October 10: “Father of American Civil Engineering” Born in Wethersfield


Benjamin Wright, the chief engineer behind some of the most famous civil engineering projects in United States history — including the Erie Canal — was born to Grace and Ebenezer Wright of Wethersfield on this day in 1770.   Ebenezer’s accumulated debts had forced young Benjamin to forego most of his formal schooling to take up odd jobs in order to support his family, and in 1789, the Wright family moved from Wethersfield to upstate New York in hopes of finding better fortunes.

Having been home-schooled by his uncle Joseph Wright in the fields of surveying and law, Benjamin began working as a surveyor in the early 1790s, mapping out what was then still considered “frontier territory” in modern-day Oneida and Oswego counties.  A few years later, Wright gained valuable experience working for the English engineer and famous canal-builder William Weston, laying out locks and building canals along the Mohawk River.  In 1811, the newly-formed New York State Canal Commission hired Wright to do some initial surveying for an incredibly ambitious public works project: a canal between the city of Albany with Lake Erie that would ultimately create a continuous waterway between the Great Lakes to New York City.

Two years later, when the state of New York had finally amassed enough funding to begin construction of the canal in earnest, they reached out to William Weston, who had since returned to England.  When Weston declined the invitation to head the Erie Canal project, the commission hired his former protege, Benjamin Wright, as the chief engineer.  The Erie Canal was the largest public works project ever attempted in the United States to date.  By the time it was completed in 1825, it stretched 363 miles long and encompassed 34 massive locks that facilitated over 560 vertical feet of elevation change.  The new canal slashed the time and money it took to transport goods between New York City and the nation’s heartland and was quickly hailed as an economic success — even after factoring in the project’s massive $7 million price tag.

A map of the Erie Canal, circa 1840.

The commercial success of the Erie Canal sparked “canal fever” across the entire northeastern United States, and Wright found his services in very high demand nationwide.  He later played a major role in the design and construction of numerous American canals, including the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, the St. Lawrence Canal, and the Farmington Canal, which bisected the entire state of Connecticut from New Haven northward to Granby.  In general, these artificial waterways were incredibly expensive and time-consuming to build, and few of them achieved the success or fame of the Erie Canal; by the middle of the 19th century, “canal fever” quickly faded as investors, businessmen, and civil engineers like Benjamin Wright increasingly embraced railroads as the transportation of the future.  In the 1830s, Wright worked as a surveyor for railroad routes in New York and Virginia, and in his later years served as chief engineer for New York City, where he died in 1842 at the age of 71.

In recognition of the crucial role Benjamin Wright played in the formation of the United States’ most significant infrastructure projects, the American Society of Civil Engineers designated Wright as “the Father of American Civil Engineering” in 1969.  An American engineering icon whose projects facilitated the industrialization of the United States in the early 19th century was born from humble beginnings on this day in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Benjamin Wright,” American Society of Civil Engineers

Richard DeLuca, “New England’s Grand Ambition: The Farmington Canal,” connecticuthistory.org