The engineer who designed the Lehigh Canal
In his short life, Canvass White would oversee or consult in the design of the Lehigh Navigation, the Union Canal, the Schuylkill Navigation, the Delaware and Chesapeake Canal, the Glens Falls feeder canal, the New Haven and Farmington Canal, and the water supply for the city of New York.
Two men are responsible for the transformation of the Lehigh Valley from a frontier into the cradle of the American Industrial Revolution. Those two, although they shared a common surname, were unrelated. They were Josiah White, founder of the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company, and Canvass White, perhaps the greatest canal builder in America.
Josiah White, the better known of the two, created the Lehigh anthracite coal industry by developing the first mines, railroads and navigation system which initially brought coal from Summit Hill by railroad to the Lehigh River at Mauch Chunk (current Jim Thorpe) and by canal boat through a system of locks and slack water pools to Easton where it joined with the Delaware Canal Into Philadelphia.
Although Josiah White conceived of, financed and managed the project, the genius behind its design and engineering was Canvas White. Distinguished Civil Engineer W. Milnor Roberts, who worked under White on the Lehigh Canal, observed in an 1869 letter,"Canvas White, in his day, stood at the head of American Civil Engineers."
Canvass White began as an assistant engineer on the construction of America's first major canal, the Erie Canal. In his short life, he would go on to oversee or consult in the design of the Lehigh Canal, the Union Canal, the Schuylkill Navigation, the Delaware and Chesapeake Canal, the Glens Falls Feeder Canal, the New Haven and Farmington Canal, and the water supply for the city of New York.
Canvass White was born in 1790 in Whitestone, New York, a town founded by his grandfather. He grew up on the form in the Oneida County wilderness. He was frail which often kept him from doing manual work, but was creative and devised many tools for daily use on his family's farm.
In 1811, poor health compelled him to take a sea voyage. On his return, a violent storm shipwrecked the vessel at high tide-stranding the vessel over a quarter mile inland. White led a repair of the ship and cutting a channel to re-launch the vessel.
In 1813, he entered Fairfield Academy to study mathematics, science, and surveying. After completing his studies, with the war of 1812 ongoing, he volunteered and received a commission as a lieutenant in the US Army. He led a company of volunteers to capture Fort Erie and was wounded during the battle but recovered and completed his commission.
In 1816, White became a surveying assistant to Benjamin Wright, chief engineer for the Erie Canal. He gained the confidence of Wright, and with the encouragement of Governor De Witt Clinton, in 1817, White sailed to England to examine its public works and instruments. He traveled on foot over 2,000 miles throughout the United Kingdom conducting careful examination of the construction and operations of canals. In 1818, White returned home, bringing with him surveying instruments and accurate drawings of the important structures, and a model of the first boat which was built for the Erie Canal.
Soon after his return he discovered a type of limestone rock, and after various experiments, patented a waterproof hydraulic cement. Engineers needed a cement that was suitable for lock construction, and for which none existed at the time. White's hydraulic cement worked beautifully.
As the Erie Canal neared completion in 1825, White was hired as Chief Engineer on the Union Canal in Pennsylvania. During this time, he was called to New York to examine sources of supply for water for New York City and his report strongly impressed the city government. Concurrently, he was hired to take charge of the Schuylkill Navigation Company after the death of its chief engineer, served as a consulting engineer for the Delaware and Chesapeake Canal, and Chief Engineer of the Delaware and Raritan Canal.
In 1827, he was appointed Chief Engineer of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company to finish work on the Lehigh Navigation System, which was completed in 1829. At the time the Lehigh Canal was the most expansive work of its kind undertaken in the country and was considered a bold project.
Benjamin Wright once wrote, "It is proper that I should render a just tribute of merit to a gentleman who now stands high in his profession, and whose skill and sound judgment, as a civil engineer, is not surpassed, if equaled, by any other in the United States. The gentleman to whom I refer is Canvass White."
In 1834, White developed consumption and was advised to seek a more moderate climate. He sailed to Florida, where he died within a month of his arrival.
Gen. Bernard, U. S. Engineer said of Canvas White, "As a civil engineer he had no superior; his genius and ability were of surpassing magnitude."
Author Bill Bryson wrote, "The great unsung Canvass White didn't just make New York rich, more profoundly, he helped to make America."