Engineering America’s Water Systems,

by Jacque E. Day and C. T. Haywood ’12.

In the first half of the 19th century, as American cities grew rapidly, the compromised quality of the nation’s drinking water plunged the United States into a dire health crisis. By the 1830s, when the cholera pandemic—which had scourged Asia and Europe for decades—reached the American coast, the medical community still understood very little about how the disease spread. It wasn’t until 1854 that English physician John Snow positively identified cholera as a waterborne disease. A kind of renaissance followed in the latter half of the century as civil engineers restructured the water systems of U.S. cities. Prominent among those engineers were protégés of Captain Alden Partridge.

As shown in this painting, First Electric Power at Niagara Falls by William H. Earle (1925–1991),

As shown in this painting, First Electric Power at Niagara Falls by William H. Earle (1925–1991),
Edward Dean Adams NU 1864 (pointing) harnessed Niagara Falls to power New York City. (Courtesy of the Sullivan Museum and History Center, Norwich University.)

Norwich University’s founder would not live to see his young students emerge as key figures in the remaking of the nation’s waterworks; however, might he have predicted their paths beyond the halls of his Academy? Imagine yourself a fly on the wall at Norwich University during Partridge’s day. (Alden Partridge remained with the University until 1843, when he resigned as president.) Did he urge his engineers-in-training to contemplate radical correlations between the water supply and the spread of disease years before science drew a definitive conclusion? Given what we know of Partridge, a well-documented visionary, the notion is quite possible.

The Man Who Saw The Future

Alden Partridge sculpture by Bruno Sarzanini, dedicated 1955, Norwich University.

Alden Partridge sculpture by Bruno Sarzanini, dedicated 1955, Norwich University.

In our day, Partridge might be called a futurist, one who “sees” the future—not through a crystal ball, but rather, by studying trends. His career path certainly indicates that he possessed keen foresight—a quality for which he was not always appreciated. In the dawn of the 1800s, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point introduced engineering education to the nation under the leadership of the Army Corps of Engineers. Partridge graduated from that program in 1806, joined the faculty, and became the Army lieutenant of engineers. The 1922 National Cyclopaedia of American Biography called Partridge, the educator, “far in advance of his time,” who “introduced many novel ideas in educational methods.” In 1813, Partridge was appointed professor of engineering for West Point, the first such academic appointment of its kind in the United States.

During this time, Partridge had cultivated ideas that would later revolutionize the American system of education and which, in 1817, ended his West Point career. But he wasn’t to be daunted, and in 1819 as cholera raged across Asia, he founded the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy, the first private American institution to offer engineering training. The Cyclopaedia called him “one of the few military engineers who by virtue of his remarkable mathematical ability, long service at West Point, and practical field work was competent to train engineers, and in laying a foundation for engineering work of his students, he gave a course in mathematics equal, if not superior, to that offered by any other institution in America.”

Partridge clearly saw the need for trained engineers to solve the problems of growing U.S. cities. So much so that as early as the 1820s, he took his cadets to Philadelphia to study the city’s Fairmount Waterworks, which began construction in 1812. Did Partridge foresee a future in which quality of life was directly linked to water quality? We may never know.

What we do know is, in the years following his 1854 death, Partridge’s engineers—dating as far back as the class of 1825—began building and supervising some of America’s major water systems. The 19th-century Norwich men whose stories appear here helped lead the early efforts to eradicate cholera and other waterborne diseases from the nation’s water supply. It is to their credit that today we can simply turn on our taps, and out pours refreshing, clean, drinking water.

William Parker, NU 1825

(William Parker. Courtesy of NU Archives.)

(William Parker. Courtesy of NU Archives.)

Years before his appointment as chief of engineers for Jersey City Waterworks, William Parker aspired to be a mapmaker. As a young cadet at the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy, Parker surveyed the region around the campus grounds in Norwich, Vermont, and even gained permission from Captain Alden Partridge to go on extended survey trips. Parker’s interests expanded to include engineering at the influence of his classmate, Edwin Ferry Johnson, who later gained distinction as the Champlain Canal surveyor and chief engineer for many significant railroads, including the New York and Erie.

In fact, it was in the railroads that Parker cut his teeth. Fueled by U.S. expansion, our nation’s engineers worked at a fever pitch to build the canals and rail lines that would carry young people, hungry for opportunity, westward into the unknown. From the mid-1820s through the 1850s, Parker played an active role in the construction of the growing republic’s land and water transit systems.

As Parker took leadership of Jersey City Waterworks, the nation was at battle with the century’s third cholera pandemic. He turned his attention to refining the city’s wastewater systems, and during his tenure, cholera began to subside nationwide—due, in part, to the leadership of engineers like Parker. Never one to sit idle, Parker next seized an opportunity to relocate to Panama to develop a railroad, where according to Ellis’s History of Norwich University, 1819-1911, he was murdered in 1868. Nearly two decades after his passing, the Boston Society of Engineers dubbed him the “best and most respected in practice and in business.”

