of Michigan since 1872, and has held the following positions in succession: from 1872 to 1876, Instructor in Engineering and Drawing; from 1876 to 1881, Instructor in Engineering and Drawing and Assistant in Architecture; Acting Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Free Hand Drawing, 1881-1882; from 1882 to 1885, Assistant Professor of the same subjects; from 1885 to I901, Professor of Descriptive Geometry, Stereotomy, and Drawing; and since 1901, Professor of Stereotomy, Mechanism, and Drawing. In 1888 he passed several months in travel in Europe, visiting many of the technical schools of the Continent. Early in the summer of 1873 he was appointed by the United States Government as Astronomer and Surveyor on an expedition organized for the purpose of establishing the boundary between Washington and Idaho territories. The results of this expedition were embodied in a report prepared by him in conjunction with Mr. Reeves. He has published various other papers on topics related to his profession. For many years he has been a warden and vestryman of St. Andrew's Episcopal church in Ann Arbor and is also a member of the standing committee of the Diocese. He is a member of the Michigan Engineering Society, the Detroit Engineering Society, and the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education.

Burke A. Hinsdale and Isaac Newton Demmon, History of the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1906), pp. 270-271.


The Michigan Technic, 1893, Pages 1, 10-13

Old Series, No. 9, New Series, No 6.

By Professor M. L. D’Ooge

Charles S. Denison was born at Gambier, Ohio, the site of Kenyon College, July 12, 1849.  He is of old New England stock, being a descendant in the eight generation from Captain George Denison, of Connecticut, who came to America in 1631.

His father, Rev. George Denison, a native of Vermont, was for three years a student at Dartmouth, graduated at Kenyon in 1829, and after taking a graduate course at Yale, became Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Kenyon, where he resided at the time of the birth of his youngest child, who is the subject of this sketch.  His mother, Janette B. Ralston Denison, was born in New Hampshire, being of Scotch descent.

Although born in Ohio, Mr. Denison passed only the early years of childhood in that State, as in 1853 his father was called to the charge of St. John’s Church, Keokuk, Iowa.  It was thought best, however, for most of the family to spend the following winter at the old home in Vermont.  These early associations with the hills and groves of New England left their impression on the mind of the boy.

In the spring of 1854 the family went to their new home in Iowa, going by way of the lakes, Chicago and the Mississippi River.  Keokuk was at that time a typical Mississippi river town of the early days, with no railroads, a very mixed population of blacks and whites, and an occasional Indian, the daily landing place of great numbers of steamboats which plied up and down the river.  Beautifully situated on the bluffs of the Mississippi with a commanding view of the river, it was on the whole an interesting if not romantic place.

Here Charles passed his boyhood, learned to swim, fish and shoot, knew every steamboat on the river, got blown up with gun powder, hated school, and belonged to a boys’ military company, which frequently met the enemy, in the form of another company, from a distant part of the city.  These “engagements” usually took place at regularly constructed fort, with quite respectable earth-works laid out and thrown up by the boys themselves.

Amid all these boyish sports the future teacher of drawing and engineering displayed a dominating interest in machinery and construction.  Well supplied with tools, he was obliged to make for himself the things which are usually bought for a boy’s amusement, and many miniature schooners, steamships, cars, locomotives, sleds, etc., were the result of this activity.  At about the age of eight or ten years a lively interest in Geology seized him, and one season was passed in searching for and making a creditable collection of the fossils and geodes of the region.

Upon the decease for his father in 1861 his mother returned with the family to her former home in Lockport, New York.  Here Charles found abundant opportunity for the indulgence of his mechanical tastes, in the manufacturing establishments there located, and in some of the large machine shops most of his leisure time was spent.

