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Canvass White
(8 Sep 1790 - 18 Dec 1834)

American civil engineer , known for his work in building canals, and who patented the first process for making hydraulic cement in the United States.



Canvass White, head and shoulders.
Canvass White.
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[p.74] Conspicuous among the names associated with the early public works of the country stands that of Canvass White, who was born at Whitestown, Oneida County, New York, on the eighth day of September, seventeen hundred and ninety. His father, Hugh White, a native of Connecticut, was a lineal descendant of Deacon John White, one of the first settlers of the present city of Hartford, in the year sixteen hundred and thirty-two. His mother was also of Puritan descent, and from this source he derived those traits of integrity, indefatigable industry, and purity of character, of which his public life was so distinguished an example. His paternal grandfather served during the American Revolution as a quartermaster, and in that capacity, with the self-sacrificing devotion of the many heroes in that first struggle of the country for national life, expended his fortune for the maintenance of the army, receiving in its stead Continental paper money that became worthless in his possession.

Six years prior to the birth of the subject of this sketch, Hugh White, with a family, consisting of his wife, five sons and four daughters, in seventeen hundred and eighty [p.75] four, while “the torch and tomahawk of the savage were yet brandished on the frontier,” left his comfortable home at Middletown, Connecticut, and removed to Oneida County, New York, then an almost unbroken wilderness.

His mother, a lady of delicate constitution, unused to the rough exposure incident to pioneer life, died when he was ten years of age. From his mother he seems to have inherited a feebleness of constitution that caused his early years to be a constant struggle between disease and health for the mastery. At an early age he began to display a talent for invention, and a genius for improvements that resulted in the construction of several domestic, and agricultural implements, that were in use for many years on the paternal homestead, and in the neighborhood.

The most of his minority was spent on his father’s farm, with such advantages only for acquiring education as the very limited common schools of that period afforded ; and it was not until the winter of eighteen hundred and thirteen that an opportunity occurred for him to pursue those studies essential to success in the profession he had chosen. In February of this year he entered the Fairfield academy, and there pursued the studies of mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, mineralogy and surveying, until he completed the course of that institution, after which he continued the study of these subjects under Dr. Josiah Noyes, of Clinton, New York.

At the age of seventeen he entered the store of Colonel Carpenter as clerk, where he remained until the spring of eighteen hundred and eleven, during which time he gained [p.76] the entire confidence of his employer and became a general favorite with all his acquaintances. At this time his health becoming precarious, a sea-voyage was advised as a means of restoration. He consequently shipped as supercargo on board a merchant vessel bound to Russia, and did not return to his home until October, eighteen hundred and twelve. The Captain, while in Russia, remained ignorant of the declaration of war and commencement of hostilities between the United States and Great Britain, and took in an assorted cargo, and sailed for Hull, in England. He did not become aware of the war until they entered the English port, and were made prisoners, and their ship and its cargo seized.

For some reason unexplained the Captain and crew, however, were released, permitted to discharge their ship, take in another lading and continue their homeward voyage.

The ship had scarcely cleared the mouth of the Humber when there occurred a violent storm, accompanied by a high tide, and they were driven so far ashore that when the tide receded the ship lay sixty rods from the sea. As the vessel lay on its side, an inspection of the bottom disclosed the fact that the planking, over considerable of the surface, was completely rotten, and that she was utterly unseaworthy. Young White advised that the rotten plank be stripped off and replaced by sound ones, and a channel opened through the sand that would admit the tide to the stranded ship. Work was at once commenced, and a very few days saw the ship that was about to be abandoned by her Captain and crew, re-planked, again afloat, and on her way to New York, where she arrived in the latter part of September.

