The completion of the original Erie Canal in 1825 was a watershed moment in the history of transportation and commerce in the fledgling United States of America and New York State. Construction of the Erie Canal began in 1817, and faced many obstacles. Among these obstacles were funding concerns, naysayers, arguments over the route of the canal, and the topography of the land itself. The completion, and later enlargement, of the Canal unequivocally pushed these obstacles out of the way and proved all doubters wrong. The success in constructing the Erie Canal is made all the more fascinating when considering there were no professionally trained engineers working on the plans and construction for it in the first place.

Building the Lockport Deep Cut


There were six prominent engineers who worked on the Erie Canal: Benjamin Wright, Canvass White, Charles G. Broadhead, James Geddes, John Jervis, and Nathan Roberts. None of these men had professional training in engineering, but that did not stop them from creating a great engineering feat. Many of them came from a surveying background, notably James Geddes and Benjamin Wright who had worked on the surveying process for the Erie Canal route. There were the principal engineers and assistant engineers. Principal engineers were paid between $1,500 to $2,000 a year, while assistant engineers earned $4 per day.

Since there were no engineering schools in the United States at the time of its construction, the process of building the Erie Canal quickly became a school for engineering unto itself. John Jervis learned from Nathan Roberts, before being assigned the position of resident engineer of a section near Canastota. The process of building the canal taught them much, not just about engineering but also about problem solving and thinking on their feet. The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (or Rensselaer School, as it was origianally called) was founded in 1824 in Troy by Stephen Van Rensselaer, who served as a Canal Commissioner on the Erie Canal from 1816–1839. This founding provided the United States with its first school dedicated to civil engineering. 

Engineers for the original Erie Canal performed quite the impressive feat. They had the responsibility of planning and successfully executing a massive construction project that promised to change the face of the United States. They had to adapt to challenging situations and discover new ways of construction, such as the use of meagre limestone championed by engineer Canvass White. They rose to the occasion, which is made all the more impressive by the fact that they did not have formal training in the engineering profession. The Erie Canal transformed the state of New York and the face of the United States of America, and it would not have been possible without the hard work of the engineers who created it.