It is not extravagant to suggest that among Norwich alumni of the 19th century, Grenville M. Dodge was the most significant. He contributed substantially to the development of the American West and influenced the evolution of the University in its first century of growth.
Entering Norwich in 1848, Dodge found the faculty filled with “enthusiasm for expansion of railroads from the Atlantic to the Pacific.” Upon completion of his studies, he set out with classmates Thomas and Dunbar Ransom for Illinois, where he took a position as a land surveyor.
Before long, Dodge was drawn to the exciting opportunities available in the expanding railroad industry. In 1859, Abraham Lincoln, then an Illinois railroad attorney, asked Grenville Dodge about the best route for a railroad to the Pacific Ocean. Dodge’s recommendation was to follow the Platte River Valley to the Rocky Mountains—essentially the path that would be followed by the Union Pacific Railroad.
During the Civil War, Dodge rose to prominence as a soldier, moving from the rank of colonel to major general. He commanded not only fighting troops, but construction crews that became extraordinarily efficient in rebuilding railroads—reconstruction work of vital importance to the Union war effort.
In 1866, Dodge resigned from the Army to take the position of chief engineer of the Union Pacific Railroad. He was largely responsible for the successful construction of the line from a location just west of Council Bluffs to Promontory Summit, Utah, where the “Golden Spike” ceremony was held in May 1869, joining the Union Pacific with other lines to form a route all the way to the California coast.
In order to complete the Union Pacific, Dodge engaged in a three-year struggle with manipulative investors, hostile Indians, some of the worst weather of the century, and seemingly impassable terrain. He performed a stupendous engineering feat involving the construction of more than 1,000 miles of track. His work was based upon 15,000 miles of instrument surveys and 25,000 miles of reconnaissance work. The success of the Union Pacific Railroad, and by extension the First Transcontinental Railroad, required Dodge’s organizational genius as well as his technical expertise and leadership skills.
Resigning from his position with the Union Pacific in 1870, Dodge plunged into the work of building many other railroads. Ultimately, Dodge built more railroad mileage than any other American. He served as president of seven railroads and thirteen railroad construction companies, retiring in 1903.
Dodge served as a trustee of Norwich University from 1882 until his death is 1916. During that time, he worked energetically to promote its interests. It was not until he took the initiative to make a large financial commitment to the University in 1890 that the University start a permanent endowment fund. Dodge’s recognition of the importance of institutional history led him to fund the costs of researching, compiling and publishing the three-volume History of Norwich University, 1819-1911.