[p.77] His health was materially improved by the voyage, and on his return he again entered the employ of his former patron and friend, Col. Carpenter, where he remained until the spring of eighteen hundred and fourteen, when, having raised a company of volunteers, he received a commission as Lieutenant in Colonel Dodge’s regiment, and took part in the assault and capture of Fort Erie, opposite Buffalo. While in occupation of the Fort, with his command, he was severely wounded by a shell fired from the enemy’s redoubt half a mile distant; soon after his recovery an opportunity occurred for revenging himself on the enemy. A reconnoitering party from the British camp was discovered in an adjacent wood, and Lieutenant White was sent with his command to capture or disperse them. He succeeded in capturing the whole party, killing and wounding several before they surrendered. He remained with his regiment until the expiration of their term of service, when he returned home, and resumed his studies, as previously mentioned.

In the spring of eighteen hundred and sixteen Judge Benjamin Wright was forming a corps for prosecuting the surveys of the Erie Canal. Mr. White solicited a position, and was engaged by Judge Wright as one of his assistants. During this and the succeeding season he was employed in taking the levels westward from Rome. In this duty he acquitted himself so well that he very soon won the esteem of the Chief Engineer, between whom and himself ever afterward there existed a firm and unbroken friendship. About this time he made the acquaintance of Governor De Witt Clinton, who was highly [p.78] pleased with his personal qualities and professional abilities.

At this early day the knowledge of canal construction among the engineers of the country was very limited, and Mr. White, at the earnest solicitation of Governor Clinton, determined to visit England for the purpose of examining the public works of that country, and procuring the most improved instruments in use.

In the autumn of eighteen hundred and seventeen Mr. White carried out his determination, and made a careful examination of the canals in the United Kingdom, travelling for this purpose more than two thousand miles on foot. He returned in the following spring, bringing surveying instruments and accurate drawings of the most important structures on those works, and much valuable information for the benefit of the State in the construction of its canals. About the time of his return there was much discussion on the subject of lock construction, some favoring wood, and others stone, or a combination of the two. It was, however, finally decided to build stone locks, using quick-lime mortar for the masonry, and pointing the joints with hydraulic cement, then imported at a great cost from England. Soon after, Mr. White discovered a valuable lime rock near the route of the canal in Madison County, which, after repeated experiments, he converted into a cement, equal to the imported, and at much less cost to the State. For this discovery he obtained a patent, but permitted its use under the promise of the Canal Commissioners that a just compensation should be allowed, not only for it, but for his expenses and [p.79] services while abroad. The Commissioners, however, failed to obtain the necessary authority from the Legislature to fulfil their promise, notwithstanding the recommendations of the Governor and other officers of the State, as evidenced in the following extracts from official documents:

Governor De Witt Clinton, in a letter to a committee of the Legislature in eighteen hundred and twenty-four, states, “That Mr. White had been of great use in his operations as an engineer; and that his skill, industry, and integrity in that department furnish strong recommendations to the favorable notice of the State.” Judge Wright stated before the same committee, “That hydraulic lime had been generally used along the canal since eighteen hundred and eighteen, and part of eighteen hundred and nineteen, in which year, after much persuasion by the engineers, it was used in all face work of locks and arches, the backing being laid in common lime. When common lime was used it gave evidence of soon failing. I have no hesitation in saying that the discovery of hydraulic cement by Mr. White has been of incalculable benefit to the State, and that it is a discovery which ought, in justice, to be handsomely remunerated.” Mr. Flagg reported from the same committee that Mr. White, a principal engineer, had made this discovery after repeated experiments, and received a patent in eighteen hundred and twenty. That Mr. White introduced it at great expense amidst the doubts and fears which operate against its use.”