Alfred Wingate Craven, NU 1825

Like many early attendees, Alfred Craven studied engineering at Partridge’s Academy as a teenager before moving on to university studies elsewhere. (The Academy attained university status in 1834.) Under Partridge’s guidance, Craven received a foundation for a life’s work in engineering and a career that led him to New York City, where he became one of the top waterworks authorities in America.

Alfred Wingate Craven served as commissioner of the New York City Croton Aqueduct project (shown) from 1849 to 1868. (Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration.)

Alfred Wingate Craven served as commissioner of the New York City Croton Aqueduct project (shown) from 1849 to 1868. (Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration.)

Following his Academy studies, Craven read law at what is now Columbia University. He returned to civil engineering in 1832, rising through the ranks in his profession and earning respect as an able leader and administrator. In 1849, Craven became commissioner and engineer of the New York City Croton Aqueduct project—on which construction had begun more than a decade earlier in response to the 1830s cholera epidemic. It was in this position that his most noteworthy work took place. He responded to the city’s rapid population growth by building the Central Park reservoir and widening underground pipes. He also put the sewer systems under his authority.

As one might imagine for one in such a powerful position, Craven made a few enemies. According to a friend, he once declared, “I can fight the whole body of vagabonds single-handed, without fear and without favour from any one, and I feel that I can whip them every time.” Deeply committed to engineering as a means of improving public life, he hosted the first meeting of what later became the American Society of Civil Engineers at the offices of the Croton Aqueduct. After nearly 20 years as commissioner, he retired in 1868.

Randolph Coyle, NU 1828

In November 1828, Randolph Coyle was fresh out of Partridge’s Academy when he joined the first team of engineers on the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal project. He was the lowest on the rung, and as a volunteer rodman, the only non-paid man. But he soon proved his value, thus commencing a lifelong journey that eventually led him back to his native Washington, D.C., where he became the chief waterworks engineer.

Randolph Coyle supervised the Washington, D.C., water department from 1868 until his death. Shown, the U.S. Capitol Canal, 1860. (Courtesy Library of Congress.)

Randolph Coyle supervised the Washington, D.C., water department from 1868 until his death. Shown, the U.S. Capitol Canal, 1860. (Courtesy Library of Congress.)

During Cadet Coyle’s Academy years, his father wrote to Alden Partridge that his son’s interests lay in “public roads and canals,” and requested Partridge’s input. This was during the Academy’s brief relocation to Middletown, Connecticut. Partridge encouraged the young man to pursue his passions, which encompassed the liberal arts as well as engineering and military discipline. During commencement, Coyle marched to the local church with the faculty, trustees, and guests, and delivered an oration in Latin, a presentation he called “Mental Discipline.”

Early in his career, while the United States was still settling its borders, Coyle worked as a draftsman. In 1840, after the Aroostook War that gave the U.S. northern Maine, Coyle surveyed the Maine frontier. He eventually returned to his home city as chief surveyor of Washington, D.C., and later supervised the 1857 construction of the Potomac River Bridge. In 1858, with cholera at its height for the third time in the century, Coyle assumed leadership of the capital city’s water department, a job he held until he died.

Moses Lane, NU 1841

(Portrait of Moses Lane, NU 1841. Courtesy of NU Archives.)

(Portrait of Moses Lane, NU 1841. Courtesy of NU Archives.)

One of the 19th century’s most prominent engineering rock stars hailed from the present-day home of Norwich University.

In 1835, as a young teenager, Moses Lane left his hometown of Northfield, Vermont, to attend NU’s Preparatory Department (at the time, the university still also functioned as a prep school). In 1837, he took up studies in the Scientific Department. “Though one of the youngest cadets,” writes Ellis, “he soon gained high rank in his mathematical work.” He also gained a solid foundation in engineering. During his lifetime, Lane would rise to national prominence as an engineer and expert in waterworks and sewer construction.

After Norwich, Lane earned an A.B. from the University of Vermont in 1845, followed by an A.M. in 1849. (Years later he would complete a Ph.D. at the University of Vermont.) After his master’s studies, Lane began a nearly decade-long succession of jobs in railroad engineering. His career turning point came in 1857 when he took the position of principal assistant engineer for the Nassau Waterworks system in Brooklyn (that same year, cholera had again struck the U.S.).

He eventually became chief engineer of Brooklyn Waterworks and began to claim national attention for the noticeable improvements that occurred under his leadership. Companies in Chicago and Indianapolis, where cholera had killed thousands, brought him onboard as a consultant, and he was eventually appointed chief engineer for Milwaukee Waterworks. His work then took him all over the nation, from Ohio to Pennsylvania, to St. Louis to Boston to Kansas City, even south to Memphis, where he worked with the city to improve the drainage system after a scourge of yellow fever.

