1790 – 1834
Canvass White was born in Whitestone, New York on September 8, 1790. His father, Hugh White, owned a farm in Oneida County which was considered wilderness area at that time. It is here that Canvass spent his youth. At 17 he began working as a clerk at the store of Colonel Carpenter. In 1811, he spent a year at sea on a voyage that took him to Russia and England. On his return from England, a violent storm shipwrecked the vessel; driving it inland approximately 1000 feet near the mouth of the Humber estuary during high tide. He encouraged the captain and crew to repair the ship and cut a channel in the sand to re-launch the vessel. He arrived back in the United States in September 1812 and returned to Colonel Carpenter's store.
In February 1813, at the age of 23, he entered Fairfield Academy to pursue studies in mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, mineralogy, and surveying. After completing his studies there, he continued his education under Dr. Josiah Noyes of Clinton, New York. In the middle of his schooling, White decided to take part in the battle to capture Fort Erie in Ontario near Buffalo, New York. He received a commission as lieutenant in the United States Army in the spring of 1814 and led a company of volunteers in the assault. He was severely wounded during the occupation of the fort but recovered and completed his commission. After the battle, he returned home to resume his studies with Dr. Noyes.
In the spring of 1816 White solicited a position under Benjamin Wright, chief engineer, who was conducting surveys for the Erie Canal. For two seasons he was employed taking levels westward toward Rome, New York. During this period he performed well and earned the Wright's esteem. At this same time he became acquainted with Governor De Witt Clinton, who was impressed with his personal qualities and professional abilities. At this period, canal construction in the United States was in its infancy. Based on his experience with Wright, and with the encouragement of Governor Clinton, Canvass set out on a journey to England in 1817 to examine the public works and instruments in use there. During his visit he traveled on foot over 2,000 miles throughout the United Kingdom conducting careful examination of the construction and operations of canals. He returned home in the spring of 1818 bringing with him surveying instruments and accurate drawings of the most important structures of the canal works he observed. Soon after his return from the United Kingdom, he discovered limestone rock near the canal route in Madison County, New York. After various experiments on different varieties of limestone rock, he found one that produced waterproof hydraulic cement that was both cheaper and of better quality than that used in England. He obtained a patent on his cement, but permitted its use for masonry joints and pointing on lock construction, under promise of just compensation by the Canal Commissioners.
The Commission failed to obtain the necessary authority from the State Legislation, and Canvass was never paid. By 1820 Canvass had advanced to Resident Engineer and completed the canal through and to a point 18 miles east of Utica, New York. In early 1822, he was sent to lay out the Glens Falls feeder canal, where he planned and directed the building of the lock and dam between Troy and Waterford, New York. He was relieved by William Jerome in June 1822. As his professional acumen and integrity became widely known, he had frequent offers for his engineering services in other states. He, however, continued in his engineering duties on the Erie Canal until it neared completion in 1825, when assistants could take over daily duties.
In 1825–26, he succeeded Loammi Baldwin as Chief Engineer on the Union Canal in Pennsylvania. White resigned this position as a consequence of severe illness contracted while conducting the surveys for the canal west of the Susquehanna River. During this time, he was called to New York to examine the sources of supply for water for New York City. In his report to the Mayor and Common Council, he stated that for the present need of the city and its probable requirements for twenty years thereafter, a sufficient supply could be obtained from the Rye Pond and the Bronx River in Westchester County, "but after the city should extend to one-third the surface of Manhattan Island, it would be necessary to add the Croton river to their resources." The report was accompanied with full details and strongly impressed the city government. While engaged on the Union Canal and the water study for New York City, he was also solicited to take charge of the Schuylkill Navigation Company after the sudden death of its chief engineer. He made a rapid survey of the grounds and the plans of the Company, suggested alterations, and recommended Captain Beach as the Chief Engineer. He continued on as a consulting engineer until completion of the work. He also served as a consulting engineer for the Delaware and Chesapeake Canal, advising chief engineer Benjamin Wright. During the summer of 1825 he was appointed Chief Engineer of the Delaware and Raritan Canal. He organized preliminary surveys and appointed his trusted assistant, John Hopkins, to carry out the work. After completing the layout for about 12 miles, work was suspended, and did not resume until 1831.
Construction of the canal was difficult, with many obstructions, but all the difficulties were successfully overcome. White acknowledged the generous and wise counsel of Commodore Robert F. Stockton, who took an active interest in the project. In 1827 after regaining his health following his work on the Union Canal, he was appointed Chief Engineer of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company to finish work on the Lehigh Canal, which was completed in July 1829. At the time the Lehigh Canal was the most expansive work of its kind as yet undertaken in the country and was considered a bold project. Through their work on the Erie Canal, Benjamin Wright (considered by ASCE to be the Father of American Civil Engineering) and Canvass White developed a firm and unbroken friendship. In a December 1828 letter to Dr. Hosack, Wright said: "Here 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, Esq. ..." and, "To this gentleman I could always apply for counsel and advice in any great or difficult case, and to his sound judgment in locating the line of the canal, in much of the difficult part of the route, the people of the State are under obligation greater than is generally known or appreciated."
In the autumn of 1834 Canvass' health had deteriorated to the point that his physician advised him to seek a more moderate climate. He sailed to St. Augustine, Florida, where he died within a month of his arrival. His remains were returned to New Jersey and lie buried in a church yard cemetery at Princeton. The Honorable Hugh White, of Cohoes, New York wrote in a letter of July 1860: "My brother, Canvass White, was in stature 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, light brown hair, blue eyes, wonderfully clear and bright; inclining slightly forward from a perpendicular when walking or standing. Grave and thoughtful expression, yet full of affection and kindness, a broad intellectual forehead and well-shaped nose, and with a trifle more flesh would have been an unusually fine looking man. The most prominent and striking feature in the general contour of the person, was an unmistakable impress of genius, modesty and amiability. In conversation, you could not escape the conviction that what he said he was sure of, and left the impression indelibly upon those he desired to convince of the truth or feasibility of any plan or project he had in contemplation."
Distinguished Civil Engineer W. Milnor Roberts, who worked under White on the Lehigh Canal, observed in a December 1869 letter to Charles B. Stuart, C.E.: "Canvas White, in his day, stood at the head of American Civil Engineers, and his strength lay in his cool, practical judgment. He had no experience in railroad engineering, as far as I ever knew. He was a gentleman of very quiet manners, equal temper, and kind disposition. I never knew him to ruffled, or impatient."
Resource: Stuart, Charles B. (1871). Lives and Works of Civil and Military Engineers of America, New York: D. Van Nostrand, pp 74-90.