The Canal Commissioners, in their report of February, [p.80] eighteen hundred and twenty, state that, “They have employed exploring parties in both the western and eastern sections. Between the Seneca and Genesee rivers Canvass White, Engineer, has had the charge of a party, which has been engaged for several months in levelling over and surveying different routes for the canal line. These labors he has performed much to our satisfaction, and having presented a view of them to a meeting of our Board held in October, at Utica, we thereupon decided in favor of the route originally explored between these rivers in the year eighteen hundred and sixteen.” The canal through, and eight miles east of Utica, was completed in the fall of eighteen hundred and twenty, Canvass White being the Resident Engineer. In eighteen hundred and twenty-one Messrs. Wright (principal) and White (acting), engineers, explored the country thoroughly from Little Falls to the Hudson, and pronounced impracticable the route from Schenectady connecting with the Hudson at Albany, and located the line via Cohoes and Troy. This location was finally fixed upon by Messrs. Wright, Geddes, and White. Early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty-two Canvass White was sent to lay out the Glens Falls feeder, and in that year he planned and directed the building of the lock and dam between Troy and Waterford, until the eighth of June, when William Jerome took charge.

Judge Wright, in a letter to Dr. Hosack, of December, eighteen hundred and twenty-eight, says: “Here it is proper that I should render a just tribute of merit to a gentleman who now stands high in his profession, and [p.81] whose skill and sound judgment, as a civil engineer, is not surpassed, if equalled, by any other in the United States. The gentleman to whom I refer is Canvass White, Esq., who commenced as my pupil in eighteen hundred and sixteen, by carrying the target; he took an active part through that year, and through eighteen hundred and seventeen. In the fall of the latter year he made a voyage to England on his own account, and purchased for the State several levelling instruments, of which we stood much in need. He returned in the spring, and brought with him much valuable information, which he has usefully developed, greatly to the benefit of the State of New York, “to this gentleman I could always apply for counsel and advice in any great or difficult case, and to his sound judgment in locating the line of the canal, in much of the difficult part of the route, the people of this State are under obligations greater than is generally known or appreciated.”

Simon Guilford, Civil Engineer, in a letter to the author, dated Lebanon, Pennsylvania, December, eighteen hundred and sixty-nine, writes: “In reply to your letter relating to the late Canvass White, C. E., I presume you will obtain, through others, a more extended and connected history, than I am able to give you. I will, however, relate an instance of his prompt decision and energy, which occurred upon the Erie Canal at a time when I was serving him as assistant. When that portion of the canal, along the Mohawk river, between Little Falls and Canajoharie was completed, and the supply of water was turned in, owing to a very porous soil over [p.82] which a considerable portion of the canal was made, the supply proved inadequate, which was fully realized as the first boat passed, containing the Canal Commissioners, the principal Engineer, Benjamin Wright, and others. The question arose as to how the difficulty was to be overcome. Mr. White replied, “A feeder must be obtained from the river at this place” (a few miles above Fort Plain), and on being asked how long it would take to build a dam across the river, nine hundred feet long, so as to raise the water nine feet above the ordinary surface, he replied, “A few weeks.

The dam was completed in sixty days, inclusive of a side-cut and bridge connected with it. Trees were cut and taken whole, the trunk with the tops, from timber land near, and placed, with the butts down the stream in parallel rows; the limbs were cut partly through so that they were made to conform closely in line with the trunks, and the cavities filled with rocks and coarse gravel. The trees thus forming the main portion of the dam were weighed down and compacted by a heavy covering of stone material. With the trunks of the lower tiers of the trees left to protrude out several feet from under the lower slope of the dam, an apron or platform was formed, which served as a protection from an under washing of the gravel foundation.

Mr. White’s professional success, scrupulous integrity, and modest demeanor, in all transactions of life, won for him the enduring esteem of all with whom he was associated. For these admirable qualities of mind and heart, he became widely known, and, as a consequence, frequent [p.83] and urgent offers were tendered him for engineering service in other States. He, however, continued in the active discharge of his duties as engineer on the Erie Canal, until it was so nearly completed, that his place could be supplied from his assistant engineers, when he succeeded Loammi Baldwin as Chief Engineer on the Union Canal of Pennsylvania. He continued in that position until the latter part of the summer of eighteen hundred and twenty-six, when, in consequence of a severe illness, contracted while conducting the surveys of the canal west of the Susquehannah river, he returned to Philadelphia, and resigned his connection with the Company.

