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James Geddes
(22 Jul 1763 - 19 Aug 1838)

American civil engineer, lawyer and politician who surveyed possible routes for a canal across New York State, east to Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, and recommended to the legislature a Hudson-Erie route for the Erie Canal.



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James Geddes, Engineer
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[p.36] Nearly half a century has passed away since the completion of the Erie Canal was celebrated with unusual ceremonies and unbounded demonstrations of joy from the shores of Lake Erie to the harbor of New York. Time has demonstrated that the rejoicings attending the flotilla that started from Lake Erie on the twenty-sixth day of October, eighteen hundred and twenty-five, to mingle the waters of that lake with those of the Atlantic, were fully justified; and although the great men who took part in that grand celebration were naturally wrought up to the highest enthusiasm, yet they failed to portray the far-reaching effects of that great achievement. In the course of events, other and more rapid modes of transportation have been completed, and diverted public attention from this pioneer improvement, until few are perhaps aware that even now, in the extent and value of its tonnage, it far exceeds the whole foreign commerce of the United States. It has been justly said that “the authors and builders, the heads who planned and the hands that executed this stupendous work, deserve a perennial monument, and they will have it.” To borrow an expression from the highest [p.37] of all sources, “The works which they have done, these will bear witness of them.” Americans can never forget to acknowledge that they have built the longest canal in the world, in the shortest time, with the least experience, for the least money, and to the greatest public benefit.

The Erie Canal has exerted an influence and power that beyond computation excels that of any other investment of money ever made in any nation. Not only States that border on the great lakes owe their prosperity, some of them their existence, to this canal, but the States beyond the great River Mississippi must for ever find their markets through its channel to the Atlantic cities.

To the State of New York is due the glory of this most salutary enterprise. It is an interesting inquiry, how was this single State induced to see the importance, and to bravely attempt the construction, of this long line of artificial navigation? Public opinion was not formed in a day, and the necessary facts upon which to base discussion were not easily obtained at that early period in the history of internal improvements in this country, or in England.

Long before that great and sagacious statesman, De Witt Clinton, whose very name was a tower of strength, had perhaps ever thought of the measure that was destined to crown him with a glory only second to that of Washington, other men had been examining the country, with a view of determining the directions of the watercourses and other physical features of the great plain that stretches from tide-water on the Hudson to Lake Erie, in the hope that nature had interposed no [p.37] obstacle to a canal, uniting the waters of the lake and the river.

The gathering of facts by patient toil, subject often to ridicule, went on for many years in the centre of the State, before the subject may have been considered as having attracted public attention. The facts thus gathered were the basis of action for De Witt Clinton. He had the sagacity to understand them, and to give them their just consideration.

Abundant evidence exists in public documents that, in all these preliminary labors, Judge Geddes bore an important, if not absolutely indispensable part. “He lived near the centre of the State, and all his interests were connected with the growth and prosperity of the country in which he had made his home, and untiringly he pressed his investigations as to the character of the surface of the country west of the great chain of swamps. Extensive correspondence was resorted to with land agents, surveyors, and other men, who, it was supposed, might be able to give information, and every available map was consulted. He did not rest with this; he formed public opinion, and agitated the subject, until, in eighteen hundred and seven, it had become a theme of so great interest in Onondaga County, that it was the turning point of local politics.”*

In the introduction to the natural history of the State of New York: “The merit of first suggesting a direct communication from Lake Erie to the Hudson is given to Gouverneur Morris, qualifying the praise by the fact that [p.39] the scheme conceived was that of a canal with a uniform declination, and without locks, from Lake Erie to the Hudson. Morris communicated his project to Simon De Witt, Surveyor-General of the State, in eighteen hundred and three, by whom it was made known to James Geddes in eighteen hundred and four.”

The scheme was, by the Surveyor-General, considered “as a romantic thing, and characteristic of the man,” and had the idea fallen into no other hands than Morris’ and his, it probably had borne no fruit. The suggestion, however, once made to the Land Surveyor of the interior, it began to take form and substance. Jesse Hawley was interested, and his essays signed “Hercules,” in the Genesee Messenger, continued from October, eighteen hundred and seven, until March, eighteen hundred and eight, brought the public mind into familiarity with the project.

