The New York canals, the great pioneer work of engineering in America -- the first American school of engineering. "From this school arose nearly all the canal engineers who have lined the map of the country with their works of internal improvements." (D. S. Gregory, writing in 1866.)

It is well to pause a moment and consider another feature of the canals, a feature which exerted a tremendous influence toward the subsequent development and progress of the country -- the New York canals as the first American school of engineering -- this great pioneer work of American engineering, where the engineers, without previous training, learned in the hard school of experience, and conquering by courage, persistence and force of character, became famous in their profession and spent lives of usefulness in their country’s welfare.

In his address as President before the American Society of Civil Engineers, 1, Mr. Desmond FitzGerald divides the history of engineering in America into four periods. The first was from 1785 to 1810, the second, from 1810 to 1830, the third, from 1830 to 1848, and the fourth, from 1848 to the present. The first was a period of canal agitation and experiment, the second, a period of canal-building, the third, of railroad-building, and the fourth, the period of modern engineering. Using this same classification of periods in our study of the present subject, we see that, with scarcely an exception, can there be said to have been any American engineers until the beginning of the Erie canal in the second period. During the first period many schemes for canals were proposed but only a few of them were consummated. In Virginia the James and Kanawha rivers were connected by a short canal, and two short canals were built around falls in the Connecticut river. The first engineering proposition of any magnitude was that of connecting the Chesapeake bay with the Ohio river. But most of the improvements of this period were confined to rivers. The Santee canal, the first true canal in the country, was twenty-two miles long and connected the Santee river with the tidal head waters of Cooper river, which empties into Charleston harbor. It was completed in 1800 and thus antedated the Middlesex canal of Massachusetts by about three years.

For these earlier works engineers were brought over from Europe. Senf, the engineer of the Santee canal, was a Swede. William Weston came over from England to conduct the construction of a canal connecting the Schuylkill and Susquehanna rivers in Pennsylvania, and afterwards was employed on the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company’s canal, in New York, and other canal enterprises in America. Thus during all this first period, there were no American engineers.

The second period, between 1810 and 1830, includes those years when, just after the War of 1812, the eastern section of the United States, void of suitable communications, emerged from a dense wilderness, inhabited chiefly by Indians and wild beasts, and became a prosperous and peaceful country.

For twenty-five years men had been expressing ideas about communications and internal improvements, but public works were spasmodic and without system or definite design. Men seemed afraid to invest capital in such undertakings and none of the numerous propositions could find expression in actual works of construction.

In New York State the attempts to improve natural streams had not proved satisfactory, and agitation for an adequate canal kept growing. The people were progressive, and nature urged them on by placing the best possible course for the most useful canal in the country right through the heart of their State. Thus as early as 1808 the first legislative enactment directing a survey for the Erie canal had been passed, and with it came the birth of engineering, as a profession, in this country. Was it the canal which caused the birth of engineering, or did the spirit of engineering, groping for expression, create the canal? We can not say, but be that as it may, just as the cry of the new Republic brought, in its greatest need, its greatest statesmen -- statesmen the like of which it has never had since and never so needed as then -- just so, men most fitted by every natural qualification rose as if by magic, and without previous training built a canal which was not only a success, but remained for half a century the cynosure of engineering eyes.

When a man was needed for preparing plans for the Erie, there was no professional engineer in America, so William Weston, who had returned to England, was once more summoned, but, after the canal commissioners had repeatedly tried to secure his services, and had offered a salary of seven thousand dollars a year, he finally refused, saying that he declined the greatest honor ever paid him only because of advanced age and ill health. Fortunately, this resulted in the employment of Americans throughout the enterprise, and in the development of American engineers.

James Geddes, a judge and surveyor of Onondaga county, and a friend of Simeon De Witt, the Surveyor-General, was chosen for the first survey in 1808. He surveyed from Oneida lake to Lake Ontario where the Salmon creek enters it; another line down the Oswego river to the lake; a line from Lewiston to the navigable waters of the Niagara river above the falls; and then from Buffalo east to the tributaries of the Seneca river. In this work he followed the best route that exists for a canal; and the whole was accomplished for the sum of $673.

When all was ready to commence active preliminary operations in 1816, the Erie canal was divided into three divisions. One was in charge of James Geddes, one in charge of Benjamin Wright and the third was under Charles C. Brodhead, while Colonel Lewis Garin had the Champlain canal. A sketch of these men and their assistants, together with what they accomplished, will best show how engineering was developed on the Erie canal.

In the days of which we write, judges and lawyers were as a rule surveyors, for they found a knowledge of surveying very useful in determining questions of deeds, leases, etc., and naturally it was from this class of men that the engineers sprang. Until James Geddes was made chief engineer, he continued his duties as judge, but engineering proved more to his liking and it soon occupied his entire attention. In 1818 he ran a remarkable line of test levels. The level to be tested was between Rome and Syracuse. He ran his test line around by Oneida lake, forming a circuit of nearly one hundred miles. The difference in the levels at the junction was less than one and a half inches. "This result, so satisfactory, exhibits in the engineers a degree of care, skill and precision, in the delicate process of leveling, which has perhaps never been exceeded." 2 Yet previous to his work on the Erie, Judge Geddes had used a leveling instrument but once and then only for a few hours. The reason for this remarkable skill and accuracy can only be found in the natural genius and character of the man. In the same year Geddes laid out the Champlain canal, another remarkably well-done piece of work.

