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John B. Jervis
(14 Dec 1795 - 12 Jan 1885)

American civil engineer who became the nation's leading consulting engineer of his time. In the period (1830-60) before the Civil War, he worked on several significant canal projects, railroads and water-supply systems.


John Bloomfield Jervis, Hon. M. Am. Soc. C. E.

Died January 12th, 1885.

From Proceedings of the American Society of Civil Engineers (1885)

John B. Jervis
John B. Jervis (source)

[p.109] In the death of John Bloomfield Jervis, at Rome, N. Y., on the night of January 12th, the country lost another of those remarkable men bequeathed to this generation by the latter part of the eighteenth century, whose talents and energies have for seventy years been directed toward building up the wonderful system of internal improvements which marked the history of the nation during the present century.

Mr. Jervis was born at Huntington, Long Island, December 14th, 1795, and was consequently in his 90th year at the time of his death. His father was Timothy Jervis, a carpenter by trade, and a resident of Huntington. His mother was Phœbe Bloomfield, of Woodbridge, N. J. The brother of Mrs. Jervis, John W. Bloomfield, went to Fort Stanwix, now Rome, N. Y., from New Jersey, to act as agent for and to look after a large tract of land in that vicinity, which resulted in the purchase for himself and two or three others of the “six thousand-acre tract.” He soon after settled in what is now the town of Annsville, which was named after his wife. About 1812 he removed to Rome, purchased a farm, which included the homestead of Mr. Jervis, and lived and died in a house which then occupied the site of Mr. Jervis' late residence. His death occurred in 1849, at the age of eighty-four. He was widely known, and universally honored and esteemed.

In 1798, Timothy Jervis moved to Fort Stanwix, which was chiefly prominent as having a navigable canal of about two miles in length, connecting the Mohawk River with Wood Creek. By connecting improvements in the form of locks and dams on the Mohawk River and Wood Creek, it formed part of a system of improvements connecting the natural navigation through a large portion of the State of New York. By these means barges or bateaux passed from Schenectady, on the Mohawk, to Ithaca, at the head of Cayuga Lake. The country was at this time mostly a wilderness of heavy timber, and Timothy Jervis soon became interested in a saw-mill, which was attended by himself and his sons. John B. Jervis was the oldest of seven children and had [p.110] the experience of the trials of a settlement in a new country. What education he had was obtained at the common schools of that day, which he attended until he was fifteen years of age. There were then no public schools sustained in whole or in part by the State. Between the ages of fifteen and twenty-two he spent his summers in managing a team and attending the saw-mill, with occasional farm work, and during the winters lie was engaged in hauling saw-logs and wood.

In 1817, the construction of the Erie Canal was commenced, and the work afforded employment and furnished facilities to a large class who had theretofore followed other pursuits. Benjamin Wright, more generally known as “Judge” Wright, was Chief Engineer in the construction. Judge Wright resided in Rome, and therefore knew Mr. Timothy Jervis and his sons. Needing an axman, he applied to Mr. Jervis, who suggested that he should take John, which was the beginning of what afterward became the remarkable engineering career of John B. Jervis, who then turned his attention to the study and practice of surveying and engineering. Dexterous with an ax, apt, and ambitious to learn, ready to do all and more than was required, he was soon promoted to the position of rodman in the survey, at $12 per month, in which he reached such proficiency, that in two years he was made Resident Engineer on seventeen miles of the canal, extending from Canastota, Madison County, to Limestone Creek, in Onondaga County, at a compensation of $1.25 per day. Mr. Jervis was then about twenty-five years of age, and although the young engineers of to-day might smile at an offer of $1.25 per day, that position and salary, sixty-five years ago, were considered very desirable and lucrative.

Mr. Jervis records, in some notes which he has left for the purpose of memoir, that after filling a winter engagement for weighing stone for locks, he started for Rome, a distance of forty miles, on foot, traveling four miles on the evening of the first day, to a village where he and his associates spent the first night, and thence started at daylight to walk thirty-six miles to Rome, over melting snow, which made the traveling very heavy and disagreeable, reaching Rome about 9 o'clock in the evening, pretty well fatigued, but hardly the worse for it the next day. During this period Mr. Jervis was under the direction of Judge Bates as chief of the party, and Canvass White, well known among New York engineers, as the principal assistant.