In eighteen hundred and seven, Judge Joshua Foreman, of Onondaga County, and Judge Benjamin Wright, of Oneida County, became enlisted in the cause, and were elected members of the Legislature by the citizens of those counties, with express reference to moving in that body the grand project of a canal; and on the fourth of February, eighteen hundred and eight, legislative action was had, and an appropriation of six hundred dollars was made for the preliminary surveys of the route. These important explorations were intrusted by the Surveyor-General of the State to James Geddes, and executed by him in a manner highly creditable to himself, and satisfactory to the Legislature, over a large area of country, embracing not only the main line of the proposed canal, but, [p.40] as stated in the report of Simon De Witt, “other parts of the country were to be explored in order to ascertain which of all practical routes would be most eligible, and this resulted in a report of one almost precisely on the line which, after repeated elaborate and expensive examinations, was finally adopted.”

These extensive surveys by Judge Geddes extended 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, until the waters flowing into the Seneca river were reached; and that, too, following the best route that exists for a canal; and all this work was accomplished for the small sum of six hundred and seventy-three dollars! Did the State ever have so much service performed for so trifling a sum of money before or since? Governor Seward, in the introduction before quoted, says of this legislative action: “But how little the magnitude of that undertaking was understood, may be inferred from the fact, that the appropriations made by the resolution to defray the expenses of its execution were limited to six hundred dollars. There was no Civil Engineer in the State of New York. James Geddes, land surveyor, who afterwards became one of our most distinguished Civil Engineers, by the force of native genius and application in mature years,” was appointed to make the survey, and reported, “that a canal from Lake Erie to the Hudson was practicable, and could be made without difficulty.”

[p.41] This preliminary survey made De Witt Clinton a Canal man; a most valuable acquisition to the cause, in view of his great political and legislative influence. In the report of the Commissioners following this exploration, this beautiful sentiment is supposed to have come from the pen of Gouverneur Morris: “Standing on such facts, is it extravagant to believe that New York may look forward to the receipt, at no distant day, of one million dollars nett revenue from this canal? The life of an individual is short. The time is not distant when those who make this report will have passed away. But no term is fixed to the existence of a State; and the first wish of a patriot’s heart is that his own may be eternal. But whatever limit may have been assigned to the duration of New York by those eternal decrees which established the heavens and the earth, it is hardly to be expected that she will be blotted from the list of political societies before the effects here stated shall have been sensibly felt. And even when, by the flow of that perpetual stream which bears all human institutions away, our Constitution shall be dissolved, and our laws be lost, still the descendants of our children’s children will remain. The same mountains will stand, the same rivers flow. New moral combinations will be formed on the old physical foundations, and the extended line of remote posterity, after a lapse of thousands of years, and the ravages of repeated revolutions; when the records of history shall have been obliterated, and the tongues of tradition have converted the shadowy remembrance of ancient events into childish tales of miracle, this national work shall remain. It shall bear [p.42] testimony to the genius, the learning, the industry, and intelligence of the present age.”

Judge Geddes, in conjunction with his duties as Judge of the county in which he resided, accepted, in the year eighteen hundred and sixteen, the appointment of Engineer on the Erie Canal, in charge of that portion of the work from Seneca River to within eleven miles of the mouth of the Tonawanda Creek, upon which he continued until eighteen hundred and eighteen, when he was directed to superintend the location of the middle division between Rome and Utica.

During this period he also made a remarkable test level between Rome and the east end of Oneida Lake, mbracing nearly one hundred miles of levelling, the difference at the junction in the levels being less than one and a half inches.

Previous to commencing the surveys for the Erie Canal in eighteen hundred and eight, Judge Geddes had used a spirit level upon one occasion only, and then but for a few hours, and under the following circumstances. A law had been passed directing two hundred and fifty acres of land to be laid out in the Salt Spring reservation, and sold to the highest bidder; the avails to be appropriated for the construction of an east and west road across the reservation. The survey was completed, and Judge Geddes reported a fine water-power on the tract. The Surveyor-General, Simon De Witt, being assured by certain parties opposed to the construction of the contemplated road, that there was no water-power worth improving on the locality designated, he therefore put a [p.43] spirit level into his gig and made a journey, as it was deemed in that early day, from Albany to where Syracuse now stands, and, with the assistance of Judge Geddes, levelled along the Onondaga Creek, and found that there was a good water-power. Thus was learned by the Land Surveyor the use of the spirit level, with which in after years he became so proficient.

This level, which is a superior instrument, was used for many years by Judge Geddes in his work on the canals of New York, and in exploring for the Ohio improvements. It is now in the possession of his son, Hon. George Geddes, Civil Engineer, who treasures it in connection with these interesting reminiscences.

