Benjamin Wright (1770-1842) was born to Ebenezer Wright, a former lieutenant under George Washington during the Revolutionary War and a man utterly in debt. His father pursued farming to make ends meet and to eat away at the family debt. Perhaps unintentionally, both Wright and his father pursued two of Washington’s great interests: farming and surveying.
Wright, due to financial difficulties, was unable to pursue a proper education and mostly worked to help his family. His uncle, whom Wright lived with for some time, taught him law and the basics of surveying. His interest in surveying grew and he soon began work in the field.
In 1789, when the family moved from Connecticut to Rome, New York, Wright was hired to help survey areas in the Oneida and Oswego counties for local farmers. Altogether, he surveyed approximately 500,000 acres. During his early surveying years, he also put his knowledge of the law to work by becoming a county judge and a New York assemblyman.
Reaching the Ohio ValleyIn the previous century, Washington had proposed the importance of building a canal from the Potomac River to the resource-rich Ohio Valley. In 1785, he founded the Patowmack Company, but in the following years Washington would be maneuvered from the helm of his new company toward the helm of his new country.
While Washington had been making plans for a canal connecting to the Ohio River, business leaders and politicians in New York were discussing how to connect the Hudson River near Albany all the way to Lake Erie near Buffalo. The New York State Canal Commission contacted Wright. They requested that he propose a canal route that would connect the two cities. He recommended building a 40-foot-wide 363-mile-long canal with a standard depth of 4 feet.
In 1809, President Thomas Jefferson, who had been enthusiastic about Washington’s idea more than a decade prior, scoffed at New York’s idea and denied it federal funding. Perhaps had the proposed canal connected to Jefferson’s home state of Virginia (as Washington’s had), he may have viewed it more favorably.
Regardless of federal funding, New York politicians remained steadfast in pursuing ways to build the canal and elevate the economic power of the state. No New York politician was more adamant about achieving what Jefferson considered “madness” than Gov. DeWitt Clinton.
The Wright ManAt the time, America did not have a single engineering school, nor did it have a professional civil engineer. Those who were considered civil engineers had a different primary occupation. Wright was one of those quasi-civil engineers. Nonetheless, Clinton appointed Wright to be chief engineer of the project.
Wright immediately sent Canvass White, his assistant, to England to study their canals and learn the lock system. This mechanical system elevates and lowers ships where there are sudden changes in elevation. White came back in the spring of 1818 with a plethora of knowledge and design information. He was also instrumental in creating hydraulic cement, which allowed for concrete to remain intact underwater. The cement was available in Europe, but was cost prohibitive to ship.
Construction for the Erie Canal began on July 4, 1817, and whether on purpose or by coincidence, work began in Wright’s home town of Rome and would end in Utica, New York. This 96-mile stretch was chosen because it was mostly level ground and devoid of many of the obstacles engineers and workers would encounter along the other 267 miles. By Oct. 22, 1819, this large stretch was officially opened, and the first watercraft to grace the river was a canal boat called “Chief Engineer” in honor of Wright.
Construction continued for six more years with approximately 50,000 workers descending on the project. Along the canal were built 83 locks; the most challenging coming in the final section near Niagara Falls. There were also numerous aqueducts built for rivers running north and south across the canal; the largest stretching more than 800 feet across the Genesee River Valley by use of Roman-style arches. Stumps were rooted out, ground was shoveled, and what couldn’t be moved by human force was blasted by gunpowder.
The Canal and Its ChiefAlmost exactly six years to the day after the “Chief Engineer” made its grand entry, the Erie Canal opened on Oct. 26, 1825. The canal was an immediate success and gave credence to New York becoming the Empire State. In five years, New York City became the nation’s largest port. The canal quickly turned Ohio from a backwater to one of the country’s most populous and wealthiest states. This was due primarily to the quick and efficient transfer of goods. The cost of shipping dropped by tenfold while the amount of shipped goods tripled.
The speed in which people could travel from Albany to Buffalo had decreased from two weeks to five days. Less than a decade after opening, the Erie Canal―by way of tolls―had paid for itself (approximately $8 million). The Erie Canal also helped usher in the Gilded Age and became known as the “Mother of Cities” by its power to transport goods and people.
Wright’s engineering had garnered so much praise that he was appointed chief engineer of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (1828–1831) and was a consultant for the St. Lawrence Canal in 1833. He continued to survey and was consulted on numerous projects, ranging from New York and Virginia to Cuba.
He also became interested in railroads and was appointed as the Erie Railroad’s first chief engineer. Shortly before he died, he chaired a committee intent on creating a society of civil engineers. The American Society of Civil Engineers was founded a decade after Wright died. In 1969, the society bestowed upon Wright the title “Father of American Civil Engineering.”