The distinguished Civil Engineer, W. Milnor Roberts, in a letter to the author, dated St. Louis, December, eighteen hundred and sixty-nine, writes: “I recollect the first interview with Canvass White, which took place in the office of the Union Canal Company, in Philadelphia. Samuel Mifflin was the President, and my father, Thomas P. Roberts, was, for many years, the Treasurer of the Company. In eighteen hundred and twenty-three and four, Mr. Mifflin had a controversy with Loammi Baldwin, who was at the time the Chief Engineer of the Company, which resulted in the resignation of Mr. Baldwin, and the appointment of Canvass White to fill the vacancy. During the controversy, a long and important paper written by Mr. Mifflin, was intrusted to me to be copied. Curiosity led me to interest myself in the matter under discussion, and in studying the paper I detected what seemed to me to be an erroneous statement, to which, through my [p.84] father, I called Mr. Mifflin’s attention, who expressed himself under great obligations, as it proved to be important. He urged my father to make an engineer of me; and he spoke to Mr. White after he had taken charge of the canal; and some time afterward, when Mr. White visited the office in Philadelphia, I was sent for to meet him. His first remark was: ‘He is very small, do you think he could stand rough and tumble engineering?’ The interview ended with instructions to me to go up the Schuylkill Navigation on board of a canal boat, and on arriving at Reading, to inquire for Mr. Olmstead, at the Engineer’s office. This I did, and in a few days I met Mr. White in Reading, who took me with him in the Company’s two-horse wagon on a tour along the line, visiting the works then in the course of construction. This was in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty-five. Mr. Olmstead who had charge of the eastern division, accompanied Mr. White to the end of his division, where he met Mr. Guilford, who was in charge of the middle division. Soon after Mr. Guilford met us, we came to one of his locks, nearly finished, concerning which, after taking a good look at it, I made my first engineering remark, as follows: ‘Why! Mr. White, don’t you think that this lock is too small?.’ He smiled, saying blandly: ‘I guess its large enough.’ Mr. Guilford said nothing at the time, but afterwards, when we had arrived at his headquarters in Lebanon, he said to me: ‘Don’t you know that Mr. White advocated the small locks for this canal, coinciding with Mr. Mifflin in opposition to Mr. Baldwin? You must be careful about what you say [p.85] about small locks.’ I was young and inexperienced, and my remark became a by-word with the young engineers amongst ourselves. I had then seen only two canals—the James River Canal in Virginia, and the Schuylkill Navigation ; the locks of which were seventeen feet wide and about ninety feet long; whereas the Union Canal locks were only eight and one half feet wide, and seventy-five feet long; the design being that two boats from the Union Canal should pass at one time through the locks of the Schuylkill Navigation. I may remark that I have now no doubt that the adoption of so small a canal and locks for the Union Canal, was an error. There had been precedents for such small canals in England; but I think that the reasoning which determined the size in the case of the Union Canal, on account of the small supply of water, was inadequate, if not fallacious. Many years after its first construction, it was enlarged under the engineering superintendence of my friend, Colonel James Worrall. I send with this my old description of the ‘Union Canal,’ and of the ‘Lehigh Navigation,’ copied from my common-place book of eighteen hundred and twenty-nine and thirty.”*

“My official or professional connection with Mr. White ended in eighteen hundred and thirty-one.” * * *

“Canvass White, in his day, stood at the head of American Canal Engineers, and his strength lay in his cool, practical judgment. He had no experience in railroad engineering, so far as I ever knew. He was a gentleman of very quiet manners, equal temper, and kind [p.86] disposition. I never knew him ruffled, or impatient. His wife was a lady of great beauty, and they had a son, a fine boy when I knew him, whom I afterwards lost sight of, who became an engineer.”