In the summer of eighteen hundred and eighteen Judge Geddes was instructed by the Canal Commissioners to repair to the Champlain Canal, under the appointment of Chief Engineer. He commenced the final location of the work in September of that year, and continued in charge of its construction until eighteen hundred and twenty-two, when the State of Ohio applied to Governor Clinton to select a person “ to make the necessary surveys for a canal from the Ohio River to Lake Erie.” He recommended Judge Geddes as a most competent engineer of location.

He accepted the appointment and performed the duties devolving upon him with marked ability and energy. The district of country embraced by his investigations was, with few exceptions, a complete wilderness; hence the preliminary surveys were exceedingly arduous; yet they [p.44] were completed in an almost incredibly short period of time, and his report submitted to the Board, who expressed their approbation in these words:

“The Commissioners would do injustice to their feelings if they did not avail themselves of this opportunity of bearing testimony to the integrity, ability, and industry with which Judge Geddes has discharged the important duties committed to him. Upwards of nine hundred miles of country have been examined, and the level of nearly eight hundred miles has been taken with only one instrument, in less than eight months. His perseverance, and the interest he has taken in effecting objects so important to the State, under all the privations and exposures to which his duties have subjected him, will now and hereafter, when the great work he has commenced shall be completed, be duly appreciated by the people of Ohio.”

He returned to New York in eighteen hundred and twenty-three, and was called to the State of Maine, to survey the route of a canal from Sabago Pond, to the tide waters at Westbrook.

In eighteen hundred and twenty-seven, Judge Geddes entered the service of the General Government, locating the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. In eighteen hundred and twenty-eight, he was employed by the State of Pennsylvania, upon its canals, and in that year he was also appointed by the United States Government to examine the country in reference to the connection of the Tennessee and Alabama rivers, in the States of Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia. This appointment he, however, [p.45] declined, on account of distance from home, and his advanced age.

James Geddes was born on the twenty-second day of July, seventeen hundred and sixty-three, near Carlisle, in the State of Pennsylvania. His father and mother were both descendants of Scotch families. He studied mathematics under the charge of Mr. Oliver, a man of thorough education. Languages he studied without masters, and became a scholar of the first order. In seventeen hundred and ninety-three, he visited Onondaga County, in the State of New York, and settled at Geddes (named for the Judge) in seventeen hundred and ninety-four; which place was his residence until his death, August nineteenth, eighteen hundred and thirty-eight, he being a little more than seventy-five years of age, thirty years of which had been devoted to the arduous and responsible duties of his chosen profession, and in the service mostly of his native and adopted States.

He was emphatically a master spirit in pushing forward the early enterprises of his country, but he left no collection of papers by which a compiler might do justice to his memory. He had been solicited to do so, but declined, saying, “I attach no importance to what I have done, having simply performed my duty; therefore I ask no higher place in the public estimation than should be spontaneously given to me.”

When the surveys of the Erie Canal were first commenced, there was nothing on this continent that could be looked at or used by the engineers of the State, for their [p.46] instruction, unless the work of the “Inland Lock Navigation Company,” at Little Falls, may be considered an exception. Civil engineering, as a profession, had no existence. Books were not published then, as now, from which systematic information could be procured. Attempts were therefore made by the Canal Commissioners of the State to procure the services of Mr. Weston—an eminent English engineer, who had visited this country to direct the construction of the locks at Little Falls—to take charge of the Erie Canal, offering him ten thousand dollars per annum; but his advanced age compelled him to decline; upon which, they were forced to accept the offers made by our own engineers to take the responsibility of executing the work.

The State of New York was fortunate in having among its land surveyors, men who, surmounting every difficulty, achieved with limited capital, not only success, but whose examples of integrity, industry, and perseverance will forever be a standard for the imitation of American engineers.

These men were subjected to various trials, under the rigid system of economy they were compelled to practise, known only to those who were united by their services and professional pride, in the successful accomplishment of an enterprise which had become the great object of their lives. Through difficulties and perplexities, they toiled on, slowly progressing, until at last the work was completed, and fully tested; and they stood triumphant before the country. A strong bond of union continued [p.47] through life between these noble and brave-hearted men, who had labored with such devotion and zeal for the public good. As brothers they lived, manifesting for each other sympathy and kindness through all their various engagements; like brothers they mourned, as, one by one, the links in life’s chain were broken.

* Hon. George Geddes’ Address before the Historical Society of Buffalo, N.Y.

Text and image (with colorization © todayinsci) from Charles Beebe Stuart, Lives and Works of Civil and Military Engineers of America (1871), 36-47. (source)

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