American Society of Civil Engineers

George Washington, the Potomac Canal and the Beginning of American Civil Engineering: Engineering Problems and Solutions

by Robert J. Kapsch, Ph.D., M.ASCE, (Senior Scholar in Historic Architecture and Historic Engineering, National Park Service, 1100 Ohio Drive, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20242)
Section: Historic Development of U.S. Transportation Systems, pp. 129-194, (doi:

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Document type: Conference Proceeding Paper
Part of: American Civil Engineering History: The Pioneering Years
Abstract: The American Society of Civil Engineers was organized in 1852. But American civil engineering began much earlier. To understand the beginning of American civil engineering, it is useful to look at America when civil engineering and American civil engineers did not exist but were coming into existence. The history of the Potomac Company, established in 1785, provides us with a vehicle for examining America without civil engineers and civil engineering. As the company’s first president, it was George Washington who first tried to hire American civil engineers to undertake the planning, design and construction of the Potomac Canal — but there were none. England and France had engineers but the company was not willing to pay foreign engineers to come to America. The company did occasionally use English engineers already in America as consultants. It was Washington and his Board of Directors who made the engineering decisions for the canal. The principle engineering decision was the decision to use sluice navigation as a means of improving the Potomac River navigation. In engineering terms, as shown later by early American engineers Thomas Moore and Isaac Briggs, this decision was not only wrong but counter-productive—sluice navigation made the river more dangerous and difficult to navigate. By 1823 the Potomac Canal was widely viewed as a major failure, not only financially (which it was) but also from an engineering perspective. The failure of the Potomac Company was directly related to the lack of engineering expertise used in its planning, design and construction. It was decided that the Potomac Company had to be abandoned and replaced by a new stillwater canal, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. The new canal was to be planned and designed by an army of civil engineers from the Erie Canal and elsewhere, under the direction of Benjamin Wright, the father of American civil engineering. These men employed totally different methods than were used on the Potomac Canal. Detailed plans were prepared. Levels and other precise survey instruments were used. Work was broken into individual contracts monitored by a large corps of engineers. Between the beginning of the Potomac Canal (1785) and its demise (1828), civil engineering had come to America and Americans had become civil engineers.

ASCE Subject Headings:
Civil engineering landmarks
Civil engineering
Potomac River