Biography of Canvass White
Oneida County, NY Biographies


The most conspicuous of the grandsons of Pioneer White was Canvass White, also a son of Hugh White above mentioned, and an elder brother of Hon. Hugh White just above spoken of. He was born in Whitestown, Oneida County, September 8. 1790. His mother was Tryphenia Lawrence of Canaan, Connecticut, of Puritan descent, and from his Puritan parents he derived those traits of integrity, indefatigable industry, and purity of character for which his public life was so distinguished an example.

Canvass White had a feebleness of constitution that caused his early years to be a constant struggle between disease and health. His mother was a delicate lady unused to the rough exposure incident to pioneer life, and died when he was ten years old. At an early age he began to display a talent for invention and a genius for improvements that resulted in the construction of several domestic and agricultural implements, which were in use for many years on the paternal homestead and in the neighborhood. His minority was spent mainly on his father's farm, with such advantages only for acquiring an education as the very limited common schools of that period afforded; and it was not until the winter of 1803 that an opportunity occurred for him to pursue those studies essential to success in the profession he had chosen. In February, 1803, he entered Fairfield Academy and there studied mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, mineralogy and surveying until he completed the course, after which he continued these studies under Dr. Josiah Noyes, of Clinton, N. Y. At the age of seventeen years he became a clerk in the store of Colonel Carpenter, where he remained until the spring of 1811, during which period he gained the entire confidence of his employer and became a general favorite with all his acquaintances. At this time, his health became precarious, a sea voyage was advised as a means of restoration. He therefore shipped as super cargo on board a merchant vessel bound for Russia, and did not return until October, 1812. The captain, while in Russia, remained ignorant of the declaration of war and commencement of hostilities between the United States and Great Britain, and took in an assorted cargo and sailed for Hull, England. He was unaware of the war until they entered the Engilsh port, when they were made prisoners and their ship and its cargo seized. For some unexplained reason the captain and crew, however, were released, permitted to discharge their ship, take in another lading, and continue their homeward voyage. The ship had scarcely cleared the mouth of the Humber when a violent storm and high tide drove them ashore, leaving the vessel, when the tide receded, sixty rods from the sea. An inspection of the bottom of the ship disclosed the fact that much of the planking was completely rotten. Young White advised that new planks be substituted and a channel opened through the sand that would admit the tide to the stranded boat. A few days later the ship was on her way to New York, where she arrived in the latter part of September.

Mr. White's health was materially improved by the voyage, and on his return he again entered the employ of his former patron and friend, Colonel Carpenter, where he remained until the spring of 1814 when, having raised a company of volunteers, he was commissioned lieutenant in Colonel Dodge's regiment, and took part in the assault and capture of Fort Erie, opposite Buffalo. While in occupation of the fort, with his command, he was severely wounded by a shell fired from the enemy's redoubt half a mile distant. Soon after his recovery an opportunity occurred for revenging himself on the enemy. A reconnoitering party from the British camp was discovered in an adjacent wood, and Lieutenant White was sent with his command to capture or disperse them. He succeeded in capturing the whole party, killing and wounding several before they surrendered. He remained with his regiment until the expiration of their term of service, when he returned home and resumed his studies.