Benjamin Wright, sometimes called the "Father of American Engineering," was also a judge and surveyor. He had done a little surveying for the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company and had learned by experience how to use a leveling instrument. In 1811 he was asked to make an examination for the location of the Erie from Rome to Waterford. After this he soon gave up all other duties and devoted himself to canal work.

There is little information to be had concerning Charles C. Brodhead or Colonel Garin, but it appears that Brodhead retired to private life at Utica, where he lived almost as a recluse, appearing only once more before the public, when he accompanied the fleet from Utica to New York at the opening of the Erie canal in 1825. A son of James Geddes thus writes:

"As has been stated, all efforts to secure the services of the English engineer, Mr. Weston, having failed, the Commissioners were in great doubt as to the best course to pursue. Under these circumstances, Mr. Geddes and Mr. Wright, having consulted with each other, appeared before the Board, and expressed their confidence in their ability to locate and construct the canals, but expressed a strong desire that the Commissioners should feel a like confidence, if they were to be entrusted with the responsibility. (Personal communication from James Geddes.) Most fortunately for the State, the Commissioners gave these engineers that confidence. But in so doing they encountered the censures of the enemies of the canals, in and out of legislative halls. On the Assembly floor, it was tauntingly asked, ‘Who is this James Geddes, and who is this Benjamin Wright, that the Commissioners have trusted with this responsibility -- what canals have they ever constructed? What great public works have they accomplished?’ But, really, the Commissioners had no alternative -- and now it is easy to see that the course adopted was much wiser than to have entrusted the canals to the keeping of any one man, as would have been the case had the efforts made to secure Mr. Weston been successful.

"To add still more to these difficulties in regard to the engineering, it was said in high places, by men who claimed much knowledge on such subjects, that no confidence could be placed in an ordinary engineer’s spirit level for laying out long lines of canal, and that there was no possibility of running a line for the long levels, that was not liable to be erroneous to the whole depth of the canal. So much annoyance did these cavillers produce, that in the next year it was deemed expedient that in order to settle that matter a full test should be made." As previously stated, this test showed an error of less than an inch and a half. "The publication of the result of this test level put an end to much of the talk of pretenders to scientific knowledge." 3

The engineers showed great sagacity in beginning their work on the middle section, the least difficult and costly, and advancing in both directions. In this way they gradually prepared the people for greater expense and at the same time gave them encouragement by showing them steady progress; and all the while they were learning and feeling their way along, making everything sure, and never sacrificing accuracy. They used such discretion and wisdom in the selection of their assistants that the many enemies of the enterprise made no political capital out of their errors and defects, nor did the State suffer from any want of fidelity and ability in the discharge of their arduous and important duties. Two of the men, who began as assistants, and later became famous, were Canvass White and John B. Jervis.

Canvass White had finished his school life at the age of seventeen. He obtained employment on the Erie under Wright and soon rose to a high rank under that able teacher. He visited England at his own expense and traveled more than two thousand miles on foot to inspect canals there, observing closely the use of hydraulic cement, which had never been manufactured in America and which it was next to impossible to do without. The expense of importing it was almost ruinous. When White returned to America he experimented with limestones found here, and finally produced a hydraulic cement, which was used with perfect success. As we have seen in the story of the building of the Erie, the discovery of this cement was made through the failure of some quicklime to properly slack, but to White’s thorough experiments and persistent efforts was due its successful use on the canal. To White was committed the duty of making the plans for all the mechanical structures on the canal. His locks, canal-boats and gates do him ample credit. The levels that he ran were very accurate, one of sixty miles proving to be entirely correct when the water was let into it. In those days the ability to run accurate levels was the test of engineering skill. 4

In their report of March 12, 1821, the canal commissioners say of Canvass White: "The important services pertaining to the engineer’s department on the eastern section, have been, for the last season, chiefly devolved upon Canvass White, Esquire, whose usefulness, from the beginning, has been constantly increasing with the progress of our labors, by his continued assiduity and increasing knowledge."

Mr. Jervis began his engineering career in 1817 as axeman on the Erie. Through the winters he studied surveying during evenings and at odd times. In the spring of 1818 he went out as rodman but was soon transferred to construction work. His skill with leveling instruments early brought him into prominence and he was made resident engineer in 1819. After three years’ experience, Mr. Jervis was given the middle section to oversee during its construction. The next year he was given superintendence of fifty miles of completed canal. In a paper read before the American Society of Civil Engineers, he writes: "The work being new, there were frequent failures, but as weak points developed they were repaired, and the work was constantly improved. In many cases it required a good deal of activity to keep up the navigation. This Section was maintained at a cost of $600 per mile, including a large amount of work in graveling the towing-path." 5

This only goes to show that it was not all plain sailing. Much of the first work was experimental and, like all experiments, sometimes failed, but these failures were invaluable to the engineers, for by them they learned more than by success. The last quotation shows with how little money the engineers were obliged to get along. The State had great difficulty in financing this gigantic enterprise, no National aid being available, and the engineers were compelled constantly to consider the cost. This helped to develop good engineers. To-day the best engineers are those who can accomplish the most, both in quantity and quality, for the least money.

