The Life and Legacy of Charles Ellet, Jr.

August 7, 2017

This is a guest post by Lauren Lincoln-Chavez from Wayne State University's School of Library and Information Science, who processed the Charles Ellet, Jr. Papers as part of an internship. The items pictured in this post are also on display as part of the exhibit Storied Acquisitions: Highlights from the University of Michigan Library Collections through August 30, 2017.

Charles Ellet, Jr., a prominent 19th century civil engineer, died from a gunshot wound he sustained surveying the deck of the flagship Queen of the West at the Battle of Memphis during the U.S. Civil War. His vast legacy as builder of bridges, railroads, canals, and Colonel of the U.S. Ram Fleet lay before him. He was the first to introduce wire suspension bridge technology to the United States, utilizing his education and observations from Europe to inform his designs for three wire suspension bridges: Schuylkill River, Philadelphia (1842), Niagara Falls, New York (1848), and the Wheeling Bridge, West Virginia (1849).  His greatest achievements lay in his work with rivers, most importantly his work completing the first government sponsored survey of the Mississippi River Delta with recommendations for improvements and flood control.

A pioneer in transportation economics, he began publishing articles in 1842 examining the cost of railroad transportation, part of his ongoing work to expand the laws of trade on canals and railroads. His publications advocated for toll rate discrimination, allowing for rate differences based on tonnage, amount of travel, and the length and age of the internal improvement. During the Civil War, his innovative development of the U.S. Ram Fleet helped win the Battle of Memphis, a decisive moment in the Union victory. Charles Ellet, Jr.’s lasting contributions to internal improvements in the United States changed not only the fabric of the landscape but the imagination of 19th century America.


Set of drawing tools belonging to Charles Ellet, Jr., including several metal drawing tools, two bone measurement tools, and a carrying case
Set of drawing tools owned by Ellet, from the Charles Ellet, Jr. Papers

River Surveys

Charles Ellet, Jr. spent much of his life along the river. Born on a farm in Philadelphia in 1810, he left home at seventeen, beginning his work on rivers as a rodman for the North Branch of the Susquehanna River. He spent his career in almost a constant state of travel, surveying rivers, canals, and supervising projects sometimes fifty miles apart. Daily correspondence with his beloved wife, Elvira Daniel Ellet, and his family create an intimate portrait of his life and work. He was a strong advocate for canals over railroads, where in the great debate he published the controversial pamphlet, “The Prospects of the Schuylkill Navigation Company,” arguing for expanding canals and outlining his reasons the Reading Railroad Company would fail as an inferior transportation system. In 1850, he was selected by the War Department to conduct a survey of the Mississippi River Delta, with recommendations for improvements. Ellet published “The Mississippi and Ohio Rivers,” examining the reasons for the inundation of the Mississippi Valley, and advocating for the use of artificial reservoirs and improved levees to control flooding. The collection contains all of the technical survey drawings of the Mississippi River Delta, and leather-bound notebooks from his survey of Philadelphia County in 1845. In his love of rivers, he named his first son Charlie Rivers, who carried on his legacy as Colonel of the U.S. Ram Fleet in 1863.


As a bridge builder, Charles Ellet, Jr. was a pioneer, introducing wire suspension bridge technology to the United States. After studying engineering at École nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in Paris, and touring public works in Europe, he submitted a design to Washington for a wire suspension bridge across the Potomac in 1830. His designs were rejected but he continued advocating for wire suspension bridges through the publication of pamphlets, correspondence with interest cities, and the development of suspension bridge designs. In 1841, he was awarded a contract to construct the first permanent wire suspension bridge across the Schuylkill River.

Drawing by Ellet showing the site of the suspension bridge at Niagara Falls
Drawing of the site of the suspension bridge at Niagara Falls, from the Charles Ellet, Jr. Papers

In 1847, Ellet was awarded the Niagara Falls Bridge contract and employed by the Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Company to build the Wheeling Bridge. Both projects became surrounded in controversy. In the construction of the Niagara Bridge, an economic recession threatened to postpone major contracts, causing Ellet to renegotiate his plans to build a smaller bridge.  Payments issued to the treasury by the Niagara Falls Bridge Company and the International Niagara Falls Bridge Company were consistently delayed, and Ellet began to collect tolls on the bridge, becoming the subject of dispute. After legal proceedings, Ellet completed a light suspension bridge hung on wooden towers, and relinquished his contract in December 1848. The collection documents the legal dispute of the Niagara Falls Bridge through the preservation of legal records, technical plans, and organizational documents. In 1849, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit against the Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Company declaring the Wheeling Bridge an obstruction to commerce on the Ohio-Mississippi waterway. The Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Company argued that the bridge did not significantly obstruct commerce on the Ohio River, and advocated for the communities’ right to gain free navigation of the headway and waterway. In 1852, Congress signed a law declaring the Wheeling Bridge part of a post road, and not subject to the decree of the Supreme Court.

U.S. Ram Fleet

After the Merrimac’s devastating defeat of the Union fleet at Hampton Roads in 1862, Charles Ellet, Jr. was invited to Washington where he was appointed Colonel of the U.S. Ram Fleet. In Ellet’s innovative approach, the crushing power of the steam-powered vessel was generated through velocity and weight. The steamers were outfitted with battering rams, painted black and reinforced, their hulls strengthened and manned with twenty sharpshooters. On June 6, 1862, at the Battle of Memphis, the U.S. Ram Fleet joined Commodore Davis’s flotillas on the Mississippi at Memphis, resulting in the destruction of eight Confederate vessels and the city’s capture. Charles Ellet, Jr.’s success as Colonel of the U.S. Ram Fleet was due to his comprehensive knowledge of the Mississippi River. His military career is illuminated through organizational records in the subject files, and newspaper clippings in the collection. The only surviving illustration of the U.S. Ram Fleet is a tactical drawing attributed to Alfred W. Ellet.


The Charles Ellet, Jr. Papers

Mary Virginia Ellet’s dedicated collection and organization of the Charles Ellet, Jr. papers has been instrumental to the ongoing research and preservation of Charles Ellet, Jr.’s life and legacy as a prominent 19th century civil engineer. Additionally, the Charles Ellet, Jr. papers contain journals, correspondence and documents highlighting the military career of Charles Rivers Ellet and Alfred W. Ellet. The Charles Ellet, Jr. Papers have been processed and are open for research at the University of Michigan Library’s Special Collections Library, Transportation History Collection.