In the spring of 1820, he became well acquainted with Henry Seymour (father of Hon. Horatio Seymour), who was one of the Canal Commissioners, and with whom Mr. Jervis had had frequent intercourse in relation to his duties. In the spring of 1821, Mr. Jervis was assigned the position of Resident Engineer to the division extending from “The Nose” to opposite the village of Amsterdam, about seventeen miles; Mr. Seymour being the Commissioner of that division. He retained the charge of this division until the close of 1822, when it was mostly [p.111] completed, and the party was disbanded, except himself. He was retained to aid in the settlement of the accounts of the contractors, which occupied his time for the balance of the year. This work was discharged with such acceptability that he was retained by Commissioner Seymour, in the opening of the season of 1823, to take charge of such work as still remained to be done on the canal between the Minden dam and the Upper Mohawk aqueduct, a section of fifty miles. It was then made his duty to organize parties of men to superintend the work of repairs and such incidental improvements as were found necessary to bring the section into use for navigation.

The custom was, at that day, to stop small leaks in the canal by dumping in clay, but Mr. Jervis records that, “finding the clay not satisfactory in the leaks that occurred, I made trial of fine gravel intermixed with sharp sand, which, while it did not fully stop the leak at the first application, was not sensibly carried away, and the interstices being small they were gradually filled up, and the work became tight,” which marked a decided advance in the mode of repairing leaks, and was illustrative of the care with which Mr. Jervis always investigated details. In the spring of 1825 the canal was opened to Albany, and Mr. Jervis was continued as the Superintendent Engineer on the same division. During that year and until March, 1825, he had full charge of the entire section from Amsterdam to Albany, and all accounts for labor and material passed through his hands. He records the fact that the actual cost of operating the section of fifty miles for one year, including lock tenders and all expenses, except those for the collection of tolls, was at the rate of $600 per mile.

Mr. Canvass White, the principal Assistant Engineer, left the State service for other work in 1823, and as Judge Wright, the Chief Engineer, had many calls for his service on canal enterprises in other States, the entire responsibility for the section referred to was thrown upon Mr. Jervis and Mr. Seymour, the Canal Commissioner.

After seven years' employment on the Erie Canal, Mr. Jervis closed his services by resignation early in the month of March, 1825, very much to the regret of Mr. Henry Seymour, who gave him warm testimonials. Mr. Jervis went to New York and had an interview with Judge Wright, who had entered into an engagement with the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company, which resulted in the engagement of Mr. Jervis as Chief Engineer of that company, with Judge Wright as Consulting Engineer. Preliminary surveys and estimates had been made for the construction of a water route, partly canal and partly slack-water; but Mr. Jervis, after a careful investigation, decided against most of the slack-water plan, his decision being approved by Judge Wright. Near the close of 1827 Judge Wright resigned, and Mr. Jervis was appointed to succeed him, and remained in charge of the work until 1830. During this time he constructed the inclines of the Carbondale [p.112] Railroad and ordered from England the “ Stourbridge Lion,” the first locomotive imported into this country, which, with two others, were ordered about a year before the famous trial on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, indicating Mr. Jervis' extraordinary foresight and courage. This locomotive, Mr. Jervis states, was bought under an order from him for a locomotive which should not exceed 5J tons in weight. The “Stourbridge Lion” actually weighed 7 tons, exclusive of coal and water, with the proper complement of which its weight was 8 tons, and consequently in excess of the weight which the trestles of the Carbondale road were built to sustain, and hence the locomotive could not be used. But the criticism that the trestles were too weak for their intended purpose is negatived by the fact that they bore in the first 20 years the transit of about 5 000 000 tons of coal. Mr. Jervis is certainly entitled to the credit of having introduced the first locomotive on the American continent, and its failure to be serviceable was not due to any error of his.

The works of the Delaware and Hudson Canal and Railroad were completed in the fall of 1829, and a few boats loaded with coal were transported to tide-water on the Hudson. Mr. Jervis records that at this time he employed Mr. John H. McAlpine to superintend the construction of machinery, who introduced his son, William J. McAlpine, then about 16 years of age, and requested a place for him. Mr. McAlpine's widely-known engineering reputation started with that introduction.

In 1830 Mr Jervis was appointed Chief Engineer of the Albany and Schenectady Railroad, the first railroad constructed in the State of New York.

