Canadian Consulting Engineer

Professional Rivalry

April 1, 2005
By Alistair MacKenzie

One of the most spectacular Canadian civil engineering projects in recent years is the Confederation Bridge linking Prince Edward Island with mainland Canada. The scope of this project (designed by St...

One of the most spectacular Canadian civil engineering projects in recent years is the Confederation Bridge linking Prince Edward Island with mainland Canada. The scope of this project (designed by Stantec), together with the solutions required to overcome the difficult conditions of tides and ice in the Northumberland Strait, make this a uniquely Canadian project which all Canadian civil engineers admire. By all accounts, the project was an excellent example of teamwork with no attempts on the part of any individual to steal the limelight or to claim undue credit for their part in the process. All the engineers involved emerged with great credit and enhanced career prospects.

That this harmonious situation between Canadian civil engineers has not always been the case is illustrated by the story of another world-class Canadian bridge, one of Canada’s National Historic Civil Engineering Projects, the Victoria Bridge in Montreal. This project ended in a bitter controversy over which of the engineers involved deserved most credit, a controversy that was to precipitate the premature death of one of these engineers.

The need for a bridge across the St. Lawrence River at Montreal had become urgent in the early 1800s. It was part of the infrastructure necessary for the city to maintain its importance in the face of competition from the alternative trade route through the Erie Canal.

At this point the St. Lawrence is about two miles wide and a bridge would have been the longest in the world. Several prominent engineers voiced the opinion that given the current state of the art, a bridge of this length, capable of resisting the river’s “ice shoves” was impossible. However, local businessman and politician John Young, president of the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railway, was determined that a bridge would be built.

Following two somewhat inconclusive surveys by American engineers, Canadian engineer Thomas Coltrin Keefer was asked to produce a plan for a bridge. By early 1852, Keefer had fixed on a site very close to that of the present bridge. His design included long approach embankments and a series of masonry piers protected by timber “shoes.” The span over the navigation channel was to be a wrought iron “tube” through which trains would pass. Keefer had considered using wrought iron tubes for all spans, but felt that the cost would be excessive and that what was in effect a two-mile long “tunnel” would be uncomfortable for passengers. Therefore the remainder of the bridge would consist of 23 timber-trussed spans.

In England, Robert Stephenson’s use of the tubular girder principle on the Conway and Britannia Bridges had aroused worldwide interest in the engineering fraternity. Despite the apparent success in North America of Roebling’s contemporary Niagara Gorge road and rail suspension bridge, Keefer clearly believed that the suspension principal was not the correct solution for the long span required over the navigation channel of the St. Lawrence.

At this stage, in a complicated deal to finance the project, a contract was signed with the British railway partnership of Peto, Brassey and Betts to design and construct a railway all the way from Montreal to the U.S. border at Sarnia. A bridge across the St. Lawrence at Montreal was included in this contract. The contractors brought with them a British engineer, Alexander McKenzie Ross, who had a long history of involvement with railway construction in Britain and France. Initially described as the “agent” for the contractors, he was subsequently appointed to be chief engineer of the Grand Trunk Railway, as the project had now been named. Ross had worked for Robert Stephenson on the construction of the Conway tubular bridge, although mainly in supervising masonry work for the bridge piers.

The railway company thereupon gave Keefer the cold shoulder. They refused to pay for his survey and the design work, stating that they were proceeding with a different scheme and would not make use of any of his work. Ross, in his turn, selected a bridge site very close to the location that Keefer had proposed. Not only did he agree with Keefer’s idea of the wrought iron tube for the centre span, he also produced a design using these tubes for the entire bridge. As the scope of the project was well beyond anything yet attempted, the railway’s board of directors decided to approach Robert Stephenson for advice. Stephenson reviewed Ross’s design, approved it in principle, and agreed to undertake jointly with Ross the responsibilities of engineer for the bridge.

The bridge was constructed between 1854 and 1860 and was officially opened by the Prince of Wales in mid-1860. The story of its construction has become one of the “epics” of Victorian engineering. The endeavour employed the current state of the art in engineering design and required outstanding construction ingenuity to overcome the severe challenges of crossing one of the world’s great fast-flowing rivers, coping not only with working in the low temperatures of several severe Canadian winters, but also with the destructive “ice shoves” that occurred each spring.

The construction of the bridge is also important technically for the development of the “ice breaker” pier design which was to see repeated use on many subsequent North American bridges and for the introduction of two new pieces of bridge construction equipment, the Chaffey derrick and pump. These devices, which made major contributions to the speed and efficiency of construction, were designed and built locally by an enterprising contractor, Benjamin Chaffey.

