Thomas Coltrin Keefer (1821-1915)
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By Peter S. Chisholm, P.Eng.

An independent waterworks expert, he advocated for advancement of the engineering profession through education.


Thomas Coltrin Keefer was born in Thorold, Ontario, on November 2, 1821, the eighth son in a family of 20 children to George Keefer. George Keefer, United Empire Loyalist from the British Colony of New Jersey, settled in Thorold in 1790 with his brother Jacob (Murphy 1977). Jacob died from wounds suffered at the battle of Lundy’s Lane on July 24/25, 1814, but George Keefer survived active service during the war of 1812 and established ownership of 2500 hectares of land in Thorold. He became known as the founder of Thorold, where he operated as a surveyor and magistrate and owned a general store, two sawmills and a gristmill.

A man of obvious means, George Keefer and his associates, including John DeCew and William Hamilton Merritt, would influence Thomas Coltrin Keefer’s career as a civil engineer. George Keefer was the biggest shareholder and first president of the private Welland Canal Company that built the first Welland Canal between1824 and 1829.


Following the American Revolution in 1789, 19th-century Canada confronted T.C. Keefer and his contemporaries with ongoing revolution in many different forms. Public primary education was evolving, and engineering apprenticeship gave way to university education. The role of the military engineer was taken over by the civil engineer, as transportation by canal and rail expanded to literally join Canada physically, if not politically. In the process, politics were challenged by William Lyon Mackenzie in Ontario in 1837, Confederation in 1867 and by Louis Riel in Saskatchewan in 1885. And for much of the time, the politics of professional engineering were a foremost preoccupation of T.C. Keefer (Ball 1987).

Education and Training

T.C. Keefer attended Grantham Academy (later St. Catharines Collegiate Institute), which opened in 1829 and operated as a stock company founded by shareholders, including his father George Keefer. Later attendance at Upper Canada College, York, Ontario, was interrupted in December 1837 by Mackenzie’s Rebellion, during which Keefer served briefly as a 16-year-old militia volunteer in the Lincoln Regiment. Graduation from Upper Canada College in 1838 was followed by practical training while employed as an apprentice engineer (Millard 1988) on the Erie Canal from 1838 to 1839.

Keefer’s Engineering

By 1840, when he was just 19, Keefer had started in a career of proactive engineering agitation that would soon set him apart from his colleagues. This distinction resulted, in part, from the direction taken by Keefer from William Hamilton Merritt. Merritt, born American entrepreneur and business associate of Keefer’s father George, was best known for his promotion of public works, transportation and trade, both in Upper Canada and internationally (Fraser 1985). Assisted by Merritt, Keefer secured employment in a variety of situations between 1840 and 1850. He worked, initially, on the second Welland Canal as a divisional engineer until 1845. In 1845, he moved to the position of Chief Engineer Ottawa River, where he was responsible for maintenance, design and construction of water control works and log slides required to move timber downstream from remote inland source areas.

In 1848, Keefer was 27 years old. By then, he had established an independent reputation through his public advocacy of engineering practice based upon appropriate engineering standards and professional ethics. His views on engineering practice were accompanied by public criticism of pork-barrel planning, or patronage, in which political expediency overrules engineering judgment about the worth of public works projects. Murphy explains that Keefer’s public criticism of political influence in the planning of engineering works resulted in his dismissal in 1848 from the Ottawa River position.

By 1850, Keefer had abandoned work as an employee engineer and established himself as an independent consulting engineer in Montreal. He had, since his 1848 firing in Ottawa, further enhanced his personal visibility through two timely publications. His visionary paper, The Philosophy of Railroads, was written in 1849. It popularized the railroad as the means to overcome the constraints that winter climate imposed on Canadian transportation and commerce. Also, it promoted expansion of Canadian railroad facilities, particularly westward from Montreal. The companion publication, The Influence of the Canals of Canada, was written in 1850. Keefer advocated that canals, past and future, are essential for the achievement of integrated land/water transportation systems in Canada. It is likely that this publication drew, in part, on Keefer’s personal experience with the first and second Welland canals, the Erie Canal and the Ottawa River System. Beyond his personal experience, a century later, the St. Lawrence Seaway System would confirm Keefer’s 1850 vision of the role of canals in transportation in Canada.

Well publicized as a transportation visionary, Keefer, between 1850 and 1853, consulted on the survey of new railroads to join Toronto and Montreal. Also, he surveyed and selected the location for the Victoria Bridge that would carry the Grand Trunk Railway across the St. Lawrence River at Montreal. But he would never be privileged to do final design and construction of any of these major works. Instead, his ongoing public candour about inept governments and their interference in engineering decision making was not consistent with the need for government participation and financing of major railroad projects. Subsequent to 1853, he was dropped from ongoing railroad engineering studies, and as explained by Millard, Keefer responded by claiming to be a casualty of politics.

As he began his fall from the favour of his railroad clients, Keefer moved towards both international prominence and specialization in municipal waterworks engineering. In 1850, he assisted the United States consul I.D. Andrews in the latter’s study of trade reciprocity between Canada and the United States. Also, he was appointed one of Canada’s commissioners to the first international exhibition held in London, England, in 1851. A similar appointment would follow for the World Exhibition of 1862 in London, England, and the Paris Exhibition of 1878. Along the way, in 1877, he was nominated for membership in the American Society of Civil Engineers (James and James 1978).

Progress towards prominence through specialization in municipal waterworks engineering began with his appointment in 1853 to the position of chief engineer of the Montreal Harbour Commission, and subsequent appointment as chief engineer of the Montreal Water Board. While so retained, he would, in 1856, compete successfully for the authorization to design a comprehensive municipal waterworks system for Hamilton. His personal success through specialization in waterworks engineering would be accompanied by the opportunity to agitate, with impunity, for his goal of ethical social leadership by engineers free of political interference. This opportunity came in 1856, when he lectured in civil engineering at McGill College.

Between 1856 and the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad in 1885, Keefer had participated in the design of municipal waterworks systems for St. Catharines, Toronto, London, Quebec, Dartmouth, Halifax and Ottawa. During this period, Confederation was initiated in 1867, and Keefer promoted, without being hired to do the job, a coast-to-coast railroad to join Canada together. His teaching at McGill was accompanied, by 1887, with continued growth of engineering education at four other Canadian universities–New Brunswick, Toronto, Royal Military College and École Polytechnique.

As the prominence of Canadian engineering enterprise evolved, debate about formalized engineering practice flourished. Millard explains that this debate was polarized between two incompatible concepts for the form wanted of professional engineering in Canada. At one extreme, Alan MacDougall advocated a closed profession in which membership would be legislated by statute (Millard 1988). Alternatively, Thomas Keefer advocated an open profession directed at enhancing the engineering profession through education and in which membership would result through trust of the individual by society, based on successful performance during apprenticeship. Keefer’s perspective prevailed in the formation of the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers (CSCE) in 1887, of which he was the first president. The CSCE would give way, in 1922, to provincial associations in which the licensing of individual members is governed by provincial statute.

Subsequent to 1887, and following his presidency over the CSCE, Keefer would become president of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in 1888. In 1898, he served as president of the Royal Society of Canada, of which he had been a member since 1881. In 1913, he would be personal host to prominent North American engineers at the annual meeting of the ASCE held in Ottawa. A peer within this group, Keefer died in 1915. Keefer set up valuable precedents to subsequent engineering practice in Canada both through durable engineering works and durable personal values.

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