Mr. Jervis tells us of the willingness of the engineers to learn from all sources. He says: "In what pertained to the running of lines and levels, was well understood at that time, but the mechanical department of engineering was practically in its infancy. Such matters were freely discussed with intelligent mechanics, whose skill was supposed to be useful in this department of engineering. The plan for a timber trunk for the aqueducts was prepared and submitted by a carpenter, Mr. Cady, of Chittenango. This plan was adopted in nearly all the wood trunk aqueducts on the canal." 6

The enthusiasm caused by the success of the Erie spread like wildfire, not only throughout the State of New York but throughout the entire country. A demand for engineers was at once created, far beyond the possibility of the supply. All the Erie engineers were called to other great enterprises in Maine, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other states, to Canada, and even to the West Indies; the younger men passing on and becoming famous in the third period of American engineering history -- the period of railroads.

"The state of New York," said the canal commissioners, in 1818, "may indulge the proud reflection, that she possesses within herself the genius, the skill, the enterprise, and all the other means, requisite to the accomplishment of an Internal Navigation, whose utility will surpass any work of the kind which preceding ages have accomplished." 7 Another writer said :

"For accuracy, despatch and science, we can now present a corps of engineers equal to any in the world ... The canal line is now one of the most excellent schools that could be devised to accomplish men for this pursuit." 8, From another we quote:

"It so happened that the Erie Canal, a magnificent undertaking for its day, had the honor of being the first great pioneer work of the American engineer ... We are ... concerned in knowing how such a great project, with a multitude of details, all requiring the skill of the engineer, could have been carried to a successful termination in a land where there was apparently no engineer capable of the task.... How could these men, without text books or traditions to guide them, succeed in carrying out so important an undertaking." 9

There are several reasons which may be given in answer to this question. Just as Washington, Hamilton and Jefferson built a nation in a land where there were no statesmen, so Wright, Geddes and White built a great canal in a land where there were no engineers. These men were working for a cause, for the development of their native land, and not for personal gain and aggrandizement. Then the character of the men -- they were men of courage, energy and skill; sturdy men brought up in a sturdy country; men used to solving all sorts of difficult problems, where necessity was the mother of invention. In this, their first great work, they carefully felt their way, working out each problem with great pains. "What they did not understand they conquered by diligent study, unwearied zeal and sound common sense." 10

When surveys on the Erie were commenced, there was no model on this continent that could be used as a guide. There were few books on the subject. The country through which it ran was a complete wilderness, yet the work was done remarkably well, in a remarkably short time.

In the canal commissioners’ report of February 20, 1824, we read: "None but those who had examined the line previous to the commencement of the work; who had seen the rude and undulating surface which was traversed, the rocks which were to be blasted, the irregular ledges filled with chasms and fissures which were to form the sides and basis of a water-tight canal; the spongy swamps, and gravel beds, and quicksands, which were to be made impervious to water, and, in short, the huge masses of rough materials, which, with immense labor, were to be reduced to symmetry and form, can duly appreciate the efforts which it has required to surmount these various obstacles."

An ever present fear to the engineers, in laying out the western division, was the inability to obtain sufficient water-supply. If the summit level could be kept lower than the surface of Lake Erie, inexhaustible supplies of water could be drawn from that source. After much debate as to the various routes, the one originally surveyed by Geddes was adopted, and the water was conducted from Buffalo to Lockport by a gentle declivity of one inch to the mile. This declivity was rendered practicable by the fact that the bulk of freight moved from west to east in the direction of the current thus formed.

  The Upper Village of Lockport

VIEW OF THE UPPER VILLAGE OF LOCKPORT, NIAGARA CO., N.Y. -- 1830. Reproduction of an old drawing (1830), showing the original combined locks at Lockport. Drawing bears the imprint, "Drawn from Nature by W. Wilson."

The problem of supply for the next section was finally solved by the Irondequoit embankment. It was a wonderful piece of engineering for those days, -- an embankment, partly natural, seventy feet high, over which the canal was led at such a level that water might be supplied from the Genesee river, and the necessity of another feeder eliminated. It was conceived by James Geddes on his first survey in 1808. He writes in a letter dated Albany, February 22, 1822: "I had, to be sure, lively presentiments, that time would bring about all I was planning, that boats would one day pass along on the tops of the fantastic ridges, that posterity would see and enjoy the sublime spectacle, but that for myself, I had been born many, very many years too soon. There are those, sir, who can realize my feelings on such an occasion, and can forgive, if I felt disposed to exclaim Eureka, on making this discovery. How would the great Brindley, with all his characteristic anxiety to avoid lockage, have felt in such a case: all his cares at an end about water to lock up from the Genesee river, finding no locking up required. Boats to pass over these arid plains, and along the very tops of these high ridges, seemed then like idle tales to every one round me." 11 At the date of this letter the embankment, the subject of an "idle tale," had become a reality.

