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Joseph Phineas Davis papers

Identifier: MC 26

Scope and Contents

The Joseph P. Davis papers (MC 26) document the professional activities of Joseph P. Davis, civil engineer and graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Class of 1856. The bulk of the collection is comprised of journals and correspondence regarding Davis' work for the Department of Public Works in Peru, 1861-1865. The collection is divided into two series: Series I. Correspondence, is comprised of letters, orders and reports regarding engineering projects and expeditions. Most of the correspondence is between Joseph Davis and Mariano Felipe Paz Soldan, Director of Public Works for the government of Peru. Paz Soldan's letters are in Spanish. Biographical sketches of Joseph P. Davis included in the collection have been placed at the beginning of this series. Series II. Journals, are comprised of journals that record Davis' journey to Peru, two expeditions to survey guano beds off the coast of Peru and notes on a variety of engineering projects including water systems, bridges, sewer systems, structural analyses and railroads. The journals contain detailed reports and in many cases detailed drawings of Davis' projects. An additional journal records a trip to Europe during the winter of 1877-1878 to inspect sewer systems on behalf of the City of Boston. An addendum to this series consists of typed transcripts of some of Davis' journals. In addition to transcriptions of extant journals, a journal transcription recording Davis' trip to Cuzco in 1864 is included. The disposition of the original journal and the identity of the transcriber are unknown.


  • Created: 1861-1903
  • Other: Date acquired: 01/20/1998


Biographical / Historical

Joseph P. Davis was born in Northborough, Massachusetts, and received his preparatory education in Boston. Davis entered the Rensselaer Institute in 1853 at the age of sixteen. He completed the three year course in civil engineering at Rensselaer and graduated in 1856. Davis was immediately employed by the Brooklyn Water Works as a rodman, and was later promoted to transitman in charge of construction of the Mount Prospect and Ridgewood reservoirs. In the summer of 1860, Davis heard of a job opening for American engineers in Peru. He submitted his “proposition” to the Peruvian ministry in New York, and was notified of his acceptance by the Director of Public Works in April of 1861. In June, he signed a five-year contract which promised paid passage to and from Peru, and an annual salary of $4,000, with one half payable in gold. Davis, appointed as a topographical engineer, was asked to bring instruments such as levels, barometers, and other surveying instruments. As his country divided and men marched to war, Davis felt compelled to stay and fight for the Union. His commitment to Peru, though, had to be honored, and he sailed for Lima aboard the Northern Light on July 11, 1861.

Davis kept a journal of his journey to Peru. He complained of seasickness for much of the first leg of the journey, and did not venture beyond his cabin. By the time the Northern Light reached Panama, he had adjusted to sea travel and was anxious to explore his environment. Davis briefly described the port of Aspinwall (Colon). From Aspinwall, he took the train to Panama City, where he and his traveling companions took in the sites. Davis was intrigued by the architecture and layout of the city. After a brief layover, Davis boarded the Lima on July 24, 1861, and soon received his first glimpse of the South American continent. He arrived in Lima, Peru on the second of August, and appeared before President Ramón Castilla the following day.

Davis presumably spent some time after his arrival in Lima designing public works. He later noted that he designed a sewage system for the city. The first work that he documents is a design for the water supply for Chorrillos, a seaside town nine miles south of Lima. Davis viewed this as a challenging project, given the town’s location above bluffs on the Pacific coastline, and the traverse of water to the ocean. He summed up the project as a “conduit to intercept the water and its flow to the bay and conduct it to a pump well; an engine to elevate it into a storing reservoir from which it will be conducted and distributed to the town by a proper system of pipes.” Davis recommended that the pump engine be powered by a steam engine, as opposed to water or windmill, and provided a detailed explanation for this choice.

In the spring and summer of 1862, Davis was ordered to review several projects and provide recommendations and estimates. He examined plans for bridges at Pura and Lunahuaná, made recommendations for a proposed mall at the port of Cerro Azul, and provided estimates for repairs to a church in Lunahuaná. Davis was also asked to provide value estimates for an inventory of equipment used in guano excavation at the Chincha Islands. The ownership of the equipment was apparently being transferred from the government to the contractors. In September 1862, Davis was requested to examine limestone in the San Antonio and Piedra hills. He filed a report on the quality.

