Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Master Engineer of the Wabash and Erie Canal

by Tom Castaldi

Jesse Lynch Williams was the chief engineer for the Wabash and Erie Canal.  Born on May 6, 1807, near Danbury, N.C., Williams was the grandson of Judge John Lynch, the founder of Lynchburg, Va., and “Lynch Law” (which arose out of the judge’s summary treatment of Tories during the Revolution).  Jesse Williams’ parents, Jesse and Sarah, were members of the Society of Friends who moved to Cincinnati early in the ninetieth century and to Wayne County, Ind., by 1819.

At the age of 17, in 1825, Williams was a rodman on a survey team laying the route for one of Ohio’s first canals, the Miami and Erie, which connected Cincinnati to the Maumee Valley.  In 1828, Williams met Susan Creighton, the daughter of Judge William Creighton, a congressman from Virginia during the War of 1812 and the first Secretary of State for Ohio.  She was also the granddaughter of David Meade, the subject of English novelist William Thackeray’s tale, The Virginians.  Susan and Jesse were married in Chillicothe, Ohio, where Williams accepted the assignment of completing the engineering for the northern leg of the Miami and Erie Canal.

Based on his Ohio engineering successes, Williams was employed by the Indiana Canal Commission to be the chief engineer for the Wabash and Erie Canal in 1832.  Two years later Williams was put in charge of all the canal projects in Indiana and in 1837 he was made the chief engineer for all Indiana improvement projects, including turnpikes, railroads and canals.

Williams earned the reputation for being a tireless worker, riding all day on horseback and spending evenings solving the numerous engineering problems of the canals, in addition to handling the account books, correspondence and reports to the legislature that the great project demanded.  He always rested on Sunday, however.  He was a staunch opponent of alcohol and an active member of the temperance movement.  Whenever he could, he would forbid contractors on the canal from issuing strong spirits, although crews often found ways around his prohibitions. He was also a devoted member of First Presbyterian Church in Fort Wayne. At age 26, he was elected to be an elder of his congregation.

Williams managed to stay above all the charges of corruption, venality, incompetence and theft that public works projects suffered during the 1840s as the canal’s financial woes deepened.  Indeed, in 1847, when the state of Indiana abandoned the canal and ceded it to a board of trustees, Williams was quickly chosen by the trustees “as a man of known and established character for experience and integrity” to be the chief engineer for the completion of the project. Williams held this position until 1876 when the canal at last failed and the United States court ordered it to be sold.
A photo believed to be of the Board of Directors of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Williams is in the front row, left.

In 1854, Williams was appointed chief engineer for the Fort Wayne and Chicago Railroad, and when this company merged with the Pittsburg, Fort Wayne and Chicago Railroad in 1856, he became a trustee of the company (later to be known as the Pennsylvania Railroad).  His most important railroad position came in 1862, however, when President Abraham Lincoln appointed Williams to be a government director of the Union Pacific in the great transcontinental railway project. He was reappointed by successive presidents Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant and held the position until the Union Pacific met the Central Pacific at Promontory Point in 1869, completing the first railroad line across the west.  It was his job as a director of the project to oversee the establishment of the route, and so he spent many months combing the slopes and canyons of the eastern Rocky Mountains to produce the final report used by the railroad to lay its tracks.  Williams’ reports demonstrated how the project might save millions of dollars in construction costs and this led to investigations of the original proposals.  It revealed, in part, the great scandal known as “Credit Mobilier” involving the corruption of contractors and politicians as high up as the vice presidency.

Williams spent the last years of his life in Fort Wayne where he died in 1886 and was buried in Lindenwood Cemetery. 

Originally published in Fort Wayne Magazine, “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – January/February 2005, No. 9, p.40

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