Pioneering Woman Engineer Leaves Adventurous, Enduring Legacy

Margaret Petersen, a successful civil engineer from an era when few women pursued that career, died Jan. 18, 2013, at age 92, leaving behind a competent, adventurous and enduring example for women in applied sciences and a legacy of 35 years of service with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Petersen was a powerful component of the Sacramento District water resources planning branch from 1964 until she retired from the Corps in 1977 and was known for her technical prowess as well as her desire to mentor others.

Professionally, she is renowned for her energetic contributions to hydraulics and water resources, including significant contributions to the development of the McClellan-Kerr Navigation System in Arkansas, the San Francisco Bay-to-Stockton deep-draft shipping channel and early work on California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

“She was a no-nonsense engineer at work, but she fully supported my pursuit of a graduate degree,” said Charlie Mifkovic, a Sacramento District retiree who worked alongside Petersen for several years. “She was also a gracious host, opening her home to my family and me and sharing her love of the arts.” Petersen enjoyed textile arts, photography, painting and collected items from her world travels.

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Born in Rock Island, Ill., in 1920, Petersen joined the Corps in June 1942 when she was employed as a draftsman by the Rock Island District and was selected as one of 10 employees to go to Panama to complete contract drawings for the Panama Canal Third Locks project. Petersen was assigned a roommate in Panama: Irene Miller. The two became lifelong friends and worked together for the Corps through several duty changes.

“I had no sisters or close girl cousins, and Irene and her two sisters became my sisters,” Petersen wrote in a 2001 article recalling her career.

During their year in Panama, Petersen and Miller decided to earn engineering degrees and enrolled in the College of Engineering at the University of Iowa – a radical notion for women at that time.

“That was during World War II, when American women first entered the industrial work force in large numbers, and it was also the era of Eleanor Roosevelt, who actively encouraged women to become involved in all facets of American life,” wrote Petersen. When she wasn’t working, Petersen created paintings of Panama’s architecture.

Petersen worked her way through school as a technician in the Corps’ hydraulic laboratory at the university and earned her baccalaureate degree in August 1947.

“When we received our B.S. degrees in 1947, few women made enough money at anything to live apart from their families in other than a rented room, so Irene and I hoped to find jobs that would permit us to share an apartment,” wrote Petersen.


Petersen’s first engineering assignment was as a hydraulic engineer at the Corps’ Waterways Experiment Station in Vicksburg, Ms., where the Mississippi Basin Model, a 210-acre working scale model, was nearing completion.

Petersen returned to the University of Iowa in 1952 for graduate study in hydraulics. She received a master’s degree in mechanics and hydraulics in 1953 and rejoined the Corps in Omaha at the Missouri River Division office, where she worked on a variety of Missouri River navigation and bank stabilization projects.

In 1955 Petersen transferred to the Corps’ Little Rock District to work on Arkansas River bank stabilization and channel rectification projects — a prelude to the design of the McClellan-Kerr Navigation System.

McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, Port of Catoosa

Her responsibilities grew from designing individual local bank protection and stabilization projects to planning and designing a system of bank stabilization and channel alignment projects to complement the 14 lock and dam structures that would be constructed to provide more than 300 miles of navigable waterway through the state of Arkansas.

In November 1964 Petersen transferred to the Sacramento District as a project engineer in the planning branch. She worked on a series of projects and studies, such as the Morrison Creek Stream Group project, the Sacramento River Shallow-draft Navigation project, the deep-draft San Francisco Bay to Stockton project, and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta project for flood control.

Petersen retired from the Corps of Engineers Sacramento District in 1977. Her friend, Irene Miller, died in 1979. In the fall of 1980, Petersen accepted an appointment as a visiting associate professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

“Margaret never married and didn’t have children of her own, but she adopted a lot of us lost and lonely graduate students,” said Curt Elmore of Rolla, Mo., remembering his University of Arizona instructor during an interview following her death. “During the 20 years that she was on the U of A faculty, there were very few female graduate students, so the only thing that Margaret’s extended graduate student family shared is that we were mostly (but not exclusively) young men. We came from all over the world – Algeria, Korea, the U.S., Africa, and everywhere else.”

Long after Elmore completed his Ph.D. and left Arizona, he counted Petersen as a friend and called upon her for everything from career advice to choosing tasteful home furnishings. “She helped me with the mundane – visiting me in Kansas City and helping me pick out appropriate upholstery for a reading chair, sending me her favorite cookie recipes, and quizzing me about the progress of my career,” said Elmore.


Petersen’s career accomplishments were marked with numerous awards, including: Distinguished Member of American Society of Civil Engineeers; ASCE Environmental and Water Resources Institute Lifetime Achievement Award; ASCE Hunter Rouse Hydraulic Engineering Award; Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Iowa; membership in Chi Epsilon Civil Engineering Honor Society; and membership in Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society.

The Margaret Petersen Woman of the Year Award was established in 2010 and is presented annually to a female member of ASCE and/or EWRI who has demonstrated exemplary service to the water resources and environmental community.

“Her story is really one of the great American engineering stories — to be at the forefront of so many major civil engineering projects that fundamentally changed how we use and control our waterways in the United States and elsewhere is truly extraordinary,” said Peggy A. Johnson, president of EWRI.

“On a personal level, Margaret was a wonderful role model, mentor, and friend to me. Early in my career, she taught me a great deal about mentoring and using my position to help others,” said Johnson. “I have spent my career trying to pay back her kindness and mentoring. She was a truly remarkable person who advanced hydraulic engineering practice and education and paved the way for many women in engineering. She will be missed.”

[Portions of this story came from a 1995 oral history interview of Petersen conducted by Dr. John Greenwood, U.S. Army Center of Military History.]