As soon as the lake region of central New York was reached it was not difficult to get an adequate supply of water, but other problems arose. "One of our most pressing and important duties," reported the canal commissioners, " ... was to locate the canal line through the Cayuga marshes.... The labors necessary here, though unusually fatiguing and unpleasant, were undertaken with alacrity, by our engineer and his assistants; and after several days strenuous exertion, in water from six inches to a foot in depth, the line was satisfactorily established." 12

Beyond this marsh lay the Seneca river level which was regarded with much solicitude by those interested. It could not be drained at all, while the excavation was from five to eight feet deep, and it was doubted whether the earth had enough consistency to admit of its being excavated by the ordinary processes, or would keep its place upon the embankments. The whole level was, besides, subject to inundation by the Seneca river and the Canandaigua outlet to a depth of three or four feet. It was finally completed, however, by slow and persistent work.

On the middle division the difficulties were not so great, and this portion of the canal was finished and in operation first. "During the past season," say the canal commissioners, in February, 1820, "large boats have actually navigated it for the distance of seventy-five miles; and nothing has hindered such navigation ... but the setting in of frost.... The accuracy of the levels, from one end to the other of this section, has been ascertained ... this result, so gratifying on every account, can not fail to beget strong confidence in the skill, and a just praise for the care, of our engineer." 13

The location of a line between Little Falls and the Hudson was the most troublesome to the engineers. Various routes were carefully explored in an attempt to avoid following the bank of the Mohawk, but were all rejected as impracticable. "The principal difficulties in the construction of this section," say the canal commissioners, "occurs in the narrow passage along the Mohawk, where the hills, crowding to the waters edge, and terminating abruptly, render it necessary, in such situations, to construct the canal either entirely in the river, or partly in the river and partly in the hill; and in either case, the foundations must be laid at the bottom of the river, the work must be carried up above the highest floods, and the outer slope of this high embankment must be secured with a covering of stone, to prevent the earth from being worn away by the rapidity of the current." 14

Even the attempt to continue along the south side of the Mohawk was abandoned at one place, where the difficulties were considered insuperable. Here for a distance of twelve miles the canal was carried along the north shore, crossing and recrossing the river on long aqueducts.

At Cohoes falls the difficulty could not be thus easily overcome, and the only possible location (until recent improvements in the construction of locks has made available the location adopted for the new Barge canal) was along the abrupt, rocky shores, rising to a great elevation and in many places divided only by the narrow bed of the Mohawk. The canal bed along here was made by blowing off the rock by blasting, and the work was completed in eighty days, although it was predicted that it would take several years.

  The Combined Locks at Lockport

BIRD’S-EYE VIEW OF THE COMBINED LOCKS AT LOCKPORT. (Copyright, 1906, Burt J. Le Valley.) View showing their present appearance.

Referring to the line east from Little Falls the canal commissioners in their report for 1822 say: "The engineer has availed himself of the favorable ground which the flats of the Mohawk afford; and by judicious distribution of his locks, has dropped his various levels on land giving suitable depth of cutting and requiring but little embankment; he has also taken care to keep his line, in all places, above the floods of the river; and avoided, on the other hand, as far as practicable, the sides of steep banks, where the soil is liable to slip, and the canal to be otherwise injured by the torrents from the hills. The correctness of this location was tested by the great flood of November last, which, suddenly raising the Mohawk to an unusual height, was not observed anywhere to approach within many feet of the top of the banks, or to do any injury to the works which were completed."

The execution of the various works on this division taxed to the utmost the experience and skill which had been acquired on the other divisions. The canal commissioners admit that, had that portion of the work been begun first, while the knowledge of the engineers in regard to canals was yet theoretical, it is probable that the attempt to complete the canal would have been abortive, or the failure would have been so great as to postpone any further attempts for many years. To none but the engineers belongs the credit of thus working from the easy to the hard and learning as they worked.

The first locks used in this country (about 1795) had been of wood, but their quick decay made them almost a complete failure. The next attempt was the use of brick, but these could be made to last only about six years, due, probably, to the quality of the mortar which was made with common lime. Canvass White demonstrated the practicability of hydraulic cement just in time to save the Erie engineers much embarrassment. With this cement, locks were constructed of cut stone, with wooden gates, and lacked nothing in their design and mechanical workings. "Locks are the most difficult of all the works which will be necessary," say the commissioners in their report of 1818, "and their construction is already well understood in this State." Along this line Nathan S. Roberts achieved the greatest triumph by his plan for overcoming the difficulties at Lockport, where there was a rise of sixty feet in the canal. The attention of all the engineers on the canal was called to this problem, so great was the importance of its solution, and many plans were submitted, but Roberts, with no advice and with the aid of but very few books, designed a series of five "double-combined locks of twelve feet lift each, working side by side." Although he rose to be a master of his profession, the most triumphant moment of his career, he said, was the one in which the plans for these locks were accepted. 15

As a display of engineering skill, the aqueduct across the Genesee river at Rochester is worthy of note. It consisted of solid masonry, having nine arches with a span of fifty feet each, and two with a span of forty feet each. The entire length of the structure was eight hundred and two feet. Of the other large aqueducts, one was at Little Falls, taking the canal thirty feet above the Mohawk river on three spans, one of seventy and two of fifty feet. Another was situated four miles below Schenectady; it was seven hundred and forty-eight feet long and rested on sixteen piers. Twelve miles below this was one eleven hundred and eighty-eight feet long, resting on twenty-six piers of well cut stone laid in water-lime cement.

