Remembering WSP USA’s James Monsees: Underground Engineering Innovator

Friends and colleagues are remembering WSP USA’s James Monsees as a knowledgeable collaborator, mentor, and an underground engineering pioneer who was at the forefront of many industry-changing innovations.

James MonseesA world-renowned expert in the design and construction of tunnels and underground facilities in soil and rock, James Monsees died on Aug. 5, 2019 after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. He was 82.

“Jim was an outstandingly successful engineer in the arcane business of underground engineering and had a life and career that took him far from his Midwestern roots in Missouri,” said Bill Hansmire, senior vice president and technical director for tunnels. “Regardless of where he went, he never lost the gentleman nature of his upbringing and dealing fairly with people.”

When Monsees was born on March 27, 1937, he arrived in a world that was about to experience major engineering growth. It was the year the Golden Gate Bridge opened to the public, and the year that the center tube of the Lincoln Tunnel opened at a cost of $85 million, as reported by The New York Times. Twenty-three years later, Monsees himself would begin to make his mark on the engineering world after graduating from the University of Missouri with a degree in civil engineering.

“I had the good fortune to work for and with Jim on several projects, including the Super-Conducting Super Collider, and the Los Angeles Metro (LA Metro) Rail Program,” said Amanda Elioff, a senior manager for WSP in the Los Angeles office. “Much of the tunnel design and criteria we still use on the LA Metro can be derived from Jim. I consider him one of my great mentors, not only with respect to his technical knowledge transfer, but also his encouraging me to take on new – and scary – assignments. He had such an optimistic personality, and a curious mind.”

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©1992 WSP USA/DAVID SAILORS

One of James Monsees’ projects for WSP USA in the 1990s was the Superconducting Super Collider in Waxahachie, Texas.

Innovative Designer

With his insatiable thirst for knowledge, Monsees broadened his expertise on project management, construction engineering, detailed design, onsite consultation, and geotechnical investigations for a multitude of projects. His work included feasibility studies, conceptual and advanced conceptual design, environmental assessments, geotechnical investigations, and, as a member of many review boards, development and review of criteria and policy and oversight of projects in progress.

Monsees was lead for development of the first use of precast segmental liners for final linings. He designed the convex-to-convex radial joint to flex under seismic conditions, and double gasket system to reduce water and gas inflow during an earthquake. For the first red-line designs, his team developed redundant systems to exclude gas underground, detect, and ventilate, should linings be breached. The materials to be used were subjected to extensive durability testing programs, in the presences of methane.

He was also responsible for specifying permeation grout under California’s 101 Freeway – a design that saved the freeway structure during a tunnel fire. According to Hansmire, Caltrans has insisted on similar systems for its important transportation structures ever since.

“Not bad for someone in the pre-computer, slide rule engineering era,” Hansmire said. “This was not a barrier to his later career involvement with state-of-the-art concepts and evolving engineering practices for the seismic design of underground structures.”

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©2019 WSP USA

'A Sterling Reputation'

After serving three years as an officer in the U.S. Air Force, Monsees returned to the classroom, earning his master’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Illinois, learning his craft from some of the most respected civil engineering professors of the time.

After Monsees acquired his doctoral degree in 1970, he worked continuously in underground engineering for the next 40 years and knew or met virtually everyone in the underground construction industry in the U.S. and many worldwide.

“He had a sterling reputation for engineering open-mindedness and integrity, and someone everyone liked,” Hansmire said. “These were characteristics difficult to achieve in the hard business of heavy civil design and construction of tunnels and underground structures.”

His long list of accolades speaks volumes of his career and who he is as a human being. In 1991, Monsees was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, where he had served as chairman of the organization's Awards Committee. It is the highest honorary recognition in his field.

In 2011, he was recipient of the Golden Beaver Engineering Award. He also received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Tunnels & Tunnelling International magazine.

Monsees is survived by his wife Leda; daughter Brenda and her husband Scott Black; son Mark and his wife Joyce; four grandchildren: Rachel, Lauren, Christian and Nick; brother Ned Monsees and his wife Kathy; little sister Betty Jean and her husband Pete Siegel Jr. and sister-in-law Karen Monsees.

“Jim always said that if he had not found tunnel engineering as a career, he would have been a veterinarian,” Elioff recalled fondly of her longtime colleague and friend. “But Jim was destined for engineering greatness, and quite an inspiration for us all.”

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