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McNeill, William Gibbs

William Gibbs McNeill

1801 - 1853

While born in Wilmington, North Carolina on Oct 3, 1801, William Gibbs McNeill received his early education at Newtown, Long Island, New York State. From there he went to the Episcopal Seminary in Baltimore with the intention of becoming a minister of the Church. But his early friend, General Joseph G. Swift, Chief Engineer of the Army, took him to the Military Academy at West Point where McNeill expressed his wish to abandon the gown for the sword. With Swift's support, President Madison readily gave him a Cadet's appointment, and he entered the Military Academy July 26, 1814.

He graduated from the Academy in 1817 as a Third Lieutenant in the Corps of Artillery, assigned to duty with the Corps of Topographical Engineers under Colonel James Abert. He worked on surveys of the Atlantic coast and sites for fortifications on the Gulf of Mexico. In 1819, while he was in the Gulf of Mexico region, General Andrew Jackson was carrying on war against the Seminole Indians, and had seized St. Mark's and Pensacola, then Spanish possessions. At once McNeill, in his fiery zeal, volunteered as Aide-de-Camp to "Old Hickory,"and subsequently as Acting Adjutant General to General Edmund PendletonGaines.

After successive promotions to Second and First Lieutenant of Artillery, McNeill was promoted to Assistant Topographical Engineer attached to the General Staff with the rank of Brevet Captain in 1823. Soon after, he was assigned to duty to survey for the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal as part of Federal policy of loaning army officers to companies engaged in public improvements. He worked on this project from 1824 to 1826. In 1827, McNeill surveyed for the James River and Kanawha Canal.

Around this time, there developed a desire to build railroads for actual passenger travel. Up until this time, there existed only a few insignificant local short roads, aggregating in length less than twenty miles. The Baltimore and Ohio was the first important railroad undertaken in this country. McNeill served on the Board of engineers for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and from 1827 to 1830, he worked to locate the lines for this railroad. In order to learn more about railroad engineering, McNeill, along with George Whistler and Jonathan Knight, was sent to England to investigate methods of railroad construction and management. They consulted with Robert Stephenson and Thomas Telford of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1828. There he met and recruited fellow civil engineers, James Pugh Kirkwood and James Laurie of Glasgow and Edinburgh, Scotland, respectively, to come to the United States which they did in 1832. Kirkwood and Laurie brought with them letters of recommendation provided by McNeill for the owners of the Norwich & Worchester Railroad.

In 1829, along with George W. Whistler, he designed the first major railroad structure in the United States - the two-span, masonry Carrollton Viaduct (an ASCE National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark) for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad near Baltimore with the first track laid in United States in October 1829. And in 1835, he built the 580 foot Canton Viaduct near Boston, also an ASCE National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

McNeill left the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in 1830 to become chief engineer for the Baltimore & Susquehanna Railroad where he worked until 1836. From his work on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, he had developed such a high professional reputation that he was ask to supervise the survey and construction of a large number of railroads, the chief of which were the Paterson & Hudson River (now southern terminus of Erie Railroad), 1831-34 ; Boston & Providence, 1832-35 ; Providence & Stonington, 1832-37 ; Taunton & New Bedford, 1835 ; Cape Fear & Yadkin, 1835 ; Long Island, 1835-36 ; Boston & Albany, 1836-40, Charleston, Louisville & Cincinnati, 1830-37.

Although he was promoted to Brevet Major in the Topological Engineers in 1834, McNeill decided to resign from army in 1837 to become chief engineer for the State of Georgia. There he conducted surveys for a projected railroad from Cincinnati, Ohio to Charleston, South Carolina from 1837 to 1840. In 1840, he became chief engineer for the Boston & Albany Railroad.

In 1839, McNeill was involved with an early attempt to form a national civil engineering society. A meeting was held in Baltimore, Maryland on February 11, 1839. Forty civil engineers, representing at least 10 percent of all civil engineers in the United States, attended this meeting. McNeill was included in the committee of 17 attendees that was selected to write a constitution for this new organization. Although this attempt failed at this time due to a variety of reasons (such as too large a committee; too far to travel for many; etc.), McNeill's selection for this committee was an indication of the high regard his fellow engineers had for him.

In 1842, the Dorr rebellion, a short-lived armed rebellion to force changes in Rhode Island's electoral system, took place. McNeill was appointed to the rank of Major-General in the state militia to help suppress this revolt. The rebellion was over in less than a month. He then served as President of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal from 1842 to 1843. After this appointment, President John Tyler named McNeill chief engineer for the Dry-Docks of the Brooklyn Navy Yard in Brooklyn, New York. After planning them and making considerable progress in their construction, President James Polk, in 1845, removed McNeill because of the hostility of Dorr partisans.

In the interest of several mining enterprises, he visited England in 1851. While in England, he was elected a Member of the British society, the Institution of Civil Engineers; the first American to be so honored.

McNeill was also connected with many public works of internal improvements in Canada and West Indies. He returned to the United States in 1853 because of failing health. He died in Brooklyn, New York on February 16, 1853. His wife's name was Maria Matilda Camman and they had seven children.

Resources: 

Committee on History and Heritage of American Civil Engineering. Biographical Dictionary of American Civil Engineers, Volume 1, New York: ASCE, 1972, 86 - 87
Cullum, George Washington, Edward Singleton Holden, and the United States Military Academy Association of Graduates. Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.: From Its Establishment, in 1802, to 1890, <http://books.google.com/books?id=UuUtAAAAIAAJ&printsec=titlepage#PPA165,M1> (January 30, 2009)
Rogers, Jerry. "Celebrating the 200th Anniversary of the Birth (1807-2007) of James Pugh Kirkwood: Environmental/Civil Engineer and ASCE Leader, Paper presented at ASCE-EWRI-2007 meeting in Tampa, Florida, 2007.
Rogers, Jerry and Michael Ports. "Legacy of Leadership: ASCE is Born," Civil Engineering, November-December 2002 (Special 150th Anniversary issue), p 188-191.
Schodeck, Daniel L. (1987). Landmarks in American Civil Engineering, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Wisely, William H. American Civil Engineer, 1852 - 1974: the history, traditions and development of the American Society of Civil Engineers, New York: ASCE, 1974.