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An Early Builder/Promoter of Railroads: Who Am I?

 Edwin Ferry Johnson
 Edwin Ferry Johnson

Johnson was born in Essex, Vermont on May 23, 1803 the son of a land surveyor and mill owner. At a young age he worked with his father as a surveyor on major surveying projects including a boundary survey between the United States and Canada. He attended Norwich University, Northfield, VT under the administration of Alden Partridge in 1823 and graduated in 1825. After teaching for a while he went to New York to work on the Erie and Champlain Canals and followed this up with work on the Morris Canal in New Jersey. He then switched to railroading and worked on many lines between 1831 and 1872 including the New York and Erie, Catskill and Canajoharie, Utica and Schenectady, Springfield and Hartford, New York and Boston Air Line, and several others. In 1853 he wrote a book entitled Railroads to the Pacific, Northern Route, Its General Character, Relative Merits, etc where he described his preferred route to the Pacific. During the Civil War, he was offered a commission as a Brig. General and later the position of Assistant Secretary of War, both of which he refused. After the war, he was appointed chief engineer of the Northern Pacific Railroad.

He was one of the early prolific writers on engineering, as well as financial, topics with the following a partial list of his works.

 “Treatise on Surveying, 1825; Tyler's Arithmetic Revised and Reviewed, 1827; The Newellian Sphere, 1828; Land Surveys, 1828; Review of a Project for a Great Western Railway, 1829; Method of Conducting the Canal Surveys of the State of New York, 1832; The Epicycloid, 1832; Cubical Quantities, Railroad and Canal, 1837; Mountains in New York, 1839; Tables of Quantities for Tracing Railroad Curves, 1840; Railway System of the State of New York, 1840; Width of Track, 1842; Gauge of Railways, 1854; Report of Defences of Maine, to Secretary of War, 1862; Report of General Plan of Operations, to same, 1863; Caesar's Bridge, 1863; Ship Canal and Marine Railways, 1864; First Meridian, 1834; Words for the People, 1865; The Reciprocity Treaty, 1866; Navigation of the Lakes, 1866; Our Pacific Railroads, 1868; Niagara, 1868; Water Supply of New York, 1870; Transcontinental Railways, 1870; Historical Sketch of Norse Settlements and the Newport Tower, 1870; Banking and the Currency, 1871; Broad and Narrow Gauge, 1871, and numerous professional, scientific, philosophical and political papers contributed to reviews, magazines and journals during the space of forty-five years.” (From: Norwich University, 1819-1911; her history, her graduates, her roll of honor by William A. Ellis)

His memoir in the Norwich University publication noted, “He was, unquestionably, one of the ablest, as he was one of the earliest if not the earliest, railroad engineers, this country has produced. As early as 1825, he paid special attention, in his engineering class, to railroad construction. In 1828, he wrote: ‘When the railroad is more thoroughly understood the larger part by far, of the inland business will be conducted upon them.’ It should be remembered that this bold prediction was made at a time when the most prominent engineers of the country placed the railway as a means of transportation, ‘Between the canal and a good turnpike.’”

He died on April 12, 1872 in New York City and is one of the many remarkable early engineers that are virtually unknown to the present generation of engineers.