Lane was a prominent man of the times who associated with the likes of Walt Whitman. During the Civil War, Whitman—by then a famous poet—began visiting hospitals, writing letters on behalf of wounded, reading aloud, and distributing resources, including clothing and money. Lane financially supported Whitman’s efforts, and their correspondence in those war years reflects a mutual respect and admiration.

A champion of the everyman, he genuinely cared about the public welfare. Ironically, politicians didn’t place much value on his work, according to an 1890 issue of the Engineering News-Record. But Lane didn’t aspire to political prowess—instead devoting his life’s work to ensure the health of everyday citizens.

Charles Morton, NU 1860

(Charles Morton NU 1850 as a Norwich cadet: Courtesy of NU Archives.)

(Charles Morton NU 1850 as a Norwich cadet. Courtesy of NU Archives.)

Boston residents of the Back Bay district from Arlington Street to Massachusetts Avenue have Charles Morton, Class of 1860, to thank for their clean drinking water as well as for the very existence of their neighborhoods.

As a Norwich cadet, Morton was a member of Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity and served as president of the Parthenon Society. He also played baseball and was active in the Baseball Club at the time of his 1860 graduation. Among his classmates was Edmund Rice, who was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his role in repelling Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. As the Union braced for inevitable war with the South, Morton decided to head west.

Like many Norwich graduates of that era, Morton started out as a surveyor. He worked on government surveys in Minnesota and Iowa from 1860 to 1862 before returning to his native Boston. There, from 1862–65, as a young engineer with the Commonwealth & Boston Water Co., he “gained distinction in the development of the water supply in Boston,” according to Ellis. He also worked on Back Bay land expansion to accommodate the growing city’s population.

After proving himself in waterworks and urban development, Morton turned his attention to improving Boston’s bridges and streets, rising from assistant engineer to superintendent.

Lloyd Byron Fuller, NU 1864

Lloyd Fuller appears to have worn many career hats. Ellis describes him as having “constructed many systems of water works, sewerage systems, power plants, irrigation works and has also engaged in mining.” It was during his brief foray into waterworks engineering that he played a significant role in one of the greatest engineering marvels of this nation’s history: the reversal of the Chicago River.

Cadet Lloyd Fuller’s experience at the original Norwich campus, beginning in 1860, perhaps foreshadowed his inclination toward varied interests. He was a member of the Platonian Literary Society and Theta Chi fraternity, helped plan the 1862 commencement, and served as “officer of the passage,” the equivalent of barracks hall supervisor today. He took the Scientific Course, paying special attention to tactics and civil engineering. After leaving Norwich in 1862, Fuller taught secondary school. In 1864, as the Civil War was winding down, he received an appointment as a U.S. Army quartermaster’s clerk, taking a post in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

After the war, Fuller returned north and to engineering, doing railroad work until 1893, when he was appointed superintendent for the Chicago Drainage Canal project (today’s Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal). The canal’s purpose: to reverse the flow of the Chicago River so as to prevent sewage from entering Lake Michigan, the source of the city’s drinking water. The river flows in reverse to this day.

He eventually became assistant Chicago city engineer, but after 1900, headed westward to other opportunities. The Record made occasional references to his projects in Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. In 1909, Norwich granted Fuller his B.S.C.E., Class of 1864.

Edward Dean Adams, NU 1864

Edward Dean Adams graced the cover of Time in 1929. (Courtesy NU Archives.)

Edward Dean Adams graced the cover of Time in 1929. (Courtesy NU Archives.)

Edward Adams’s story departs from the others in this collection in that his most noteworthy work did not involve drinking water and sewers, but rather water as a source of power. In his lifetime, he would become inexorably linked with Niagara Falls as the man who lit up New York City.

Immortalized in the William H. Earle mural in the Sullivan Museum and History Center, (see top center), Adams lived an active student life as a Norwich cadet. His professional life followed suit. Born in Boston, Adams initially aspired to an appointment at West Point, passing the exam, but denied on age. Upon entering the ranks of Norwich cadets in 1861, Adams wasted no time proving his mettle: He served as drill sergeant adjutant, participated in the Athenian society, played cricket and baseball, and joined Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity. Adams graduated in 1864 with a B.S. (NU would later also confer him M.S. and LL.D. degrees).

Adams posed an unlikely figure in the war of currents between DC, championed by Thomas Edison, and Nikola Tesla’s AC. In 1890 as president of the Cataract Construction Co.—in a period rife with hot debate between direct current and alternating current—Adams formed the International Niagara Commission to develop a plan to harness the Falls for energy. Three years later, under his leadership, the company built a hydroelectric system based on a concept by Tesla, who had wowed the world with his AC demonstration at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Adams went on to become president of the Niagara Development Co., and the Niagara Junction Railroad. He graced the cover of Time in 1929. The Adams Power Plant Transformer House, a National Historic Landmark, still stands.


Niagara Falls, detail of original watercolor by Karl Bodmer, 1843.

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