During the year 1825, three hydrostatic locks had been placed in the canal for the purpose of weighing freight and determining the amount of toll. One of these was opposite Troy at the junction of the western and northern canals, one was at Utica, and the third, at Syracuse; the first was of masonry and the other two of wood. They were found to be very useful and their accuracy was often tested with satisfactory results. These hydrostatic locks were constructed in such a manner that the water could be measured with a boat floating in it; then the same quantity was measured without the boat, and the two weights were computed. The difference of weights, of course, gave the weight of the boat, according to the law of displacement.

By the end of the year 1825, the Erie canal stood complete at a cost of a little more than seven million dollars, a successfully working channel of commerce, furnishing a connection between the great West and the Atlantic seaboard. It was three hundred and sixty-three miles long, forty feet wide at the water-surface, and twenty-eight feet wide at the bottom, with a depth of four feet. Eighty-three locks, each ninety by fifteen feet, raised and lowered the boats through a total of six hundred and seventy-five feet, while eighteen aqueducts, most of which were of finely cut stone, carried the canal over the streams and obstructions which it encountered. The time between Buffalo and Albany was reduced from twenty to ten days.

  The Aqueduct Bridge at Little Falls

VIEW OF THE AQUEDUCT BRIDGE AT LITTLE FALLS. Reproduction of an old print, published during the construction of the original Erie canal; design was also used for decorating china.

To repeat the language of the narrator of the celebration attending the completion of the Erie, where he exclaims of the authors and builders of the canal: "Europe begins already to admire -- America can never forget to acknowledge, that THEY HAVE BUILT THE LONGEST CANAL IN THE WORLD IN THE LEAST TIME, WITH THE LEAST EXPERIENCE, FOR THE LEAST MONEY, AND TO THE GREATEST PUBLIC BENEFIT." 16

The Erie was scarcely well under way before petitions and memorials began to pour into the Legislature, praying for lateral canals to connect various points throughout the state with the main channel. Several of these propositions met with approval and some eight or ten laterals were constructed. These, of course, made continuous work for engineers for many years, and as the demand continued the supply grew.

Besides the laterals the enlargement of the Erie (1836 to 1862) began shortly after the canal was completed, for it was soon discovered that the original canal could accommodate but a small portion of the traffic. This enlargement gave the engineers a good chance to correct the errors committed during the original work and to make of the Erie the splendid waterway it still remains.

Mr. Jervis, who, it will be remembered, had received his first training from Judge Wright, took an important part in this enlargement, conducting the preliminary surveys and the work of construction. From a paper read by him before the American Society Of Civil Engineers, the following facts have been obtained. 17

He was keenly sensible to the mistakes that had been made and he determined to rectify as many as possible. At a point about eight miles above Albany, in a distance of two miles, there were some seventeen locks. One cluster of nine locks and another of four had much contracted pound-reaches. A new location was found for these locks and they were evenly distributed over about three and a half miles. A short distance beyond this point the canal line crossed the Mohawk river twice, on aqueducts aggregating nearly two thousand feet in length. A line was surveyed along the south side of the river, with a view to dispensing with these aqueducts. The surveys and estimates were satisfactory enough to induce the engineers to recommend the abandoning of the old line, together with the two aqueducts, but the recommendation was not adopted by the canal board.

In the original canal several streams had been crossed in pools formed by dams. When those streams became turbulent, much vexatious trouble to navigation ensued. Especially was this true at Schoharie creek. During the enlargement, the levels were raised so as to cross these creeks on aqueducts, and this change also provided for carrying through culverts many of the small streams, which previously had been allowed to flow into the canal. It is said that this change restored the levels to the elevations suggested by Mr. Brodhead in his plans, before the canal was begun. 18 At Little Falls the flight of locks was wholly rearranged. Several engineers advised, for the canal prism, a depth of eight feet and a width of eighty feet at water-surface, but seven and seventy feet were adopted. The plan of stone arches for the towing-path on the aqueducts, where the height required a timber trunk for the boat channel, was proposed by Mr. Jervis, at that time, and has since been adopted. At the time of the enlargement, the value of the canal was placed so high that all the work was of a very substantial and expensive character.

In that connection it is interesting to refer to the Montezuma aqueduct, which, from its size and the unusual difficulties due to its location, is perhaps the most noteworthy structure on the canals. Van R. Richmond, later State Engineer, planned for and designed the aqueduct and later built the embankment carrying the New York Central railroad across the Montezuma marshes. Mr. David E. Whitford, who has served in the State Engineer’s department almost continuously since 1852, writes us concerning these two undertakings as follows:

  Aqueduct at Little Falls

AQUEDUCT AT LITTLE FALLS. Built during the construction of the original Erie canal; view showing its present condition.

