Harvey named for talented engineer

Charles T. Harvey

Charles Thompson Harvey (1829-1912) was born in Colchester, Connecticut. His father was Joseph Harvey, outspoken pastor of the affluent Congregational Church of Westchester. His mother was Catherine Desire Seldon Harvey, granddaughter of the famous Colonel Samuel Selden who died from wounds suffered defending New York City from the British in 1776.

As a student in New England, Charles Harvey showed precocious engineering aptitude. He once found a diagram for a new kind of arch, then built a wooden model of it, which he gleefully tested with stone weights. As a young man, Charles was influenced by Dewitt Clinton’s account of the building of the Erie Canal.

When he finished his schooling, Harvey obtained work with the Fairbanks Scale Company, which engineered levered scales that efficiently weighed heavy loads with less counterbalancing weight. The Fairbanks Scale Company was a major international supplier of scales for various industrial applications.

While in their employ, Harvey fell ill. Doctors of the day often recommended fresh air for invalids. Like many patients, Harvey came to Lake Superior to recuperate. While he was in Sault Ste. Marie in 1852, Congress passed a resolution giving 750,000 acres to any company that could build a canal allowing ships passage around the Saint Mary’s Falls.

Charles Harvey organized a corps of engineers and encouraged his employers at the Fairbanks Scale Company to bid for the contract. With other financial backers, the businessmen incorporated the St. Mary’s Falls Ship Canal Company in New York State in 1853. At age 24, Harvey served as the company’s general agent.

Michigan engineers originally planned for the canal to be 250 feet by 50 feet with a 12-foot bottom. Harvey anticipated that the canal would likely draw more traffic than others expected and designed the canal to be 350 feet by 70 feet.

Work on the canal began June 1853 and it opened June 1855. Harvey’s canal at Sault Ste. Marie was built more quickly and cost-effectively than similar projects before it. Harvey’s employers praised him for his engineering genius.

The Soo Canal transformed industrial shipping in the Great Lakes region as Upper Peninsula companies were beginning to mine large quantities of iron ore. By connecting Lake Superior to Lake Huron, the canal made it possible for ships laden with iron to reach eastern states by way of the Erie Canal.

Harvey also helped develop the region’s overland transportation. In 1855 and 1856, Harvey petitioned government officials in Washington D.C. to grant land for rail projects in the Midwest. Tensions that presaged the Civil War made southern government officials reticent to support projects in northern states. Harvey personally petitioned key opponents and negotiated deals that granted more than 10 million acres of federal land to midwestern states for railway expansion.

Harvey settled in the Marquette area in 1857. The local iron industry was beginning to boom. He helped secure funding to build the Pioneer Furnace near the Jackson Mine in Negaunee. The Pioneer Furnace is thought to have been the first charcoal blast furnace in Michigan.

In 1859, Harvey became general agent for the Northern Iron Company. He designed and built a new kind of kiln near the mouth of the Chocolay River south of Marquette. He lived in a home called Bayou House. This site became Harvey, Michigan. Charles Harvey intended his new town to one day rival neighboring Marquette in size and prosperity.

Charles Harvey then went on to influence the development of New York City. In 1865, a group of New York’s leading citizens sought solutions to dangerously overcrowded conditions in lower Manhattan. The group of citizens concluded that one solution was to build cheap and reliable transportation away from downtown Manhattan. Charles Harvey submitted a plan for an experimental elevated train.

The West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway, later known as the Ninth Avenue Line, eventually linked downtown Manhattan to the village of Yonkers north of the Bronx. The first part of the line opened in 1868. Unfortunately, Harvey fell into a dispute with key investors and was soon cut out of the ambitious project that brought the first elevated train to New York City.

Despite decades spent asserting his rights in the matter, including two bills put before the New York State Legislature, Harvey never received compensation for his patent on the elevated train. He died in New York on March 11, 1912, unrecognized as the man who transformed lower Manhattan.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)