In the spring of 1816 Judge Benjamin Wright was forming a corps for prosecuting the surveys of the Erie canal. Mr. White solicited a position and was engaged by Judge Wright as one of his assistants. During this and the succeeding season he was employed in taking the levels westward from Rome. In this duty he acquitted himself so well that he very soon won the esteem of the chief engineer, between whom and himself there ever afterward existed a firm and unbroken friendship. About this time he made the acquaintance of Governor DeWitt Clinton, who was highly pleased with his personal qualities and professional abilities. At this early day the knowledge of canal construction among the engineers of the country was very limited, and Mr. White, at the earnest solicitation of Governor Clinton, determined to visit England for the purpose of examining public works and procuring the most improved instruments in use. In the autumn of 1817 he carried out this determination and made a careful examination of the canals of the United Kingdom, traveling for this purpose more than two thousand miles on foot. He returned the next spring, bringing instruments and accurate drawings of the most important structures on those works, and much valuable information for the benefit of the state in the construction of its canals. About this time there was much discussion on the subject of lock construction, some favoring wood, and others stone, or a combination of the two. It was finally decided, however, to build stone locks, using quick lime mortar for the masonry, and pointing the joints with hydraulic cement, then imported at great cost from England. Mr. White soon discovered a valuable lime rock near the route of the canal in Madison county, which, after repeated experiments, he converted into a cement equal to the imported, and at much less cost to the state. For this discovery he obtained a patent, but permitted its use under the promise of the canal commissioners that a just compensation should be allowed, not only for it, but for his expenses and services while abroad. The commisioners, however, failed to obtain the necessary authority from the legislature to fulfill their promise, notwithstanding the recommendations of the governor and other officers of the state. Governor DeWitt Clinton, in a letter to a committee of the legislature in 1824, said "that Mr. 'White had been of great use in his operations as an engineer, and that his skill, industry, and integrity in that department furnish strong recommendations to the favorable notice of the state." Judge Wright stated before the same committee: "I have no hesitation in saying that the discovery of hydraulic cement by Mr. White has been of incalculable benefit to the state. and that it is a discovery which ought, in justice, be handsomely remunerated." Mr. Flagg reported from the same committee "that Mr. White, a principal engineer, had made this discovery after repeated experiments and received a patent in 1820, and that he introduced it at great expense amidst the doubts and fears which operated against its use."

The canal commissioners, in their report of February, 1820, say: "Between the Seneca and Genesee rivers Canvass White, engineer, had the charge of a party which has been engaged for several months in leveling over and surveying different routes for the canal line. These labors he has performed much to our satisfaction, ands having presented a view of them to a meeting of our board held in October, at Utica, we thereupon decided in favor of the route originally explored between these rivers in the year 1816." The canal through, and eight miles east of Utica was completed in the fall of 1820, Canvass White being the resident engineer. In 1820 Messrs. Wright (principal) and White (acting) engineer, explored the country thoroughly from Little Falls to the Hudson, and pronounced impracticable the route from Schenectady connecting with the Hudson at Albany, and located the line via Cohoes and Troy. This location was finally fixed upon by Messrs. Wright, Geddes and White. Early in the spring of 1822 Canvass White was sent to lay out the Glens Falls feeder, and in that year he planned and directed the building of the lock and dam between Troy, and Waterford, until the 8th of June, when William Jerome took charge. Judge Wright, in a letter to Dr. Hosack in December, 1828, says:

"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 equalled, by any other in the United States. The gentleman to whom I refer is Canvass White. Esq., who commenced as my pupil in 1816 by carrying the target; he took an active part through that year and through 1817. In the fall of the latter year he made a voyage to England on his own account, and purchased for the state several leveling instruments, of which we stood much in need. He returned in the spring and brought with him much valuable information, which he has usefully developed, greatly to the benefit of the state of New York. 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 this state are under obligations greater than is generally known or appreciated."

Simon Guilford, who was Mr. White's assistant civil engineer, related the following incident: " When that portion of the canal along the Mohawk river between Little Falls and Canajoharie was completed, and the supply of water was turned in, owing to a very porous soil over which a considerable portion of the canal was made, the supply proved inadequate, which was fully realized as the first boat passed. The question was as to how the difficulty was to be overcome. Mr. White replied, 'A feeder must be obtained from the river at this place' (a few miles above Fort Plain), and being asked how long it would take to build a dam across the river, 900 feet long, so as to raise the water nine feet above the ordinary surface, he replied, 'A few weeks.' The dam was completed in sixty days, inclusive of a side cut and bridge connected with it."

Mr. White's professional success, scrupulous integrity, and modest demeanor, in all transactions of life, won for him the enduring esteem of all with whom he was associated. For these admirable qualities of mind and heart he became widely known, and as a consequence frequent and urgent offers were tendered him for engineering services in other states. He continued, however, in the active discharge of his duties as an engineer on the Erie canal until it was so nearly completed that his place could be supplied from his assistant engineer, when he succeeded Loam Baldwin as chief engineer on the Union canal in Pennsylvania. He continued in that position until the latter part of the summer of 1826, when, in consequence of a severe illness contracted while conducting the surveys of the canal west of the Susquehanna river, he returned to Philadelphia, and resigned his connection with the company. Meanwhile he had been called to New York to examine the sources of supply for pure and wholesome water for the city. He reported that, for the present need of the city, and its probable requirements for twenty years thereafter, a sufficient supply could be obtained from 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 other resources." The report was accompanied with full details, and strongly impressed the city government with the importance and feasibility of the project