During the time Mr. White was engaged as Chief Engineer of the Union Canal, he was called to New York for the purpose of examining the sources of supply for pure and wholesome water for the city. He reported to the Mayor and Aldermen, that, for the present need of the city, and its probable requirements for twenty years thereafter, a sufficient supply could be obtained from the Rye pond and the Bronx river, in Westchester County, “but after the city should extend to one-third the surface of Manhattan Island, it would be necessary to add the Croton river to their other resources.” The report was accompanied with full details, and strongly impressed the city government with the importance and feasibility of the project.

The comprehensive nature of his mind, through which, at a glance, he grasped the salient points of a subject, and his systematic habit in arranging details, enabled him to accomplish an extraordinary amount of professional work. While engaged upon the two last mentioned enterprises, he was solicited to take charge of the works of the Schuylkill Navigation Company (the Engineer having suddenly died), which was then in the course of construction. After making a rapid survey of the ground, and the plans of the Company, he suggested alterations, and recommended the employment of Captain Beach as their Chief; he continuing as Consulting Engineer, [p.87] until the work was completed. At this time he was also Consulting Engineer for the Delaware and Chesapeake Canal, Judge Benjamin Wright being the Chief Engineer.

The success and reported profits of the Erie Canal gave an impetus to canal construction in that day, that would have resulted in a system of artificial internal navigation as universal as our present railroad system, could the capital necessary for the purpose have been obtained. Projects were started in various parts of the Union, and a pressing demand was made upon the time of the few engineers then in the country.

The citizens of Hartford conceived the project of improving the navigation of the Connecticut river, and the Windsor Locks were built by Mr. White as Chief Engineer. Careful financial men were led away by the prevailing spirit of the time, and large amounts were expended upon impracticable enterprises.

Amongst these was the Farmington Canal, constructed from New Haven to Farmington, and thence up the Farmington river, “as money could be found to prosecute the work.” Mr. White was applied to for plans and surveys, and for an opinion of the value of it when completed; the former of which he furnished, and remained Consulting Engineer during the construction of the work. However, he frequently expressed to Mr. Hillhouse, one of the chief promoters of the enterprise, an opinion adverse to the success of the canal as a financial investment. The capacity of the canal proved to be far greater than the requirements for its construction.

[p.88] In eighteen hundred and twenty-five, the traffic in coal from Mauch Chunk to Philadelphia had increased to such an extent that the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company (who were bringing down the products of its mines in arks), finding its means insufficient to supply the increasing demand for coal, concluded to improve the navigation of the Lehigh river, and to ask the State of Pennsylvania to construct a canal along the margin of the Delaware river from Easton to navigable waters below. Josiah White, a member of the Society of Friends, and an energetic man, whose practical common sense and sound judgment enabled him to comprehend men and measures with much precision, was Superintendent of the affairs of the Company, and constructed at Maunch Chunk a wide basin for boats, and one mile of canal, in which were five locks. The work remained in this condition until the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty-seven, when Canvass White, having regained his health, was appointed Chief Engineer, and the work was resumed and prosecuted with such diligence that the first boat passed through the canal in July, eighteen hundred and twentynine. At that time the Lehigh Canal was the most capacious work of the kind yet undertaken in the country, and was considered a bold project.

The engineers under Mr. White, were W. Milnor Roberts in charge of the western, A. B. Warford the middle, and John Hopkins the eastern division.

During the summer of eighteen hundred and twenty-five, Mr. White was appointed Chief Engineer of the Delaware and Raritan Canal. He organized a party for [p.89] preliminary surveys, and placed it under the immediate charge of John Hopkins, one of his most trusted assistants. This work was discontinued late in the fall, after the location of about twelve miles, and was not resumed again until the spring of eighteen hundred and thirty-one.

The construction of the canal from the Delaware to the Raritan river was attended by many difficulties, and met many obstructions, all of which were successfully overcome. In the prosecution of this important work, Mr. White always acknowledged with becoming gratitude the generous and wise counsel of Commodore Robert F. Stockton, who took an active interest in the success of the enterprise.