Mr. Jervis subsequently became Chief Engineer of the Schenectady and Saratoga Railroad, and while occupying this position, in 1830, his attention was drawn to the inadequacy of the locomotives of the then existing plan for high speed. This was especially noticeable in the action of the second engine imported for the Albany and Schenectady Railroad, called the “John Bull,” the first having been named the “De Witt Clinton.” Mr. Jervis says of the “John Bull:” “It being placed on four wheels, the overhanging caused a sharp and disagreeable motion of the engine. This circumstance, with others, induced me to continue my researches for a remedy for the weight, and to secure a more steady motion for the engine, and I was finally led to the plan of a four-wheeled truck under the forward portion of the engine as a support for that end.” Mr. Jervis records that his mind was made up in regard to the form of this truck in the summer of 1830, although he had no opportunity to construct an engine of that plan until 1832, when the first engine having one pair of drivers and a four-wheeled truck, manufactured by the West Point Foundry Association, was run on the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad, by David Mathews, till a speed of [p.113] 50 miles per hour was attained. An engraving in the Railroad Gazette for February 3d, 1872, shows the engine so designed in 1831. It is scarcely necessary to add that this precise form of truck is now in use on over 125 000 miles of railway in this country, as well as on many thousand miles in other countries. After the completion of the two railroads above mentioned, in 1833 Mr. Jervis was engaged by the Canal Commissioners as Chief Engineer of the Chenango Canal, 98 miles long, with 100 locks. On this canal, for the first time in this country, resort was had to artificial reservoirs for the supply of its summit level with water, and Mr. Jervis was the originator of the method. In 1835 the work of the enlargement of the Erie Canal was attempted, and Mr. Jervis was called upon to make surveys and estimates on the eastern section. He proposed corrections for many errors in its original construction, and at Little Falls he wholly rearranged the locks.

In October, 1836, he accepted the unsolicited offer of the position of Chief Engineer of the Croton Aqueduct, considered at the time of its completion as the greatest example in the world of hydraulic engineering skill. The difficulties with which Mr. Jervis had to contend, caused by the ignorance and sometimes by the malicious criticism of the opponents of the aqueduct, greatly tried his patience and skill, but he succeeded in holding the position until the work was completed; and it deserves to be here recorded, as an example for engineers, and for the constructors of public works of this day, that the aqueduct constructed to supply the then population of 250 000, with a view to ultimately supplying a population of 500 000, starting with the delivery of 12 000 000 gallons per 24 hours, is now supplying 95 000 000 gallons daily to a population of 1 400 000, and that the cost of the whole work, exclusive of the High Bridge, estimated by Mr. Jervis on January 2d, 1838, at $8 464 033, was completed by a total expenditure to January 31st, 1848, of $8 766 626, an excess of cost over the original estimate of but $302 593, or about 3.7 per cent., which excess is almost entirely accounted for by the loss of the partially completed Croton dam on January 8th, 1841, and by the increased cost of land damages, outside of which items we have the personal authority of Mr. Jervis for stating that the excess in cost over the original estimate was less than one per cent.

Mr. Jervis was appointed in 1846 Consulting Engineer on the Boston water supply, which position he held until 1848, during which time the Cochituate Water-works were located and partially constructed. The water-works at Port Jervis, which place was named after Mr. Jervis by the directors of the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company, were constructed under his supervision, as were also the Home Water-works, in 1868. In 1847 Mr. Jervis was made Chief Engineer of the Hudson River Railroad, which position he held until 1849, and was Consulting Engineer until 1850. During his incumbency the Hudson River Railroad was completed from New York to Poughkeepsie, which included [p.114] all the difficult portions of the work. The obtaining of capital for its construction was greatly facilitated, by Mr. Jervis' well known caution in recommending any scheme.

In 1850 Mr. Jervis went to Europe, where he spent four months, and was received with great honor on account of his engineering achievements. While there he was invited by Robert Stephenson to witness the launching of one of the large tubes for the bridge over the Menai Straits, of which he says: “The spectacle was highly interesting in itself, and was followed by an invitation to dine with a party of English engineers, an occasion I enjoyed very much.” On his return he engaged as Chief Engineer in the construction of the Michigan Southern and Northern Indiana Railroad, now the western portion of the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern, and then one of the most prominent public works of the country, about 66 miles of which, originally known as the Erie and Kalamazoo Railroad, had been constructed by the State of Michigan with a wooden rail and iron plates. Mr. Jervis continued his connection with this company until the spring of 1858. During the summer of 1851 he was made President of the Chicago and Rock Island Railway, which was constructed from Chicago to Davenport, 180 miles, and brought into use about 1854. From the spring of 1858 until the spring of 1861, Mr. Jervis was without professional engagement. In the fall of 1861 he was appointed General Superintendent of the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago Railway, then just emerging from a condition of practical bankruptcy. The bondholders had foreclosed and sold the road and the company had been reorganized, acknowledging, however, all classes of stockholders and creditors to the full amount of their original interest. The road had been cheaply constructed and inadequately maintained, and was in poor condition. The stock was then selling at 8 per cent., and not long after Mr. Jervis entered on the management a stockholder inquired of him if it would be advisable to sell at 20 per cent. He held the position of General Superintendent until March, 1864, when he resigned to take that of Chief Engineer, which position he occupied until 1866, and was Consulting Engineer of the company until 1872. During the period of his superintendence the track and machinery were greatly improved, the latter being very much increased in quantity, as well as improved in quality. During his administration all the fixed liabilities of the company were promptly met, and soon after his resignation as General Superintendent the company paid a semi-annual dividend of 5 per cent. The foundation was laid by Mr. Jervis for the extraordinary success with which the company's affairs have been so ably managed by his successors.

