Canadian Consulting Engineer

Telford’s Legacy

January 1, 2008
By Alistair MacKenzie, P. Eng.

I n July last year, industrial archaeologists working on Nova Scotia's Shubenacadie Canal, a National Historic Civil Engineering Site, were excited to unearth the remains of a turbine that was part of...

In July last year, industrial archaeologists working on Nova Scotia’s Shubenacadie Canal, a National Historic Civil Engineering Site, were excited to unearth the remains of a turbine that was part of the operating machinery for one of the canal’s two inclined planes.

Built between 1826 and 1856, the Shubenacadie canal is one of the earliest examples of canal engineering in this country. Although Francis Hall is rightly recognized as the “engineer of record” for the canal’s early works, a much more famous civil engineer of that era was a consultant. This was no less a person than the eminent British civil engineer Thomas Telford, who is widely regarded as one of the “fathers” of the civil engineering profession. Last year marked the 250th anniversary of his birth.

We have, in Canada, no Telford projects like the Caledonian Canal, the Medway Bridge or the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in the U. K. Telford himself never visited Canada and made no mention of Canada in his autobiography. However, Telford did exert influence in the development of Canadian civil engineering.

Telford’s first involvement in Canadian works can be traced to a letter sent to him in March 1824 by Sir Howard Douglas, Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick. Douglas asked Telford to recommend an engineer to come from Britain to study the possibility of a transportation link, either a canal or a railroad, across the Chignecto Isthmus between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

It turned out that there was already an engineer with the necessary experience on this side of the Atlantic. This was Francis Hall, who was well known to Telford and had worked for him for several years before emigrating to British North America in 1823. Hall’s plans for the Baie Verte Canal were sent to Telford for advice, but despite their technical soundness, the government eventually decided not to proceed.

After the Baie Verte project, Hall was engaged to produce a design for the Shubenacadie Canal. Telford was consulted again and was so positive about the project he purchased shares in the Canal Company. Construction started in 1826, but by 1829 Hall was asked to do a redesign. Charles Fairbanks MP, one of the company directors, traveled to London to visit Telford, taking Hall’s revised plans with him. Telford gave Fairbanks a very positive endorsement of both the canal and the engineer. However, problems continued and work was abandoned in 1831. Although construction resumed years later in 1853, neither Hall nor Telford was further involved.

Telford’s advice was also sought for the original Welland Canal in Ontario — a much more successful project — and lastly for coal handling facilities and a breakwater in Sydney Harbour, Nova Scotia in 1833. He died the following year, but his influence continued through other Canadian engineers who had trained under him. For example, Hall’s contemporary Nicol Hugh Baird, who was the engineer for the early works on the Trent Severn Waterway, was another Telford pupil who frequently quoted Telford as his authority for design decisions.

Telford was the first president of the Institution of Civil Engineers in the U. K. in 1820, the world’s first professional engineering society. The Institution of Civil Engineers become the model on which other professional engineering societies worldwide were based, including the original Canadian Society of Civil Engineers, formed in 1887.


Alistair MacKenzie, P. Eng. is a professor emeritus at Ryerson University in Toronto. He is also a past president of the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering.


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