The period of his life was marked by a deep interest in drawing, mathematics and machinery. Sketching from nature was a pastime, which had special attractions, while algebra and geometry were the favorite studies in school.  But the steam engine in its various forms possessed for him an absorbing interest, which showed itself in the construction of a small working steam engine of the horizontal type, which he completed at the age of thirteen.  A year later he made another, and smaller engine into which he introduced an oscillating valve of his own invention.  At about this time the idea of a rotary steam-engine came to him as an entirely new thought, and to this, as he supposed, new discovery, he devoted a great deal of thought and hard work, until he had invented and made models of two of the well-known types of that form of engine.  His hopes of fame and wealth were eventually shattered by discovering cuts of the same forms in an old “Philosophy,” and by ascertaining that he had been anticipated about a century by Watt and Brama.  This lesson in priority has proved of value to him since.

At the Lockport Union School, and at the private school of Dr. James Ferguson, a ripe classical scholar and graduate of Edinburgh, he was prepared for the classical collegiate course.  But overwork and neglect of exercise, were followed by their normal effects, resulting in ill health and necessitating an absence for a time from school duties.  As a consequence, in 1865 he was sent west for a period of rest and travel, visiting his old home at Keokuk and traveling up and down the Mississippi.

Returning to Lockport he became interested in some surveys that were in progress in the neighborhood, and by this time realizing the advantages of out door life, he entered the office of S. F. Gooding, an engineer of distinction in western New York, with the intention of adopting civil engineering as a profession. The first survey of importance with which he was concerned was one undertaken by the U. S. Government for a proposed ship canal to connect Lakes Erie and Ontario by way of Lockport and the Erie Canal.  A part of the season of 1867 was spent in this work.  Late in the summer he withdrew from the party, in order to enter the old Military School of Norwich University at Northfield, Vermont.  The change of climate and regular exercise soon built up his health, and with new vigor he devoted himself to the work of his class.  Here he had the good fortune to be under the instruction of Gen. Jackman in mathematics and Major Walker of the regular army in military science.  In fencing he took daily exercise, and he wrote out a manuscript treatise on the art, fully illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings.  He remained at Northfield but one year and prepared himself to enter the sophomore class in the Engineering course of the University of Vermont at Burlington.

The years of residence and study at Burlington were profitable and pleasant in many ways.  The natural beauty of the place and its situations, the ever-changing light and color on the lake and mountains, was in itself an education, and the warm friendships there formed were as lasting s they were helpful.  Here he first met Mr. Angell, at that time President of the University of Vermont, and here he enjoyed the instruction of Professor Volney G. Barbour, an accomplished engineer and graduate of Yale.

As the custom of long winter vacations was still in vogue, he spent the winter of 1868-69 in teaching a district school in the town of Royalton, Vermont.

He took the degree of Bachelor of Science in 1870, and graduated as a civil engineer in 1871 with the highest rank at that time ever taken in the engineering course.

In the following September Mr. Denison was appointed assistant engineer on a corps of engineers charges with the work of locating and constructing the Milwaukee and Northern Railroad.  The winter following was exceptionally severe, and at the northern end of the line the party endured much exposure and experienced many adventures incident to such work.  The outdoor life and the wholesome and generous hospitality of the thriving German farmers brought the party through the winter in admirable condition.  On this survey he was under George H. Benzenburg, a graduate of the University of Michigan and an able engineer of Milwaukee.

In March 1872, he received from Mr. Angell, who had since meeting him in Vermont accepted the Presidency of the University of Michigan, an invitation to accept an instructorship in engineering and drawing at Ann Arbor.  Mr. Denison entered upon his duties here in April of that year, and has since that time remained connected with the University. Early in the summer of 1873 he was appointed by the government United States astronomer and surveyor for the special purpose of establishing the boundary line between the territories of Washington and Idaho. Early in July he proceeded to the initial station at Lewiston, Idaho, at the intersection of the Snake and Clear Water rivers.  After the careful astronomical establishment of the initial point, early in August, with a party of sixteen men and forty horses laden with instruments and supplies, the survey was carried directly northward, was constantly increasing difficulties until latitude 49 degrees north was reached, where the line was to have joined the international boundary.  Nor trace, however, of such a boundary was discovered, and it was afterward found that owing to the rough and mountainous character of the country about twenty miles of the international boundary at this point had been omitted.  Late in October the party found themselves sleeping in the snow, without tents and on short rations.  Having accomplished the object of the expedition they returned by Indian trails through the mountains and over the prairies some two hundred miles to Lewiston.