About 1872, Mr. Jervis was consulted by the parties who were contemplating the building of the Cazenovia and Canastota Railroad, who submitted to him an estimate which they had procured of the cost of [p.115] building the proposed line, asking his opinion thereof. With his usual caution and foresight, he recommended that they double the amount of the estimate and not undertake the construction until they were prepared to expend the increased amount. This somewhat delayed the construction of the road, the cost of which, when completed, fully sustained Mr. Jervis' views. In 1868 he was made one of the first trustees in the organization of the Rome Merchant Iron Mill Company, which position he occupied until the time of his death. The operations of the company for the first two years resulted in serious loss, and threatened its bankruptcy; but in 1872 Mr. Jervis came to its rescue with a large loan of his personal funds, and assumed the position of secretary, which he held at the time of his death. Under his wise and prudent administration—for his was the keynote in the management—the company retrieved its former errors, and is now on a prosperous footing.

It will be seen, therefore, that for more than seventy years Mr. Jervis has been an active worker, and all his work has been of a character to leave an enduring impression on the country. Since his practical retirement from active railroad management, in 1866, he found time to write a book on “Railway Property,” and another on “The Question of Labor and Capital.” In 1877 he wrote a paper, published in the International Review, advocating the use of locomotives for towing boats on the Erie Canal—an unexampled evidence of progress at the age of eighty-two. In 1879, at the request of the Young Men's Christian Association of Rome, Mr. Jervis wrote a lecture on “Industrial Economy,” which was delivered before that Association. He was then past eighty-three years of age, yet that lecture showed his mind to be as clear, strong and vigorous as in the days of his prime. In 1878, Hamilton College conferred on him the degree of LL.D.

His last professional work, and that which most fully illustrates the extraordinary character of his professional ability, and the esteem in which he was held by his engineering contemporaries, was his employment as a Consulting Engineer on the proposed new Croton Aqueduct, by the late Isaac Newton, Chief Engineer, and by Mr. E. S. Chesbrough, then Consulting Engineer for that work. Upon this business Mr. Jervis came to this city in December, 1881, and remained here some two weeks, consulting daily with Messrs. Newton and Chesbrough, and on his return to Rome he took with him various plans, and made a report substantially indorsing the plans proposed by Messrs. Newton and Chesbrough. That he should be equal to this work at the age of 86 was sufficiently remarkable, but that he should be considered as worthy of being consulted by men themselves veterans in the profession, is a still more extraordinary evidence of the exceptional character of the man.

Mr. Jervis' strongest trait was his absolute conscientiousness, exemplified in every walk of life. His career was an example of the most [p.116] sterling integrity, and while he had many critics and opponents during his professional career, the tongue of slander never wagged against him. His life was a grand example to the young in all professions, and particularly to those of his own profession, who meet with so many temptations and discouragements; and a study of his memoirs, which will be published at length at an early day, will enable many a man to avoid the rock upon which so many barks have foundered.

His devotion to the good of his fellows is evidenced by his will, in which he bequeathed his valuable library and about one-third of his estate to erect a building for a library and lecture-room, for the use of the people of Rome, so long his place of residence.

Mr. Jervis was twice married. In 1834 he married the daughter of the late George Brayton, of Weston, who died in 1839. Two years later he was married to Eliza R. Coates, who survives him. His health for the greater part of his life was remarkably good. During the past year his strength had been gradually failing, and he told one of the members of the committee at his last interview in November that his work was done. He had no special disease; the machine had simply worn out from old age. When one of the members of the committee talked with him, only two months before his death, his mind was as clear and his faculties as undimmed as at the beginning of their acquaintance, 24 years since, and it was only for a day or so before his death that mind and memory failed him.

In the death of John Bloomfield Jervis the whole community may truly mourn; for a great engineer, a good man, and a valuable citizen has departed. The important and enduring works on which he had spent a lifetime will elevate and benefit the human race long after his remains shall have crumbled to dust, and his fame as one of the greatest of American engineers will survive the age in which he lived. But, above all, the remembrance of the industry, energy and perseverance by which he overcame all obstacles, and raised himself from the lowest to the highest rank in his profession, his purity of life and his honorable and high-minded character, will survive as an example and an incentive to the young men of America and encourage them to emulate his virtues. Mr. Jervis became a Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, December 4th, 1867. He was made an Honorary Member of the Society, December 2d, 1868.

[p.109 Footnote] Committee to prepare Memoir: Messrs. William P. Shinn, M. Am. Soc. C. E., and John Bogart, M. Am. Soc. C. E.


From 'Memoirs of Deceased Members', Proceedings of the American Society of Civil Engineers (1885), 11, 109-116. (source)


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