To build the Panama Canal was to move heaven and earth: to bring 360 ft of elevation of the Cordillera Central, the continental divide, down to sea canal; to push through 48 miles of jungle and rivers; to overcome diseases medical science did not understand; and to replace the 27,500 men who died of these diseases to continue building all so a ship from New York could travel 6,000 miles to San Francisco, instead of 14,000. No wonder Theodore Roosevelt considered it the greatest feat of his presidency, and many more consider it the greatest engineering achievement of all time.
But most of you already know about that piece of history. What you may not know is that the first steam shovel operator to make the first cut on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal was a 19-year-old Knoxvillian named George Roby Dempster. An impressive piece of trivia by itself, but what’s more impressive is that while working that shovel, the young Knoxvillian was struck with an idea that by 1935 the world know as the Dempster-Dumpster.
The Dempster-Dumpster is a mechanism which allows for a truck to pull its front end up to a container of materials, lift it over its cab, and deposit the material behind it in its bed. In its first years it changed the sanitation industry forever, reducing the cost of garbage collection by 75%. Demand for the invention became so great that George and his brothers formed the Dempster Brothers company for its manufacture and distribution.
Though by the start of WWII, the Dempster-Dumpster’s reputation had reached around the globe—the Soviet Union had 16 of one of its versions on order—Dempster Brothers’ single greatest client was the U.S. government. 125 Dempster-Dumpsters were on the docks at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and in the post-War era, the Dempster Brothers provided Dumpsters capable of handling and hauling eight ton containers for the Hydrogen Bomb Plant in Georgia. By 1952, Fortune Magazine reported that Dempster Brothers was grossing an average of $ 6.5 million a year.
By the time George Dempster died in 1964 he held 75 registered U.S. patents, in addition to the Dempster-Dempster. He had changed the landscape of American industry, yet no less transformative was his impact on Knoxville. We now have, thanks to his work as City Manager and Mayor, the Henley Street Bridge, the Fifth Avenue viaduct, a public sewage system, Bill Meyer’s stadium, four branch libraries, and Chilhowee and Tyson Parks. Knoxville owes much to this distinguished native for his contributions to what has made, and continues to make, this city so great.
Photo by: Sleepy E