Benjamin Wright

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For other people named Benjamin Wright, see Benjamin Wright (disambiguation).
Benjamin Wright
Benjamin Wright.jpg
Benjamin Wright
Born October 10, 1770
Wethersfield, Connecticut
Died August 24, 1842
Nationality United States
Engineering career
Significant projects Erie Canal
Chesapeake and Ohio Canal

Benjamin Wright (October 10, 1770 – August 24, 1842) was an American civil engineer who was chief engineer of the Erie Canal and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.[1] In 1969, the American Society of Civil Engineers declared him the "Father of American Civil Engineering".[2]


Wright was born in Wethersfield, Connecticut, to Ebenezer Wright and Grace Butler. In 1789, at age 19, he moved with his family to Fort Stanwix (now Rome, New York), where he became a land surveyor.

In the next decennia he worked as land surveyor and engineer, especially on the construction of the Erie Canal and later on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. In addition to his engineering work, Wright was also elected to the New York State Legislature (1794), and appointed a New York county judge.

Wright returned to New York in about 1833. He continued to work primarily as a consultant on a number of canal projects, but also began doing surveys for railroads,[3] which were in the early stages of development at the time.

Wright married Philomela Waterman on September 27, 1798; they had nine children (five of whom became civil engineers). Wright is buried in the New York Marble Cemetery in Manhattan.[4]


Oneida and Oswego counties[edit]

Wright started his career surveying the frontier areas of Oneida and Oswego counties.[5] In 1794 Wright was hired as a surveyor and planner by the famed English canal designer William Weston. Working for Weston, he helped lay out canals and locks on the Mohawk River. After Weston returned to England in 1801, Wright was commissioned to survey the Mohawk River between Schenectady and Rome, and then to the Hudson River.[2]

Wright initially surveyed of the Mohawk River from Rome to the Hudson River on behalf of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, but that company didn't have the resources to build the canal.[3]

Erie Canal[edit]

Profile of the original Erie Canal, ca 1830s.

Wright surveyed the same route of the Mohawk River from Rome to the Hudson River again for the New York State Canal Commission in 1811, and by 1816 funding for the Erie Canal was in place. Its construction began in 1817. The ASCE (1996) explained:

What crested challenges for the canal construction were the multiple elevation changes along the route. Hence, the supply of water to the canal and the drainage of excess water were far trickier than single sloped canals. To keep water flowing, an elaborate system of feeders and waste weirs was created. Furthermore, the east-west canal had to transverse multiple north-south running rivers, which called for numerous aqueducts, the largest employing 11 Roman-style arches to span 802 feet across the Genesee River Valley.[5]

The following year Wright was appointed senior engineer in charge of construction of the middle section of the Erie Canal, and later, he was placed in charge of the eastern section as well.[3] He led thousands of unskilled laborers as they built the canal with wheelbarrows, hand tools, horses, and mules. In Wright's honor, the first boat to traverse the canal system was named the Chief Engineer.[2]

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal[edit]

Proposed route of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

After completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, he was approached by the Wurts brothers of Philadelphia to survey a possible route from the coalfields of Northeastern Pennsylvania to the Hudson, where anthracite could be shipped by boat downriver to New York City.[6] Wright consented, and served as chief engineer on the Delaware and Hudson Canal for about a year.[7] At that point, he stepped down and became a consulting engineer; the job of chief was taken by John B. Jervis, who had worked under Wright on the Erie Canal.[8]

When that canal was finished in 1828, Wright was made Chief Engineer of the newly organized Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which operated on a route along the Potomac River between Washington, D.C. and Cumberland, Maryland. Within a year, Wright had let contracts for a massive construction effort that encompassed about 6,000 men and 700 horses.[2]



  1. ^ Kapsch, Robert J. (2000). "American Canals as a Source of Revitalization". The millennium link: the rehabilitation of the Forth & Clyde and Union Canals. London: Thomas Telford. pp. 48–51.
  2. ^ a b c d Weingardt, Richard G. (2005). Engineering Legends: Great American Civil Engineers: 32 Profiles Of Inspiration And Achievement. Reston: ASCE Publications. pp. 4–9. ISBN 0-7844-0801-7. Retrieved October 7, 2011. 
  3. ^ a b c "Benjamin Wright Collection, 1791-1862 (finding aid)". New York State Library web site. New York State Library. Retrieved 16 October 2014. 
  4. ^ "Benjamin Wright Gravesite". ASCE Metropolitan Section. Retrieved October 7, 2011. 
  5. ^ a b Benjamin Wright, 1770-1842 - American Society of Civil Engineers, 1996-2014. Accessed 10.2014
  6. ^ Shaughnessy, Jim (1997). Delaware & Hudson: The History of an Important Railroad Whose Antecedent Was A Canal Network to Transport Coal. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. p. 1. ISBN 0-8156-0455-6. Retrieved October 7, 2011. 
  7. ^ Supreme Court, Ulster County: the president, managers, and company of the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company vs. the Pennsylvania Coal Company, Vol. 1. W.C. Bryant & Co. 1858. Retrieved April 9, 2014. 
  8. ^ "Benjamin Wright Gravesite". ASCE Metropolitan Section. Retrieved April 9, 2014. 

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