Written by: Aaron Craig Raphael, Union College, 6 November 1996.
As Judge Write said, "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 equalized, by any other in the United States. The gentleman who I refer to is Canvass White, Esquire ... to this gentleman I could always apply counsel and advice in any great or difficult case."
Canvass White was born in Whitestown, New York on September 8, 1790. Even at an early age he displayed a talent for invention, and constructed many things needed in his hometown. Just before turning 21 in 1810, he was advised to go on a sea-voyage as a means of restoring his failing health. He returned in 1813, and established himself as a student in the Fairfield Academy, where he studied Mathematics, Science, and Surveying.
In the midst of his schooling, Canvass decided to take part in the assault and capture of Fort Erie. Unfortunately, he was wounded by a gunshot. As lieutenant, he set out to capture the people responsible for wounding him. He succeeded in capturing the whole party, killing and wounding many before they surrendered. After the battle, he returned home to resume his studying with Dr. J. Noyes.
While he was in school, the construction of the Erie Canal had begun under the supervision of chief engineer Benjamin Wright. Little was known about canal construction in the early 1800's, and it was nearly impossible to find trained civil engineers to build the new canal. No American college offered civil engineering at the time. The civil engineering departments at Union College and Rensselear Polytechnic Institute grew out of the undertaking of designing the Erie Canal.
Governor DeWitt Clinton realized the need for civil engineers, and in 1817 sent White to England to inspect and report on the materials and tools used to build bridges, canals, aqueducts, and culverts. After walking over 2,000 miles examining these canals, he returned to New York in 1818 with the latest surveying devices and precise drawings of the most important structures on the English canals.
One of his first goals was to find a better material means to waterproof canal locks, constructed in this country of wood or brick which rotted after a few brief years. English canals used a limestone mix, but it was too costly to import. White used the data collected from his trip to experiment with numerous varieties of limestone. He produced a waterproof hydraulic cement that was both cheaper and of better quality than that used in England. Finally, after spending considerable time and expense, he obtained a patent for his discovery in 1820. At first his cement met with much reluctance and caution, but after proving its success in numerous applications, was not only universally used for the face work of canal locks and arches in New York, but was also exported from the state in immense qualities.
With a promise from the canal commissioners that just compensation would be returned to him, White allowed widespread use of this cement. After waiting numerous years for his compensation, he brought suit against one of the manufacturers. He felt entitled to some money since over 500,000 bushels of this cement was used to construct the Erie Canal. He was denied a monetary reward by the legislature and many private manufacturers never paid the patent money. White received only a pat on the back for his hard work.
Canvass White had many other accomplishments beyond the discovery of hydraulic cement. He was also a surveyor, a job he began in 1819 when he headed the surveying team responsible for finding the best possible routes for the Erie Canal between the Seneca and Genesee rivers. In 1822, he laid out the Glen Falls feeder and planned the building of the lock and dam between Troy and Waterford. Canvass later served as chief engineer of the Lehigh, Delaware, Raritan, and Union canals. He was chief engineer on the Union Canal until the latter part of 1826 when he returned to Philadelphia because of illness. Fortunately, he regained his health the following year and continued working. He became president of the Cohoes Company which specialized in the development of water-power at Cohoes. He also studied the best sources of water for the metropolis of New York City.
White worked extremely efficiently. Once asked how long it would take to build a dam that would be 900 feet long and raise the water 9 feet above ordinary surface. "A few weeks," he replied. He ended up completing this feat in 60 days.
Other noteworthy information on Canvass White was that he was married and had a son. His brother described him as a man "five feet nine and one-half inches; lightly made, weighing from one hundred and forty-five to one hundred and sixty-five pounds, light complexion, brown hair, blue eyes, wonderfully clear and bright." His outstanding achievements were engineering the Erie Canal, discovering the hydraulic cement, overcoming personal illness, fighting when wounded, and being a great model that many looked up to.
In the autumn of 1834, with his work nearly completed, he was told by a physician to live elsewhere. He sailed to St. Augustine, Florida. Unfortunately, he passed away less than a month after his arrival, and was buried in a church-yard in Princeton, New Jersey. After his death, a bronze tablet was constructed from bronze by Tiffany and Company, which is today on the Historical Society building in Utica, NY. As General Barnard once said, "As a civil engineer had no superior; his genius and ingenuity were of a surprising magnitude." Colonel James Worrall sums up the life of Canvass White in this one sentence: "In his day, he stood at the head of American Canal Engineers, and his strength lay in his cool, practical judgment.... He was a gentleman of very quiet manners, equal temper, and kind disposition."
* - White's first name is shown as both Canvass or Canvas.