Later in his life, Davis stated that his most rewarding contribution to Peru was the survey of guano deposits on islands north of Lima. Bird and seal droppings on islands off the coast of Peru were rich in phosphates, preserved by the dry Peruvian coastal climate. The guano, or huano, had been used by farmers for hundreds of years in Peru. The export of guano did not begin in earnest until 1840, when guano was introduced as fertilizer in England. Farmers there reported increases in crop yields from 30 to 300%, and demand quickly outweighed supply. In 1842, Peru nationalized its guano to reserves, and established a corporation consisting of government and export houses in Peru, England, and France. This corporation effectively gained a monopoly over guano exports and shared in huge profits. It was revenue from guano exports that paid for the salaries of the American engineers and the projects they were hired to complete.₁

By 1860, guano deposits in the Chincha Islands were being depleted, and the government began to turn its attention to other sites. The Lobos Islands, known as a possible source of rich guano, had been closed to foreign ships in 1842 and saved for future use. Joseph Davis was ordered to survey the guano deposits on these islands in the fall of 1862. Davis boarded the Huarez on October 3rd, after a hurried preparation in Calleo. The ship was used as a home base for the survey crew during the early part of the expedition. Life on board was unpleasant according to Davis, who felt that the provisions were poor, and accommodations for the engineers lacking. The crew began the survey at Lobos de Tierra on October 12th. A three hour row to and from the islands each day, equipment repair, illness, and trips to the mainland for provisions extended the time calculated to complete the expedition. Davis reported the slow progress to the Director of Public Works and asked for additional resources and more time. He also reported on the quality and quantity of guano periodically, noting the terrain and possible placement of moles to provide access to the deposits. The crew eventually moved to Lobos Afuera, and the expedition went on into the spring of 1863, with several layovers on the mainland. While on the mainland, the engineering crew received orders to address various public works projects. In Piura, for example, Davis inspected village churches and made recommendations for repairs. The churches were considered public buildings, and therefore were the government's responsibility to maintain. Davis also made designs and estimates for the construction of new rooms at the College of Saint Niguel, a prison, and a slaughterhouse.

Davis and his crew left the Lobos Islands in March 1863, and moved onto Macabi Island, where they found a good deposit of guano. “Actually the island is as full as it can hold,“ Davis wrote in his journal on April 9, 1863. From there, they went to the Guanape Islands, where the deposits were measured over 100 feet deep in some places. Again, Davis noted that the quality was very good. The crew had to abort the survey at Guanape before its completion, because their tools were beyond repair. Davis was back in Lima on May 22nd, where he prepared drawings and reports on the completed work.

The continuation of the expedition for the survey of guano was scheduled for the fall of 1863, and Davis, with a new crew, made preparations for departure to the Guanape Islands. After waiting over two weeks to receive orders, Davis and his crew boarded a steamer on November 8, 1863. He noted his frustration with Peruvian bureaucracy in his journal entry on November 7th:

This trip went more smoothly than the first expedition, though the crew continued to struggle with poor equipment. The boring tools would often get stuck in hard deposits, and in some cases, it took days to remove them. The engineering crew arrived back in Lima on January 17, 1864, with detailed measurements and notes on the quality of guano on these islands. Peru eventually mined the guano deposits on the Lobos, Macabi, and Guanape islands to meet the demand of the Guano Rush. Though the export of guano declined sharply by 1880, the islands continued to be exploited well into the 20th century.

It was the desire for guano that led Spain to seize the Chincha Islands in 1864. To avoid being caught in the impending war between Spain and Peru, the American engineers headed inland. Joseph Davis was given orders in June 1864 to examine bridges at Puno. He designed a stone bridge over the Ilave River, a cable bridge over the Putina River, and a bridge over the Ramis River in Huancané. He also examined bridges at Azangará and Lampa on his way to Cuzco.

E.G. Squier, a well-known antiquarian, joined Davis and his companions in Puno, and traveled with them to Cuzco. Squier, appointed commissioner to Peru by Abraham Lincoln, had been given permission to study Inca ruins in the province of Cuzco. The group arrived in the city of Cuzco in late July, and a team of engineers went to work examining and surveying the ruins for Squier. Davis marveled at the engineering feats of the Inca. An entry in his journal notes the construction of a wall at the Calle del Triunfo.

The group left Cuzco on August 23rd and spent several months journeying through the Andes, examining sites of ruins and bridges. Davis describes the scenery, the difficult trails, and the villages visited.

₁. Skaggs, Jimmy M. The Great Guano Rush. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995. p. 7-36.


1.45 Linear Feet

Language of Materials



This collection consists of journals and correspondence regarding Davis' work for the Department of Public Works in Peru, 1861-1865.

Arrangement Note

The collection is arranged in three series: I. Biography and Personal Material, II. Correspondence, and III. Journals.

Joseph P. Davis papers
In Progress
Amy Rupert & Jessica Zacher
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the Institute Archives and Special Collections Repository

110 8th Street
Institute Archives and Special Collections
Rensselaer Libraries, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Troy NY 12180-3590 US
518 276 8340