While engaged upon these two enterprises he was solicited to take charge of the works of the Schuylkill Navigation Company, which were then in course of construction. After making a rapid survey of the ground and the plans of the company he suggested alterations and recommended the employment of Captain Beach as their chief. Mr. White continued as consulting engineer for the Delaware and Chesapeake canal, Judge Benjamin Wright being the chief engineer. The success and reported profits of the Erie canal gave an impetus to canal construction in that day, that would have resulted in a system of artificial internal navigation as universal as our present railroad system, could the capital necessary for the purpose have been obtained. Projects were started in various parts of the Union, and a pressing demand was made upon the time of the few engineers then in the country. The citizens of Hartford conceived the project of improving the navigation of the Connecticut river, and the Windsor locks were built by Mr. White as chief engineer. Careful financial men were led away by the prevailing spirit of the time, and large amounts were expended upon impracticable enterprises. Among these was the Farmington canal, constructed from New Haven to Farmington and then up the Farmington river, "as money could be found to prosecute the work." Mr. White was applied to for plans and surveys, and for an opinion of the value of it when completed; he furnished the former and remained consulting engineer during the construction of the work, but frequently expressed an opinion adverse to the success of the canal, which ultimately proved correct. In the spring of 1827 he was appointed chief engineer of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, and resumed the construction of a canal along the Delaware river from Easton, Pennsylvania, to navigable waters below. This project had been inaugurated in 1825 for the purpose of increasing the company's facilities for shipping coal from Maunch Chunk to Philadelphia, and a canal one mile in length, with five locks and a large basin at Maunch Chunk, had been built. Mr. White prosecuted the work with such diligence that the first boat passed through the canal in July, 1829. At that time the Lehigh canal was the most capacious work of the kind yet undertaken in the country, and was considered a bold project. In the summer of 1825 Mr. White was appointed chief engineer of the Delaware and Raritan canal. He organized a party for preliminary surveys and placed it under the immediate charge of John Hopkins, one of the most trusted assistants. This work was discontinued in the fall after the location of about twelve miles, and was not resumed again until the spring of 1831. The construction of the canal from the Delaware to the Raritan rivers was attended by many difficulties and met many obstructions, all of which were successfully overcome. In the prosecution of this important work Mr. White always acknowledged with becoming gratitude the generous and wise course of Commodore Robert F. Stockton, who took an active interest in the success of the enterprise. In the autumn of 1834, when this work was nearly completed, Mr. White's health was so much impaired that his physician advised him to seek a more genial climate. He sailed soon after for St. Augustine, Florida, where he died within a month after his arrival. His remains were returned to New Jersey and he buried in the churchyard at Princeton, where his family resided at the time of his death.

Mr. White was personally popular with all who were favored with his acquaintance. General Bernard, a French engineer in the service of the United States, remarked of him, "That as a civil engineer he had no superior; his genius and ingenuity were of a surprising magnitude; his mild and gentle ways, his sweet and amiable temper, his modest and retiring manners, won universal respect and confidence." When the project for the Chesapeake and Ohio canal was first set on foot and an engineer was wanted for its construction, Henry Clay said: "Get Canvass White; no man is more competent; no man, more capable; and while your faith in his ability and fidelity increases, your friendship will grow into affection." Mr. White, in his day, stood at the head of American canal engineers, and his strength lay in his cool, practical judgment. The comprehensive nature of his mind, through which, at a glance, he grasped the salient points of a subject, and his systematic habit of arranging details, enabled him to accomplish an extraordinary amount of professional work. In stature he was five feet nine and one half inches, and weighed from one hundred and forty five to one hundred and sixty five pounds. The most prominent and striking feature in the general contour of his person was an unmistakable impress of genius, modesty and amiability.

White family members in Oneida County
White Family
White, Canvass
White, De Lancey P.
White, Fortune C.
White, Henry D.
White, Hugh
White, Hugh, Hon.
White, Moses T.
White, Philo
White, William M.
White, William P.
Young, William C.

History of Oneida County, New York
From 1700 to the present time
of some of its prominent men and pioneers.
By: Henry J. Cookinham
The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company
Chicago 1912

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