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Geddes: An Engineer and Town Worth Their Salt

Continuing the series on cities named for civil engineers, this issue’s town is Geddes, New York a western suburb of Syracuse, New York, located along the west side of Onondaga Lake. It was named for James Geddes one of the early engineers on the Erie Canal. Geddes was born in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and moved to New York to mine salt near Onondaga Lake and later at the brine springs near the present day Solvay, New York.

He was a self-taught surveyor and surveyed many of the salt mines in the area. He then studied law and was elected to the State Assembly where he met Simeon DeWitt, the Surveyor General of New York, who was looking into a canal to connect the Hudson River to Lake Erie. Geddes undertook the surveying of a route in 1808 and made his report to the Assembly in January 1809. Gov. Dewitt Clinton took up the promotion of the canal, generally along the route Geddes had surveyed, and on July 4, 1817 a ground breaking ceremony for the canal was held near Rome, New York,

Geddes, together with Benjamin Wright, who is considered to be the “Father of American Civil Engineering,” and Charles Broadhead were named as engineers to build the canal. 

James Geddes
James Geddes 1763-1838

The Erie Canal was completed on October 26, 1825. Geddes also worked on the Ohio and Erie, the Miami and Erie, and the Chesapeake and Ohio canals. In addition, he was involved in the construction of the Champlain Canal. Besides his work as an engineer and surveyor, he also served a term in the United States House of Representatives between 1813 and 1815. In addition to a town named after him, a street in Syracuse is named after him and a New York State plaque commemorates his home in Camillus near where an 1842 wooden Erie Canal Aqueduct has recently been restored and a portion of the canal opened for boat traffic. You can find more information on the construction of this aqueduct, which was designed in part by Frank Griggs, Jr., current editor of ASCE’s History & Heritage Newsletter, while he was with Clough, Harbour & Associates in Albany, New York.