This expedition proved to be one of considerable adventure, and at times of no small danger.  It was prosecuted during the summer of the “Modoc War” and an Indian uprising was a daily possibility.  At one time the entire outfit had to be driven through a line of forest fires in order to avoid destruction by fire, and the danger of being snowed up in the mountains was imminent as the end of October approached.  For two weeks the party lived on flour alone, with an occasional bird brought down by a good shot.

The report of the survey was completed during the winter by Mr. Rives, a former graduate of Ann Arbor, in company with Mr. Denison, and duly accepted by the government at Washington.

In 1876 Mr. Denison was made instructor in Engineering and Drawing and Assistant in Architecture.  In 1882 he was made Assistant Professor, and three years later he was appointed to his present chair of Descriptive Geometry, Stereotomy and Drawing.  In 1888 he spent several months in Europe, where he studied models of European Engineering and methods of technical education.

Professor Denison has won an enviable reputation as a teacher.  His good taste and fine feeling for all that is artistic are unquestioned.  To the growth of the Department of Civil Engineering Professor Denison has contributed his full share by his devotion and skill as an instructor.  He has found time to write but little for publication, but he has read a number of papers at meetings of Engineering and Art societies, and has done his part in gratuitous lecturing before clubs and societies.  He has been invited to prepare an important paper for the International Engineering Congress to be held in Chicago, next August.  Mf. Denison has for many years held offices of trust and responsibility in the vestry of St. Andrews Episcopal Church.  Mr. Denison’s sprightliness and youthful appearance have given occasion to many witticisms, and his quickness at repartee is proverbial.  That the bachelor has not long ago become a benedict is a riddle to his numerous friends and admirers.


By Herbert J. Goulding

In the death of Professor Charles Simeon Denison, the University of Michigan lost a member of its Department of Engineering faculty who has been aptly characterized by Dean Cooley as "a modest man, a gentle man, a dignified man, a proud man, a zealous man. He was zealous in the interests of the Department; proud of its achievements; dignified in his resentment of any acts considered by him presumptous; gentle in expressing his resentment; and modest fearing he might have gone too far in the censure he intended."

Dr. Angell, his life long friend and admirer, said of him at the time of his death: "He was a good man, and he came of a long line of good men." Of this "long line of good men" he had every reason to be proud. The family traces its lineage from Antenor, King of the Cimbri, of the Trojan nobility, born about 1239 B. C., down through Charlemagne and a royal line to Captain George Denison of Stonington, Connecticut, who came to America in 1631, and who achieved distinction for services rendered in Cromwell's army and in our own Indian wars.

His grandfather, Dr. Joseph A. Denison, was a noted physician. His grandmother, Rachel Chase, was a sister of Bishop Philander Chase, and of U. S. Senator Dudley Chase.

His father, the Reverend George Denison, an Episcopal clergyman, was a graduate of Kenyon College, a Protestant Episcopal School located at Gambier, Ohio, where later he became professor of Mathematics after having taken a post graduate course in mathematics at Yale. His mother was Janet Ballock Ralston, a descendant of the Ralstons of Falkirk, Scotland.

Charles Simeon Denison was born at Gambier, Ohio, July 12,1849. When he was four years old his father resigned his professorship at Kenyon College and accepted a call to St. Johns Episcopal Church at Keokuk, Iowa. In this place beautifully situated on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi were spent the next eight years of his life, at the end of w * which time his father died. His mother then returned to Lockport, New York, with her family and here from the age of 12 to 18 he received an excellent preparation for a classical collegiate course.

While a young boy he exhibited skill to a remarkable degree in the construction of his toys; At the age of ten he built a locomotive with a train of cars and a track that were the envy of his playmates. Soon after his return to, Lockport he made a small stationary engine of metal together with a boiler. This engine attracted the attention of the head manager of one of the local manufacturing establishments who had the machinery stopped for a few minutes while the engineer

Or and workmen gathered around to see the little engine run by steam from the big plant. While still a schoolboy he made drawings for a rotary engine. He had never seen one and was much disappointed to learn he was not the first in the field.

