Dubuque County Historical Society Images

The Builders

return to menu

Charles Ellet, Jr

Of all the American engineers in the first half of the 19th century, the most renowned was Charles Ellet, Jr. (1810-1862). Ellet created the first comprehensive approach to river management. He proposed a levee system, the use of natural outlets and reservoirs, and the building of artificial outlets and reservoirs.

At 17, Ellet was on his future path to success working as an assistant canal engineer. His aspirations to become an engineer lead him to teach himself French, save his money, solicit the help of Lafayette, and win admittance to the best engineering school in the world, the Ecole de Ponts et Chaussees in France. In 1829, he returned to the U.S. and promptly built AmericaÕs first successful wire suspension bridge, over PhiladelphiaÕs Schuylkill River. Thereafter, he built the longest suspension bridge in the world, across the Ohio River at Wheeling, West Virginia.

While the Ohio River Bridge was still under construction, Ellet became the first to cross the ravine at Niagara Falls. By hanging from a wire basket from a wire cable, Ellet was able to pull himself across the vast, majestic pass. Next, he built a catwalk of planks (without guardrails) and was the first to cross Niagara Falls, driving a horse and carriage, standing up like a charioteer, and consequently metamorphosing himself into a legend.

In 1835, Ellet teamed with Benjamin Wright to work on the James River and Kanawha Canal in Virginia. Within a year, he was appointed sole Chief Engineer of the project.

Among his numerous accomplishments, Ellet surveyed the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers in 1850 and 1851. These were not simply maps; they were blueprints for development and flood control. Time would prove the Mississippi survey to be a brilliant, intuitive report, which would be vital in the future plans of the Mississippi River Valley. As sensible as his plan sounds today, it was tremendously controversial at the time, and the Corps of Engineers violently rejected his plan for expansion and flood control on the Mississippi River.

Despite the opposition to Ellet's proposals during his lifetime, time allowed his plans to be not only accepted, but also to be acclaimed and effectively utilized. Virtually all of Ellet's flood control recommendations are in place today. Ellet was a giant of his century whose vision has been implemented throughout the Mississippi River Valley.

Ellet served in the Civil War as commander of a fleet of Union rams on the Mississippi. Tragically, he was killed in the Battle for Memphis in 1862. Charles Ellet, Jr. was inducted to the National Rivers Hall of Fame at the National Waterways Conference September 29th, 2000. Ellet was nominated by John Barry, author of the best-selling Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America.

Inducted in 2000.



return to menu