Despite the huge challenges, both technical and financial, the project went well, with little interpersonal friction or other problems of that nature during construction. However, Robert Stephenson’s health had been deteriorating for a number of years and as the bridge moved towards completion he was on his deathbed. At this point there arose an extremely nasty controversy over which engineer deserved most credit for the design and construction of the project.

The controversy originated in a series of articles and letters in several English and Canadian newspapers. It appears to have started with an article in the London Morning Post by an author whose byline was “Veritas,” giving Ross all credit for the concept of the bridge and suggesting that Stephenson had been a mere figurehead: “to Mr. A. Ross is due the entire credit of the plan by which the Bridge has been accomplished; Mr. Stephenson occupied a very secondary position, being employed merely as a consulting engineer.” This brought George Robert Stephenson, Robert’s cousin, who had been in charge of the project drawing office in London, into the fray. He noted that: “Mr. Stephenson, although he no doubt relied frequently and largely upon Mr. Ross, is by no means indebted to that gentleman even for the data on which his calculations were made. These data were chiefly collected by Mr. T.C. Keefer before Mr. Ross visited Canada, and Mr. Keefer handed over his material to Mr. Ross before leaving the services of the Company.”

These comments drew Keefer into the controversy and he pointed out that his report had included the four distinctive features incorporated in the final design of the bridge: the location of the site, solid approaches, the height of the span over the navigation channel and the use of a tubular design for that span. He accused Ross of improperly claiming responsibility for the bridge concept, saying “all these contributions to the original design of the Victoria Bridge which Mr. Ross put into Mr. Stephenson’s hands, and for which he claims to be associated with him as engineer, were taken without acknowledgement from my office.” He regretted that he did not get any credit for his design and felt sure that Robert Stephenson would have acknowledged his work further had he lived: “[T]he lamented death of Stephenson has deprived me of that final and explicit acknowledgement of my labours which would have been given had he lived.”

So who actually did what? As the bulk
of both the design drawings were produced in Robert Stephenson’s design office in London and the tubes were fabricated at the Canada Works at Birkenhead, the natural assumption is that the superstructure of the bridge was entirely the work of Robert Stephenson. The contract for the project is ambiguous in its description of the origin of the design concept, stating that: “the contractors will make, build and construct the said tubular bridge to the plans, sections and specifications prepared and drawn by Robert Stephenson, of London, and Alexander McKenzie Ross of Montreal.” Although consistently naming both engineers as responsible for design and construction, the contract does make it clear that Stephenson was the principal engineer. Further confusion existed in that although as far as the Victoria Bridge was concerned Stephenson was chief engineer and Ross was effectively assistant engineer, Ross continued to be chief engineer of the Grand Trunk Railway and therefore responsible for all other engineering work on the railway. That Ross was capable of designing successful tubular bridges is attested by the fact that there were up to eleven other tubular bridges used on the Grand Trunk Railway, one of which, at St. Anne de Bellevue, was a “train size” tube similar to the Victoria Bridge tubes. His capabilities in designing the type of superstructure used on the Victoria Bridge was therefore not in question and it is very likely that he played a major role in both the preliminary proposals and in the detailed design of the bridge.

The controversy, of course, made no difference to Robert Stephenson. By the time the bridge was finished he was dead, his place in engineering history secured long before this time. And despite unsuccessful attempts in the Canadian parliament to have Keefer recognized for his part in the bridge, Keefer did not suffer from lack of recognition. His place in engineering history is also secure. One of Canada’s most distinguished civil engineers, he was the first president of the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers and in 1888 became president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the only Canadian ever to achieve this honour.

It was Ross who suffered most severely. Never having himself claimed public credit for his work on the bridge, he was greatly hurt and depressed by the controversy and shortly after the bridge was completed he suffered a nervous breakdown. He returned to England where he was admitted to a mental hospital, but never recovered his health. He deteriorated rapidly and died in 1862, only two years after the bridge was completed. As he had never previously show signs of mental problems, his relatives and friends were convinced that it was the attacks on his reputation that had triggered the breakdown that ended his life. This was a sad end to the career of a very competent and apparently personable engineer, particularly as it appears that professional jealousy amongst civil engineers played a major part in this tragedy.

It was all so unnecessary, as the day of the single “chief engineer” who received all of the accolades for major projects had passed and the modern concept of the “design team” was beginning to come to the fore. There is no doubt that all three of these distinguished engineers made substantial contributions to the Victoria Bridge. Let us hope that controversies of this nature belong and remain in the past.

Alistair MacKenzie P. Eng., FCSCE is a professor emeritus of Ryerson University in Toronto. He is senior vice president of the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering and chair of the organizing committee for the CSCE Annual Conference to be held June 2-4 in Toronto. See


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