By Henry John Steiner
Historian of Sleepy Hollow
John Bloomfield Jervis was one of the great American civil engineers of the nineteenth century. Late in that century, many of his achievements had been eclipsed by even grander designs than the seemingly indelible marks he left on the American landscape—particularly in the State of New York. Yet perhaps Jervis’s greatest success was himself. He was a man whose mind, ambition, and character allowed him to rise from cart driver to the grandest of civic “architects.” He changed the path of his own career from what might have been a life of menial, physical labor in upstate New York, to that of a “masterbuilder” of the early United States. His works were instrumental to making New York State “the Empire State.”
As we walk the terrain of Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown today, we encounter the great products of Jervis’s skill and imagination. There is no doubt that his productions transformed this community in many fundamental ways. The Hudson River Railroad is just one imposing example—still significant and still in operation after 170 years.
Personally, I do not tend to get unduly excited over large industrial achievements. One day perhaps I will write more on that subject. Nevertheless, a few years ago I was asked to write a book about the communities scattered along the Hudson River Railroad line. In the process of researching and writing that project I came to the startling realization that if my story had a hero it was American civil engineering, and specifically John B. Jervis. My admiration for him stemmed, not just from his conception of the Hudson River Railroad, but also his groundbreaking locomotive design, his remarkable bridging of the Harlem River, the aqueducts that facilitated public health, community growth, and fire prevention, and the canals that enabled commerce and travel between vast regions of the United States in its early decades .
This year, 2018, is the 200th anniversary of the promotion of John B. Jervis from “axeman” to “target man,” a seemingly modest promotion that would nevertheless have a dramatic impact on American civil engineering. It was only a “leg up” for Jervis, a young man working on the first stages of construction of the Erie Canal, but it was to put him on the bottom rung of a career path in the nascent field of United States engineering.
Jervis attended “common school” in Rome, New York until he was fifteen. Then from that age until he was twenty-two he worked for his father, a carpenter, mainly at the family lumber mill in the summer and hauling logs in the winter. He was hired on the Erie Canal in November 1817:
I may here remark that I regard it a great error to bring up a boy without giving him the training of a regular vocation. But my home was pleasant, and my father needed my services; and though he manifested anxiety in regard to my future, he could not overcome the urgency of my usefulness with him.
Young, strong, and very competent with an axe, Jervis proved himself entirely fitted for clearing straight passages through the Rome swampland with the other axemen. The engineers and surveyors had to pass through these clearings in order to take their readings for the canal:
Though my occupation in this service was that of an axeman in which I exerted myself to cut stakes, pegs, and line in a satisfactory manner, I had not proceeded long before my attention was attracted to the operations of the men using the instruments. These instruments and the method of using them appeared to me a profound mystery, and I had no idea, considering my education, that I could learn their mysteries.
He would drive the pegs for the “target men,” so they could level their equipment. After completing his own tasks and demonstrating his reliability on-the-job, he began to watch the target men (also known as “rodmen”) and observe their operations with their equipment. He became familiar with the men, and “as they quite outranked me in the service” asked them some questions “with great modesty.” They were good enough to answer his questions, and, in the process, he learned that the work of the target man “was regarded as the first step in the science of engineering.” Jervis gave this some thought, and he came to believe that he himself could do the work of a target man if he had some practice.
On the last day that he was scheduled to work as an axeman for that season, Jervis sat on the ground eating a camp dinner close to the engineer leading the work party. Jervis summoned up the courage to ask the man a question, “What will you give me to go with you next summer and carry one of those targets?” The man answered promptly, “Twelve dollars per month.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Jervis was concerned that when, in a few months, he began to work in this new capacity, he would be a rank beginner and the least prepared of the target men. He sought advice about how best to prepare himself, and he was told to learn something about surveying. Buying two books on the subject, he concentrated on them during winter evenings at home and whenever the weather precluded his usual work of hauling logs. On April 10, 1818, “I started with my target on my shoulder, with a party of about a dozen men” for Syracuse, New York, then known as Geddesburg. It was a three-day journey on foot, during which he continued to study his surveying books. He carried a 10.5 foot-long target rod, the standard of that day. Jervis recalled that, at times, the engineer of the party asked the target men to do some “axe work” in the course of their duties. Many of the target men considered it beneath their “dignity” and did a halfhearted job of it. “As I had been brought up to work, and did not regard any honest labor a degradation, I performed my work on these occasions with the same alacrity as my regular work.” He earned favor with the work party’s overseeing engineer through his “can-do” attitude and used it to “better obtain knowledge in the art I sought.”
His knowledge and precision advanced to the point that, in certain subject areas, his skills in some areas surpassed an engineer he was working with. But he was still working as a target man earning twelve dollars a month. “I was, however, well satisfied to bear all the responsibility for the privilege I had of gaining better knowledge for the profession.” During this period he learned a great deal about the essential methods of “leveling.” This knowledge was indispensable to virtually any large-scale engineering project, but particularly on a massive canal project such as the Erie.
Toward the end of the year working as target man, Jervis availed himself of opportunities to learn his field as they were offered. The year finished with an instructive surveying expedition that greatly enhanced his experience. In December of that year (1818), the party’s work ended and he returned to Rome. At that time, little work was conducted on canal construction in wintertime. The year closed without anyone suggesting to Jervis what work, if any, he might expect to be employed in next. This naturally gave him some anxiety.
However, he would soon be greatly relieved and overjoyed to learn that he had been promoted to the position of “resident engineer” on a section of the canal. Jervis assumed, probably correctly, that the engineer he had last worked with had put in a recommendation on his behalf. “Nothing was said to me as to the compensation I was to have, nor did I ask any question on this point […]”. The assignment did not involve many issues of mechanical engineering—that sort of experience would have to wait:
There was no lock in my division, it being a portion of the long Rome summit of sixty miles; consequently, I had not much opportunity to acquire experience in the mechanical branches of engineering, but it was sufficient to bring to my observation the requisites of a canal in regard to what was necessary for strength of works and to provide impervious connections between the earthworks and the mechanical structure.
Jervis’ rise through the ranks so far had been nothing short of meteoric. It would continue on that basis due to his reliability and his habit of being indispensabile to his superiors. He would soon become the superintendent of an operating division of the canal fifty miles long. Other promotions would follow at a “gallop.” It would be fair to add that an element of luck figured in this man’s success, for his hometown (Rome, New York) was originally designated as the headquarters of the chief engineer of the Erie Canal project. This fact helped to make Jervis’s employment on the Erie a possibility.
These then were the beginnings of a career that would make great changes in the State of New York and elsewhere. And, as was stated in the beginning of this piece, the career and achievements of John B. Jervis wrought a profound impact the life of our own community—and many others—on the banks of the Hudson River. He was not the designer of the Erie Canal, but, during his service on the canal’s construction, he became an engineer fitted to begin one of the great careers in American history.
[Copyright © 2018 Henry John Steiner]