James Maxwell papers

Biographical and Historical Notes

James Riddle Maxwell, a resident of Newark, Delaware, and a civil engineer who worked for significant railroads in the American West and South America, was born in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, in 1836.

He attended Hyatt's Military Academy at Chester and then studied at Delaware College and Polytechnic College in 1860. After he graduated in 1862, Maxwell moved to Newark, Delaware, where he began his career as a civil engineer. Employed first by the Pennsylvania Railroad, he later traveled to the western United States as chief of an exploration and survey party for the Union Pacific and Northern Pacific railroads. Maxwell preserved this experience in an unpublished manuscript titled "Incidents in an Engineer's Life in the Far West."

In 1870 Maxwell married Harriet (Hattie) Mitchell (1836-?) and subsequently moved to Peru where he worked for several years. Maxwell was chief engineer of the Chimbota Railroad and the Obras Publicos; he also served as chief engineer of the Central Railroad of Peru which was commonly called the Oroya railway. With a summit at 15,666 feet above sea level, the Oroya railway climbed higher than any other in the world. On December 22, 1874, four years after arriving in Peru, the Maxwell's only daughter, Jane (Jennie), was born. Both Hattie and James Maxwell recount their experiences in Peru in personal diaries, letters, and notebooks.

In 1902, Maxwell retired from engineering and returned to Newark, Delaware, where he compiled personal and professional reminiscences of his career in the West and Peru. After a few years of failing health, he died at his home Wilkins Terrace, on April 7, 1912.


Biographical information derives from material in the collection, including an undated obituary in Box 7, F17.

Scope and Content Note

The James R. Maxwell Papers consist of the personal, professional, and family papers of James Maxwell, a resident of Newark, Delaware, and a civil engineer who worked for significant railroads in the American West and South America in the late 19th century.

The collection spans the dates 1860-1949, with the bulk of the material from 1867-1900, and illuminates Maxwell's and his family's experiences in Delaware, the American West, Peru, and other countries through which they traveled.

The Maxwell Papers include his student lecture notes; professional notebooks and drawings; diaries and accounts; and manuscripts for essays, speeches, and an unpublished autobiography. Family papers include household account books; diaries and albums kept by Hattie Maxwell and her daughter; and genealogical material. Also housed in the Maxwell papers are printed materials, primarily relating to professional engineering, and a collection of photographs and lithographs. In addition to family photographs, there are commercially produced photographs of scenery and native peoples in the West and Peru, as well as photographs taken of railroad construction and a set of lithographic prints commissioned by the Union Pacific during western surveys of 1864 and 1865.