“Every successful structure serves as a guide in the construction of all future similar works. Thus the experience of one may become the wisdom of many.” — DeVolson Wood, American civil engineer, 1882
George W. Goethals
John Findley Wallace
John F. Stevens
|No project on earth seemed beyond the
capability of late-19th-century civil engineers. More than 100 years of
public works construction had given them experience in managing and modifying
Beginning in the 1820s, when the first railroads in the United States were formed, the railroad industry became the largest employer and teacher of American engineers. Constructing railroads was remarkably similar to building roads and tow-path canals, which provided earlier engineering challenges.
With hands-on training and a legacy of
successful construction ventures, U.S. engineers were not intimidated by
the complexity of designing and building a canal across Panama.
In the 1830s, British civil engineer David Stevenson traveled to the United States to study American engineering first-hand. He found abundant improvisation and the early signs of a profession confident of its technical abilities.
Edward Serrell, co-author of the Engineers' Report on the Niagra Ship Canal, studied engineering at the U.S. Military Academy. Until the mid-19th century, it was the only school in the United States to offer such training. Serrell also helped survey a route for the Panama Railroad.
Canal builders were often called upon
to alter nature. One of their greatest challenges was Niagara Falls, which
obstructed all but local traffic on the Niagara River and the adjacent
Great Lakes. In 1838, U.S. Army topographical engineers proposed a plan
to make the waterway passable.
19th-century construction projects were the work of civil engineers who
learned their trade without benefit of formal education. Whatever knowledge
they did not get from experience, they learned from guides and manuals
like this one.