In the autumn of eighteen hundred and thirty-four, when this work was nearly completed, his health was so much impaired that his physician advised him to seek a more genial climate, with a probable hope of seeing him restored to health and usefulness. He sailed soon after for St. Augustine, Florida, where he died within a month after his arrival at that place. His remains were returned to New Jersey, and lie buried in the church-yard at Princeton, where his family resided at the time of his death.

Mr. White was personally popular with all who were favored with his acquaintance. General Bernard, a French engineer in the service of the United States, remarked of him, “that as a civil engineer he had no superior ; his genius and ingenuity were of a surprising magnitude; his mild and gentle ways, his sweet and amiable temper, modest and retiring manners won [p.90] his heart; he loved him very much, exceedingly.” Henry Clay remarked, when speaking of him to a gentleman who was seeking an engineer for the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal: “Get Canvass White; no man is more competent, no man more capable; and while your faith in his ability and fidelity increases, your friendship will grow into affection.”

In a letter from the late Hon. Hugh White, of Cohoes, New York, of July, eighteen hundred and sixty, he says: “My brother, Canvass White, was in stature five feet nine and one-half inches; lightly made, weighing from one hundred and forty-five to one hundred and sixty-five pounds ; light complexion, light brown hair, blue eyes, wonderfully clear and bright; inclining slightly forward from a perpendicular when walking or standing. Grave and thoughtful expression, yet full of affection and kindness, a broad intellectual forehead and well-shaped nose, and with a trifle more of flesh would have been an unusually fine-looking man. The most prominent and striking feature in the general contour of the person, was an unmistakable impress of genius, modesty and amiability. In conversation, you could not escape the conviction that what he said he was sure of, and left the impression indelibly upon those he desired to convince of the truth or feasibility of any plan or project he had in contemplation.”

* For a synopsis of the description referred to, see Appendix.


Extract from a description of the Union Canal, written in 1830, by W. Milnor Roberts, Resident Engineer.

The Union Canal begins two miles below Reading, and extends to Middletown, nine miles below Harrisburgh, connecting the Schuylkill with the Susquehanna river. Its length is seventy-nine miles, exclusive of a navigable feeder on the Swatara. The summit level passes through a tunnel eighteen feet wide, fourteen feet high, and seven hundred and thirty-nine feet long. There are two reservoirs for this summit, containing twelve million cubic feet of water; one of them covering eight, and the other twenty-seven acres. There are two steam engines of one hundred horse power each, and three water-wheels for supplying the summit with water, capable of raising to advantage 1,250,000 gallons every twenty-four hours.

There are three dams for supplying the main canal with water—one across the Schuylkill river, and two across the Swatara. The great dam, located in a narrow gorge, through which the Swatara passes, and near the northern declivity of the Blue Mountain, is a stupendous structure, and holds in check an immense artificial lake covering about eight hundred acres. The crib work measures two hundred feet across the stream and forty feet in perpendicular height, composed of timbers of 10 by 12 inches. Those at the base are of white oak, the remainder of white pine, laid at right angles, forming squares six to eight feet from centre to centre, firmly treenailed, filled with stone, and the whole strongly fitted against the mountain on the west end. On the east end is an abutment of stone, laid in hydraulic cement, forty-eight feet high, eight feet above the top of the dam. The dam has a base in the direction of the stream of one hundred and ten feet. The embankment of earth and stone reaches to the east side of the gap, a distance of two hundred and thirty feet; [p.328] it is two hundred and sixty feet wide on the base, and sixty feet in width at the outer surface, and fifty feet in height, being ten feet above the dam. There are twelve sluice gates about six feet above the bottom of the dam, each having an opening of two feet square. They are of cast-iron, raised or lowered by means of screws. The sluice gates and machinery are surrounded by a strong frame work, connected with the western shore by a light bridge.

Text and image (with colorization © todayinsci) from Charles Beebe Stuart, Lives and Works of Civil and Military Engineers of America (1871), 74-90. (source)

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