"Nearly everybody who expressed an opinion (except Mr. Richmond) predicted that the experiment for the railroad crossing would prove a failure, and many doubted the possibility -- or the probability at least -- of constructing a foundation on the marsh firm enough to sustain the weight of the aqueduct without yielding and settling to an extent that would prove ruinous to the structure. Hon. Silas Seymour was State Engineer when the ‘Richmond aqueduct’ was brought into use in 1856. Twenty-six years afterwards (in 1882), when General Seymour was State Engineer again, we were making an inspection trip over the Erie canal, and when we reached Seneca river aqueduct, Mr. Seymour made a critical examination of the structure and expressed his delight in not being able to discover a sign of any settlement anywhere.

"A short time before Mr. Van R. Richmond’s death he came to the office with his son Denison, and while here then I asked him some questions about the rivers and marsh and the structures in that locality, especially in regard to the aqueduct, for the reason that claims for damages had been filed against the State, the claimants alleging that the aqueduct had caused the damage. Mr. Richmond explained that before designing the aqueduct plan, records had been kept so that they knew approximately the maximum flow of water that would have to be provided for. They at first thought of constructing two aqueducts, one at the Seneca river, the other at the Clyde river. The two rivers, where the canal crosses them, were originally nearly half a mile apart. It was finally decided, however, to turn Clyde river into the Seneca, south of the canal, and build but one aqueduct. Mr. Richmond said that in making his calculations he found that 25 spans or openings, 22 feet wide and 11 feet deep under the trunk of the aqueduct, would pass the biggest floods recorded previous to that time without backing up the water to any appreciable extent, but to be on the safe side and provide for greater floods, he added six more spans, making the number 31 instead of but 25, as at first proposed.

"At the highest stages of the water since the aqueduct was built, careful measurements resulted in finding that the surface of the river was not quite 1 ¼ inches higher at the upstream side of the aqueduct than it was at its downstream side. On the 19th of March, 1865, Howard Soule found the difference to be 0.09 foot. On the 11th of April, 1873, Mr. L. L. Nichols found the difference was exactly 1/10 of a foot. At the lowest stage of the water in the river a person six feet tall can stand erect in a skiff in passing under the aqueduct, but when the river surface was at its highest stage the lower portion of the aqueduct trunk, for four feet in depth, was submerged."

  Aqueduct over the Seneca River

AQUEDUCT OVER THE SENECA RIVER -- CALLED THE "RICHMOND" OR MONTEZUMA AQUEDUCT. Constructed during the first Canal enlargement; brought into use in the spring of 1856.

The cost of this aqueduct was $216,510.63, covered by two successive contracts. The embankment material or filling was deposited without any preparation upon the natural surface, consisting entirely of vegetable mould, the depth of which to firm bottom is from thirty to sixty feet." 19

Mr. Whitford further writes: "In regard to crossing Seneca river and the marshes by the New York Central railroad (direct line), I had heard before Mr. Richmond told me, and he explained, that piles (by splicing out) were driven to a penetration of 90 feet without coming to a firm bearing, and it was stated by some that each pile went down about as far the last blow as with the first, but that statement was probably an exaggeration. Mr. Richmond did not put it so strongly as that. He stated, however, that the result was so discouraging that the directors called a meeting and decided to abandon that line and adopt one that would give them a firm foundation. The next morning after it had been decided to abandon the line where so much construction work had already been done on both sides of the river, Mr. Richmond -- who was Division Engineer -- felt so disappointed and badly over the decision that he told the Chief Engineer he was so sure the plan of foundation he proposed would prove a success, he was willing to risk every dollar he was worth in the experiment, -- saying he had then saved up $10,000 from his salary and his profits in manufacturing salt, -- and if the foundation proved a failure, he would lose his all. The chief replied that, if he had so much confidence in it as that, they would go ahead and complete the work on that line. They did so and the crossing there has been in use now for nearly fifty years.

"The foundation, as I understand it, is a raft about 1,800 or 1,900 feet in length, made from long heavy timbers, thoroughly connected and so arranged as to break joints and thereby avoid an up and down ‘hinge’ movement or motion. The bed of the river and the marsh was dredged to a uniform grade and the big continuous raft sunk into position, using about 100 cross cribs filled with loose stone. Upon these cribs stone piers were constructed from about low water mark to the required elevation for the stringers and tracks."

This is thought to be the first instance of the use of the mattress construction, which has since become so indispensable in bank protection and difficult foundation work the world over.