He was obliged to leave his schoolwork for a time on account of ill health brought about by too close an application to his studies and the lack of proper exercise. The outdoor work on local surveys to which he devoted himself built up his health, and the experience gained, together with his natural mechanical ability, influenced him in his decision to adopt engineering as his profession.

At the age of 18 he entered the Norwich University, a military school located at Northfield, Vermont, where he remained one year. He then went to the University of Vermont at Burlington, entering as a sophomore. Dr. Angell, who was then president, made him adjutant of a company in military drill. In 1870 he received the degree of Bachelor of Science and in 1871 the degree of Civil Engineer. -His Alma. Mater also conferred upon him the degree of Master of Science in 1874, and the honorary degree of Doctor of Science in 1907.

While at Norwich University he joined Theta Chi, and upon entering the University of Vermont he became affiliated with Sigma Phi. Later he became identified with the American Society of Mechanical 'Engineers, the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education, the Michigan Engineering Society and the Ann Arbor Scientific Society, now the University Scientific Club. He was also an honorary member of the students' 'Engineering Society of the University of Michigan and of Tau Beta Pi.

His first practical experience after taking his degree of Civil Engineer was gained with the Milwaukee and Northern Railway in Wisconsin, where he was engaged in making the survey of a line from Milwaukee to Green Bay. He remained at this work until March or April of 1872, when he was called to the University of Michigan as instructor in Engineering and Drawing, by James B. Angell, who had assumed the duties of president in 1871. He rose through the several grades to the professorship of Descriptive Geometry, Stereotomy and Drawing, which was given him in 1885. In 1901 the Board of Regents changed his title to that of Professor of Stereotomy, Mechanism and Drawing. This title he held until his death, which occurred at his bachelor quarters in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Wednesday, the 30th of July, 1913. He is buried with his father and mother, at Keokuk, Iowa.

At the close of his first year at the University of Michigan he was engaged with Rollin J. Reeves to survey the boundary line between the territories of Idaho and Washington from the Snake river north to the national boundary. This proved to be a very hazardous undertaking and nearly cost the entire party their lives. The last fifteen miles of this survey were run on flour diet. Thirty-five years later a resurvey was made of this. boundary. In their report of this survey the men engaged say: "With the knowledge of the country traversed, as it is today, one can but marvel at the persistence and hardihood of that party of men who did not falter until actual lack of food compelled retreat."

Throughout his 41 years of service as a teacher he became endeared to his colleagues and students alike by reason of his noble and generous disposition, his kindly feeling for all, and his sympathetic nature shown in his solicitation for the welfare of others. His uniformly just treatment of his students in all his dealings with them, and his eminently fair criticisms so skillfully given could hardly leave any other impression than that found to exist among the alumni along the Pacific coast who were visited by Dean Cooley, Dean Reed and Secretary Shaw in 1909. Dean Cooley says that the question most frequently asked of them on this trip by the older alumni was "Tell us of the little Lord Chesterfield," and he further says: "I knew then, as I had believed before, that Professor Denison in his quiet, unobtrusive way, had stamped his characier on every one who had come under his influence while in the University. Something that was pure and sweet and good in him had gone into the lives of these students, these old alumni, who asked: "Tell us of Lord Chesterfield."

He was a member of the vestry of St. Andrew's parish for upward of 38 years and served as its, secretary, junior warden and senior warden, which latter position he held at the time of his death. As a member of the diocese convention for fourteen years 'and a member of the standing committee of the diocese for ten years he rendered efficient service.

All who knew him hold with the vestrymen of his parish that "He was a loyal friend, and those who had the privilege of intimate acquaintance with him found in him the enduring basis upon which true friendship rests. while these most of all mourn his loss, they chiefly have cause for thanking God for the enrichment which that acquaintance has brought into their lives."