The thirty-three founders of the National Geographic Society were an adventurous and accomplished group. They included scientists, explorers, a journalist and a superintendent of the National Zoo. In recognition of the National Geographic Society’s upcoming 125th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories.
By Mark Collins Jenkins
For being related to such a famous character as John Wesley Powell, Arthur Powell Davis has proven somewhat of an elusive figure. A dedicated scientist, Davis made his career where hydrography and civil engineering meet, and his ability and expertise carried him to many different countries around the globe. He began as the hydrographer in charge of all government stream measurements, becoming chief of the U.S. Reclamation Service in 1907. That same year, he was featured as one of “four prominent geographers” in the June 1907 issue of National Geographic magazine, to which he had been contributing occasional articles. In 1909, he was in charge of the hydrographic examination of the proposed Nicaragua and Panama canal routes. Also in 1909, he examined and reported on irrigation in Puerto Rico; two years later he did the same in Turkestan, and in 1914, he reported on flood control in China.
Davis was born in Decatur, Illinois, on February 9, 1861, the son of John and Martha (Powell) Davis, his mother being sister to the one-armed explorer who would navigate the Colorado River into the Grand Canyon. Upon graduation, Davis became a topographer with the U.S. Geological Survey, led by Major Powell. His work during the summer months led him out West to survey areas of Arizona, New Mexico, and California.
In 1888, he joined his uncles in becoming a founder of the National Geographic Society on January 13, and perhaps as another result of his labors, he married Elizabeth Brown on June 20, with whom he had four daughters. A busy year indeed as he also earned his B.S. degree from what is now known as George Washington University.
Davis was not only a hydrographer, he was a construction engineer as well. In 1907 he had been president of the Washington Society of Engineers. He worked on many high dams, but perhaps his most important achievement was during the 1920s, when acting as chief engineer and general manager of the East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland, California, he built the large reservoir and related aqueduct and tunnel system–95 miles long–that delivered mountain water from the Mokelumne River to Oakland, San Francisco, and eight other cities around San Francisco Bay. For two years he was chief construction engineer for various irrigation projects in Turkestan and Transcaucasia.
A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Davis published Irrigation Works Constructed by the U.S. Government in 1917. He received a Sc.D that same year from his alma mater. But, sadly, his wife died that year. In 1920, he was awarded a D.Eng. from Louisiana State College, and married a second wife, Marie MacNaughton, on June 19. He made his home in Oakland, California, and died on August 7, 1933.