The New York canals also served as a field for certain pioneer efforts in the direction of bridge-building. In 1840 the first bridge in America consisting of iron throughout was built by Earl Trumbull over the Erie canal at Frankfort. 20 This bridge was composed of cast-iron girders strengthened by wrought-iron rods. 21 Prior to 1850 it is said that only fifty iron bridges had been erected in the United States and that a large majority of these were built by Squire Whipple over the Erie canal, with spans ranging from 70 to 100 feet. 22 The connection of Whipple, who is regarded as the "Father of American rational bridge design," with the canal is interesting. He is said to have been first induced to enter the field of engineering while at Union College and especially through his proximity to the canal at that time. His invention in 1840 and later construction of the first enlarged weigh-lock scale ever constructed upon the Erie canal is mentioned in his biography, which may be found among the sketches of engineers who have served in the State engineering department (see Part Two, chapter Ill). In 1847 this "modest mathematical instrument maker, [having] ... without precedent or example, evolved the scientific basis of bridge building in America," 23 embodied the results of his study in an unpretentious book, containing two "essays," from the first of which we extract the following:

"Having received Letters Patent for an ‘Iron Trussed Bridge’ upon the general plan of the arched truss [now known as the bow-string truss], ... and constructed two bridges thereon, over the enlarged Erie canal (72 and 80 feet span,) one of which has been in use six years, it may be regarded as a demonstrated fact that bridges may be sustained by iron trusses. Also, that the cost, for the above class of bridges, is only about 25 per cent more than the same class of bridges of wood, as heretofore built, under the most favorable circumstances, on the Erie Canal. That the iron portion, constituting some ¾ of the whole as regards expense, in the iron bridge, gives fair promise of enduring for ages, while the wooden structure can only be relied on to last 8 or 10 years.... It is probable that bridges may be built for $500, as about the minimum, of equal strength and convenience, and nearly the same durability as those hitherto built upon the Erie Canal Enlargement at a cost from $800 to $1,000." 24

The type of truss which bears Whipple’s name was first constructed in 1852-3 and extensively used from then until about 1885. In this truss Whipple is credited with introducing the first inclined end-post ever used and the first pins employed in a truss of similar character. In 1873 he published an enlarged edition of his work on bridge-building and, in this volume, described at length his new "Patent Lift Drawbridge," concluding with the observation that, "After all, practical test is generally the only satisfactory means of determining the value and utility of any mechanical device." 25 Shortly afterwards the Erie canal again afforded him an opportunity of establishing the practicability of his designs, for he then built a successful lift-bridge over the canal at Utica.

In speaking of the early engineers in this country, D. S. Gregory writes as follows to a son of Benjamin Wright: "Thus I know that the commissioners thought they must send for some great engineer from England from the Duke of Bridgewater’s Canal, to teach us how to build a canal, fearing to trust our common-place Americans. At length they settled upon that plain, unsophisticated and unpretending land surveyor -- nothing but an old-fashioned land surveyor -- Benjamin Wright, for the engineer on the Erie, and James Geddes on the Champlain Canal. From this school arose nearly all the canal engineers who have lined the map of the country with their works of internal improvements." 26

Yet this old-fashioned land surveyor, beginning his engineering career at the age of forty-five, within the next twenty-five years became associated, as chief or consulting engineer, with the most important improvements on this continent, such as the Erie, the Chesapeake and Delaware, the Delaware and Hudson, the Chesapeake and Ohio, the Welland and the St. Lawrence Ship canals, and the Harlem and Erie railroads.

Many of his associates on the Erie were called to prominent positions in other states. Geddes, who was sixty-two when the Erie was completed, responded to invitations from Ohio and Maine for assistance in the work of constructing canals, but later was obliged to decline an important Government position on account of his advanced age. White became chief engineer of the Union, the Lehigh, and the Delaware and Raritan canals, and consulting engineer of the Delaware and Chesapeake canal and the Schuylkill Navigation Company, dying at the age of forty-four. Roberts was made chief engineer of the Pennsylvania and the Pittsburg and Kiskiminetas canals and of the Muscle Shoals in the Tennessee river. Bates was called to be chief engineer of the Ohio canal system, of the Louisville and Portland canal, and the Erie and Kalamazoo railroad, and served also with the Auburn and Rochester railroad and the Niagara River Hydraulic Company. Jervis became chief engineer of the Delaware and Hudson canal, the Croton Aqueduct, the Albany and Schenectady and the Hudson River railroads.

Others of these early engineers remained for many years on the canals, and their names, together with those of their successors, have become very familiar in the canal world, such names as Hutchinson, Barrett, Childs, Nichols, Fay, McAlpine, Richmond, Goodsell, Storey, Hartwell, Kimball, Taylor, Jerome, Hanks, Cooper, Evershed, Bisgood, Gere, Whitford, Soule, Tubbs, Beach, Kaley and many others, -- men who received their early training on the canals, many of them spending a lifetime in the service, and a few still remaining in that service.

