Daguerreotype of Charles Ellet, Jr., 1846
This portrait is a daguerreotype made about 1846, one of 27 in a set entitled "James River and Kanawha Company Directors and Employees." The sitter is the American engineer Charles Ellet, Jr. (1810–1862). Owned by the VHS, it is likely the only photographic image of Ellet in existence. Portrayed is a man who was talented, intense, and at times imperious.
Charles Ellet, Jr., was a farm boy from Pennsylvania who studied in Paris. He first came to Virginia in 1834 as an engineer on the James River and Kanawha Canal and served as chief engineer from 1836 to 1839, in charge of building the canal from Lynchburg to Tye River. Ellet always maintained high standards but had a way of ruffling feathers. In 1842 he designed and built the first wire suspension bridge in the Americas, over the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. Although his proposals for suspension bridges over the Connecticut, Mississippi, and Potomac rivers did not proceed, in 1847 his plan for one at Niagara Falls was accepted.
To run a line over the river gorge, Ellet offered a $5 prize for a kite flown to the other side, a feat accomplished by a local boy. Once the first cable was hung, Ellet had a metal basket constructed to hang from it and hauled himself across by hand. Next, as a temporary link, he suspended a catwalk with an eight-foot-wide deck of planks over the river. Once the last plank was laid, but before most of the railing was installed, the fearless Ellet, standing like a charioteer, drove over the gorge in a horse and buggy.
After a dispute with the directors, he did not build the Niagara bridge (his rival John A. Roebling did). Ellet’s most significant surviving work is the Wheeling Suspension Bridge over the Ohio River, at 1,010 feet the longest in the world at its completion in 1849, and still in use today. Although it connected Virginia and Ohio, because its western end was on an island, the bridge was entirely in the state of Virginia. The role of engineer in that era was broader than today: Ellet not only designed the Wheeling bridge, but he also marshaled funding, located materials, supervised construction and reconstruction, defended it before the U.S. Supreme Court, and lobbied in Washington for the federal law that overturned the Court's ruling.
Ellet produced over forty publications that reflected his many interests. He wrote extensively and influentially in the 1840s on pricing structures for railroad freight charges. His 1850–51 studies of flood control in the Mississippi River Valley called for a comprehensive approach of reservoirs, floodplains, and levees, a view that did not become accepted practice until a century later. In 1853 Ellet became chief engineer for the Virginia Central Railroad. During his tenure, the engineer Claudius Crozet was in the midst of building for the railroad a crossing of the Blue Ridge at Rockfish Gap (today's Afton) with multiple tunnels. Seeing that Crozet's project was several years from completion, Ellet proceeded in 1854 to lay track over the gap, at steeper grades than previously thought feasible, to reach the Shenandoah Valley. On the inaugural run, with leading citizens aboard, Ellet had the passenger car disconnected from the engine, in order to roll down the mountain by gravity. Unluckily, the car's brakes failed and the descent became a harrowing high-speed ride. Other than that, the Mountain Top Road, as he called it, functioned successfully until Crozet's crossing was ready.
In the mid-1850s, Ellet became an advocate of steam-powered rams for coastal naval defense. Not until 1862 did he convince the U.S. War Department, and then only after the idea was put into use by the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia in Hampton Roads. The North, in something of a panic, commissioned Ellet, at that point best known as an unrelenting critic of Gen. George B. McClellan, to create a fleet of rams converted from Ohio River steamboats. Ellet's irregular navy took Memphis in 1862 with only one casualty, Ellet himself, whose wound proved fatal. It was an unexpected end to a dynamic life.
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