James Baird Quinn; born June 9, 1843; emerged from the U.S. Military Academy as a second lieutenant in 1866, the same year President Andrew Johnson formally declared an end to the U.S. Civil War.
The Army then assigned him to improve the harbors at Lake Michigan, just as the Chicago Lake Tunnel, which ran under Lake Michigan, was completed.
James B. Quinn in 1867 went on to Jefferson Barracks in Missouri., which was the country’s first Infantry School of Practice, until 1869. He then went from overseeing the Seventh Lighthouse District to surveying railways and, then, surveying the boundary line between Virginia and West Virginia.
Quinn, while assigned to improve and survey the Missouri river in the 1880s, made strides when he reported that the Corps of Engineers “lengthened the navigable river by 84 miles and added two months to the navigation season by deepening the channel,” an accomplishment that had challenged his predecessor.
Later, as the Spanish-American war loomed, congress responded to the public’s concerns that Spain would sail to the American coastline and attack. In the late 1890s, the War Department authorized Quinn, who was stationed in New Orleans at the time, to begin plans to defend the Sabine Pass area.
Sabine Pass, as the southeastern most point in Texas, was the location of a major port – Quinn was instructed to construct two forts there. Work began in May of 1898, one month after the Spanish-American war began, but the shore guns were never part of military action. Quinn’s work there is memorialized at a historical marker in Port Arthur, Texas.
Quinn took command of the Corps’ Norfolk Office on Dec. 22, 1899. As the seventh commander, he continued to carry out work based upon the recommendations of the Board on Fortifications and Other Defenses, known as the Endicott Board, as outlined from its report in 1886. The report “indicated the localities where defenses were most urgently needed … and recommended for consideration the names of 27 principal ports, arranged in order of their importance.” The port in Hampton Roads was No. 13 on the list.
The Part 1 of the Annual Report of the Chief of Engineers, dated 1901, outlined that a 12-inch battery of two guns was authorized for the local garrison, and Quinn graded the foundation to prevent erosion, and ultimately, “the armament of this locality was increased by two … guns, which were mounted during the fiscal year.”
Quinn also oversaw the improvements to the harbor at Norfolk. At the time, the Corps aimed to have the channel 25 feet deep, as the harbor could accommodate only vessels drawing 20 feet. The work was estimated to cost $1 million.
Additionally, Quinn reported that commerce in the Norfolk harbor was general in character, and that since 1888, the harbor increased cargo by almost 6 million tons a year.
In 1903, Quinn reported that he’d removed sunken vessels endangering navigation: he oversaw the removal of the wreck of the schooner Marion A. Greene in Albemarle Sound at a cost of $128.49 and the wreck of schooner Willie Lee Hall, off Newport News Point (no cost reported.)
In a change of command ceremony, Quinn passed command to Lt. Col. Eben Eveleth Winslow on May 1, 1903. He then moved on to Savannah District, and then retired as a colonel in 1907.
Quinn died Feb. 23, 1915 in Woodstock, Maryland at the age of 71. He is buried at West Point Cemetery.