Although many of the best works of these early engineers are no longer visible, swept away by the swift onrush of progress, monuments of their skill and labor, perpetuating their memory, still remain. Much of their best effort never assumed tangible form, but lay in the transmission of their experiences, their failures, and their successes to the generations of engineers who were to follow. Their triumphs were largely due to their personal characters. Judgment, accuracy, economy and integrity marked every step of their work. Best of all, they were Americans. Only two foreign engineers were ever employed on the construction of the original Erie,– a Irishman and a Frenchman. They held subordinate positions and remained only a year. 27 The following was the toast to the engineers at the celebration attending the opening of the canal: "The Canal Engineers and their Associates -- their science marked out the path from the Lakes to the Ocean. It is the pride of the Republic to call them her native sons." 28

One cause of the success of these engineers may be found in their freedom from the restraints of political patronage and official favoritism and their liberty to choose competent assistants. As Mr. Jervis says: "Whatever may have been the views of men high in official station, it was not regarded proper to interfere with the economical conduct of business on the canal. In all my intercourse for seven years no intimation was given me to look to the right hand or the left for any motive, but the strict interest of the canal. When superintending, Commissioner Seymour did not in the least give direction or even intimation as to whom I should employ in any department of work. I selected the men I wanted, with strict reference to the ability I supposed they had for the work to be done. 29

"Many of the distinctive characteristics of American engineering," said one writer, "originated with those Erie canal engineers. We practice their methods to-day.... As a class they wrote little. There were then no engineering papers prepared, and no engineering societies to perpetuate them, if they had been prepared. They were not scientific men, but knew by intuition what other men knew by calculation.... What science they had they knew well how to apply to the best advantage. Few men have ever accomplished so much with so little means." 30

William J. McAlpine, one of those engineers who received his early training on the Erie canal, in a paper before the American Society of Civil Engineers, speaks as follows: "A century ago, our country, then so recently settled, almost belonged to the ruder conditions of society, and there was hardly any call for the services of an engineer. During this century society here has advanced with a stride unparalleled in the history of the world; and with it has been the demand for the science, skill and talent of the engineer to such an extent that it has brought it up from a trade to the dignity of one of the liberal professions.

"Even one-half of a century ago the most eminent of our engineers were chiefly those who had been recruited from other professions or trades, to whom the modern application of science was almost unknown....

"We of the older school have fought a long and severe battle to bring the profession up to its present position. The rising school must continue the contest with the same earnestness to maintain its rank with the other professions." 31


1. Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Vol. XLI., p. 597, Address delivered June 27, 1899.

2. Report of the Canal Commissioners, January 31, 1818.

3. The Erie Canal, by George Geddes, in Publications of the Buffalo Historical Society, pp. 291-293.

4. Stuart’s Lives and Works of Civil and Military Engineers of America.

5. Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Vol. VI., p. 43. Paper read October 18, 1876; entitled "A Memoir of American Engineering."

6. Facts and Circumstances in the Life of John B. Jervis, by himself. Never published, manuscript in Jervis Library, Rome, N.Y.

7. Report of Canal Commissioners, January 31, 1818.

8. Introduction by Charles G. Haines to Public Documents Relating to New York Canals, p. xlii. (1821.)

9. Desmond FitzGerald in Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Vol. XLI., pp. 607-608. President’s address; delivered June 27, 1899.

10. Id., p. 609.

11. Laws of the State of New York in relation to the Erie and Champlain Canals. Vol. I., p. 44. (Albany, 1825.)

12. Canal Commissioners’ Report, February 27, 1822.

13. Canal Commissioners’ Report, February 18, 1820.

14. Canal Commissioners’ Report, February 27, 1822.

15. Stuart’s Lives and Works of Civil and Military Engineers, p. 112.

16. Narrative of the Festivities, etc., by William L. Stone, printed in Colden’s Memoir, p. 331. (New York, 1825.

17. Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Vol. VI., pp. 52-54. Paper read October 18, 1876; entitled "A Memoir of American Engineering."

18. M. M. Bagg’s The Pioneers of Utica, p. 107. (Utica, 1877.)

19. For information on this subject see State Engineer’s Annual Report , as follows: p. 108 of 1855, p. 82 of 1856, p. 438 of 1862, p. 75 of 1874.

20. See Transactions Am. Soc. C. E., Vol. LIV., p. 216.

21. See Roofs and Bridges, Merriman and Jacoby, Part 3, p. 10. (1904)

22. See Trans. Am. Soc. C. E., Vol. XXXVI., pp. 527-530; Memoir of Squire Whipple. Also Johnson’s Universal Cyclopaedia, article Bridges.

23. See Trans. Am. Soc. C. E., Vol. LIV., p. 217; presidential address of C.C. Schneider, entitled "The Evolution of the Practice of American Bridge Building." Delivered June 20, 1905.

24. A Work on Bridge Building: consisting of Two Essays, the one elementary and general, the other giving Original Plans and practical Details for Iron and Wooden Bridges, by S. Whipple, C. E., pp. 42-3.

25. An elementary and practical Treatise on Bridge Building, an enlarged and improved edition of the Author’s original Work, by S. Whipple, C. E., pp. 346-352.

26. Stuart’s Lives and Works of Civil and Military Engineers of America , p. 68. (Mr. Gregory was for many years in the office of the Comptroller of New York State.)

27. Laws of the State of New York, in relation to the Erie and Champlain Canals, Vol. I., p. 107. (Albany, 1825.)

28. Colden’s Memoir, p. 28.

29. Facts and Circumstances in the life of John B. Jervis, by himself. Manuscript in Jervis Library, Rome, N.Y.

30. Ashbel Welsh in President’s Address. Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Vol. XI., p. 168. Address delivered May 16, 1882.

31 President’s address. Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Vol. I., p. 54, Address delivered September 2, 1868.

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