During the American Revolution, George Washington appointed the first engineer officers of the Army on June 16, 1775; in 1779 Congress created a separate Corps of Engineers.
At the end of the Revolutionary War, the engineers mustered out of service. In 1794, Congress organized a Corps of Artillerists and Engineers, but it was not until March 16, 1802 that it reestablished a separate Corps of Engineers (the Corps’ continuous existence dates from then.)
At the same time, Congress established a new military academy and gave the engineers responsibility for founding and operating the US Military Academy at West Point, New York. During the first half of the 19th-century, West Point was the major and for a while, the only engineering school in the country.
John Rudolph Slattery graduated fifth in his class at West Point Class in 1900. He was appointed to the Academy by Charles P Taft, brother of President William Howard Taft.
Typical for a new engineer officer, after graduation, Slattery was assigned to the Philippines to work on bridges and roads. Within a couple of years he was living and working in Honolulu.
Before Slattery’s arrival in the islands, the Army engineer presence included work from engineer officer Maj. William C Langfitt who led a force of American soldiers, including the Third Battalion of US Volunteer Engineers, which established itself at Camp McKinley in 1898. Before leaving in 1899, Langfitt drew up a defense plan for Pearl Harbor.
In 1901 the chief of engineers, with the War Department’s approval, established a board of engineer and artillery officers to study Oʻahu’s defense requirements. The board also recommended that Pearl Harbor be given first priority for the construction of seacoast fortifications, but included some defenses for Honolulu Harbor.
While the Corps of Engineers was planning the seacoast defenses of Oahu, it also received a request from local authorities in Hawaiʻi to establish harbor lines in Honolulu harbor (Harbor lines regulate where piers and other structures can be built.) Likewise, channels and other harbor space needed dredging.
While planning for fortifications, laying out harbor lines and dredging were important, when US Senate subcommittee members surveying the needs of the new territory could not enter Honolulu harbor at night because the ship’s captain could not distinguish navigation lights from the Honolulu city lights, the federal government launched a large new lighthouse construction program for the islands.
The Pacific lighthouse district engineer sent Slattery to Hawaiʻi in 1904 to supervise the construction. The US government appropriated funds for acquiring land in Hawaii to be used as sites for coastal fortifications.
By August 1904, Slattery was also tasked with preparing a project for the improvement of Honolulu Harbor. His plans to widen and deepen both the harbor and its entrance were submitted by that December and the project was both approved and funded in March 1905.
On April 15, 1905, Slattery opened the first Honolulu Engineer District office in the Alexander Young Building on Bishop Street – this marked the birthdate of the Honolulu Engineering District for the Army Corps.
Slattery’s duties were divided between land acquisition and lighthouse matters. Several lasting legacies of his work remain in the Islands.
Slattery negotiated the purchase of land in Waikiki for the establishment of Fort DeRussy. Battery Randolph within Fort DeRussy was built between 1909 and 1911 and gained international, national, state and local significance at a time when British, French, Russian, German and even the Japanese had ships in the Pacific, and were expressing interest in Hawai‘i.
The Army mission in Hawai‘i was defined as “the defense of Pearl Harbor Naval Base against damage from naval or aerial bombardment or by enemy sympathizers and attack by enemy expeditionary force or forces, supported or unsupported by an enemy fleet or fleets.”
Slattery prepared the design for Makapuʻu Lighthouse. Makapuʻu (meaning bulging eye) Point is the extreme southeastern point of the island of Oʻahu. To the east of it is the Ka‘iwi Channel, which passes between the islands of Oʻahu and Molokaʻi.
For years, there was no light on the entire northern coast of the Hawaiian Islands to guide ships or warn them as they approach those islands. Essentially, all the commerce from the west coast of North America bound to Honolulu passes Makapuʻu Lighthouse.
On October 1, 1909, the light from another bright, bulging eye was seen on the rocky point of Makapuʻu as the giant lens in the Makapuʻu lighthouse was illuminated for the first time.
Just before Slattery’s arrival, the War Department, a board of Army officers, recommended establishment of the principal infantry post at Kahauiki.
Construction started in 1905 at what was first called Kahauiki Military Reservation. It was later named Fort Shafter and was Hawaiʻi’s first permanent US military installation. (Camp McKinley remained in existence until Fort Shafter was opened.)
First, they started construction of officers’ quarters and battalion barracks around Palm Circle, as well as support facilities on and near Funston Road.
Slattery helped Fort Shafter become a major anti-aircraft installation. In addition, a number of military fortifications for Oahu’s defense were built including Pearl Harbor, Forts Ruger, Armstrong, Weaver, Barrette and Kamehameha as well as Batteries Randolph, Williston, Hatch, Dudley and Harlow.
The District also began improvements to Hilo Harbor with construction of the breakwater in September 1908. In 1910, the breakwater at Kahului Harbor was extended.
Slattery eventually retired as a Colonel in 1925 and became the Deputy Chief Engineer of the Board of Transportation, in charge of such projects as the tunnels to Queens and Staten Island and the New York Central Railroad.
Slattery was married to Elizabeth B Slattery on February 22, 1905; they had one child, Nathaniel B Slattery. John R Slattery, born in Athens, Ohio, on January 31, 1877, died on September 23, 1932 at the age of 55.
In April 1962, the Army Corps of Engineers completed the Lt John R Slattery Bridge, the two-lane bascule bridge connecting Sand Island to Oʻahu in Honolulu Harbor. (It originally was a draw bridge, originally designed to be raised and lowered to allow boat traffic to pass underneath.)
In the late-1980s, though, the state permanently sealed the metal bridge and built a new concrete bridge alongside, creating four lanes to accommodate the growing traffic on and off the island.