Biographical Sketch of Thomas C. Keefer, M.Inst. C.E.,C.M.G.

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Thomas Coltrin Keefer, one of the most successful civil engineers, and public writers in Canada, was born at Thorold, near the Falls of Niagara, on the 4th of November, 1821. He is the grandson of a United Empire Loyalist, George Kieffer, an Alsatian Huguenot, who emigrated from France, and settled in the Province of New Jersey, before the American Revolution, where the father of the Canadian family was born a British subject, in 1773. The emigre lost his life and property in the cause of the House of Hanover, and in 1790 George Keefer, his son, came to Canada, where he lived until 1858. His son Thomas was educated at Upper Canada college, 1833-1838, and in the latter year commenced the practice of his profession on the Erie Canal. Returning to Canada he was engaged upon the Welland Canal, where he was the division engineer until 1845, when he was appointed chief engineer of the Ottawa river works. After the successful completion of these works in 1848, the office was abolished, and in 1849 he employed his forced leisure, first, in writing the “Philosophy of Railroads,” at the request of the president of the Montreal and Lachine railway company, and, secondly, in winning Lord Elgin’s prize for the best essay on “The Influence of the Canals of Canada on her Agriculture.” The “Philosophy of Railways” was widely distributed and translated into French, and earned for its author the right to be considered the father of railways in Canada, because its leading idea was, that, while the construction of railways could not be advocated in Canada as a commercial speculation on account of the sparsity of population, and competition of water communication, yet they were indispensable in order to prevent a wholesale emigration to the United States; and they would be so indirectly profitable that it was the duty of the Government and the municipalities to aid to such an extent as would secure their construction.

In 1850 Mr. Keefer reentered the Government service for a short time in connection with the surveys for the navigation of the rapids of the St. Lawrence above Montreal, as well as of the connection by rail or canal of the. St. Lawrence and the St. John rivers, by the route of Lake Temiscouata. The following winter he was sent to Boston to assist the United States Consul, Mr. Andrews, in his first report in relation to a Reciprocity Treaty with Canada. Two years later he was called to New York by Mr. Andrews, who was then engaged with his second report. On the map prepared by Mr. Keefer for this report, the air line, from St. Paul via Sault Ste. Marie to Quebec, is laid down as showing the value of Canadian routes to the northwestern States of the Union. Mr. Andrews’ report bears acknowledgment, as well as evidence of Mr. Keefer’s labors. These reports paved the way to the successful negotiation of the Reciprocity Treaty in 1854.

In 1851 Mr. Keefer was appointed to make the preliminary surveys for the Grand Trunk railway, and for the railway bridge over the St. Lawrence at Montreal. As the winner of the prize essay, he was named by Lord Elgin, one of the Canadian commissioners for the first International Exhibition, at London, 1851, which he visited. In the same year he gave evidence before Parliament in favor of the gauge of New York and New England as the proper one for Canada, and his views in this respect have been confirmed by the recent abandonment of the Canadian gauge.

In 1846 two eminent American engineers had reported upon the question of bridging the St. Lawrence at Montreal, where the winter display of the power of ice is greatest, and both had selected sites for draw bridges in the wide water of the Lapr ie basin, above the city, which would have required a very long superstructure, and have involved a considerable detour to reach the Portland railway. They considered that any attempt to bridge at the narrower part of the river near the city, would block the river so as to endanger both the bridge and the city.

In his report Mr. Keefer demonstrated that the ice jams were due to the unnecessary breadth of the water way, and not only chose the narrower site at Point St. Charles, but proposed to shorten the superstructure by half a mile of solid embankment at each end, thus confining the current to the deeper channel, and preventing the grounding of the ice. He also abolished the draw, by raising the bridge over the navigable channel approaching this with an ascending grade from either shore. The Victoria Bridge has been constructed upon the principles laid down in Mr. Keefer’s report, and, as twenty years’ experience has proved, without risk to the city or to the bridge.

In his prize essay on the canals of Canada, the author showed that the interests of agriculture, commerce and manufactures were inseparable; that our commercial interests, as carriers by the St. Lawrence, would make agricultural protection as unwise as it was unnecessary, while our long winters and the necessity of providing diversified employment for those who would not follow agriculture, required the encouragement of such manufactures as could thrive amongst us.

Mr. Keefer was appointed engineer to the Montreal Harbor Commmissioners in 1853, when the commissioners were engaged in deepening the channel between Montreal and Quebec. He recommended an extension from 16 feet, as proposed, to 20 feet depth, as not only required, but as relatively more economical; the cost of plant and preparation being in many places the chief item of expense.

Mr. Keefer has constructed water works for the cities of Montreal, Hamilton and Ottawa, and has been consulted with respect to those at Quebec, Toronto, Halifax, St. Catharines, London, and Dartmouth (N. S.) He has also filled the position of chief engineer to railways in Upper and Lower Canada, and has been engaged in harbor and bridge engineering in several provinces, and largely as arbitrator, solely, or in conjunction with others, settling important disputes on public works.

In 1861, he advocated the construction of an interior line of railway from Lake Huron to Quebec, chiefly for defensive purposes, and has, since the Fenian raids, urged the construction of the Toronto and Ottawa railway for the same reason. He has frequently pointed out our helplessness (as manifested at the time of the Trent affair and Fenian raids) so long as we are dependent on a single line of railway and that upon the frontier. In 1862, he was again appointed a commissioner to the International Exhibition at London, and visited England in connection with that duty.

Immediately after Canada extinguished the claims of the Hudson Bay Company to the great territory in the northwest, Mr. Keefer, in 1869, commenced a series of letters in the public press, to prove that this step fairly committed us to a Canadian Pacific railway, although Confederation had not then extended to the Pacific ocean.

In a series of nearly a dozen letters, he pointed out that the expenditure upon the Dawson route could never compete with the all rail route of the Northern Pacific railway from Duluth to the Red riverthat a continuous railway from Superior was indispensable for this purpose, but even this, he urged, would only be a summer route and could not compete with the all rail, all the year round route from the seaboard, via Detroit and Chicago. A continuous railway, therefore, from the Ottawa to the Fertile Belt would alone secure both trade and travel to Canada, and maintain our jurisdiction over the northwest. At Sault Ste. Marie and at the Assiniboine, the Canadian Pacific railway would connect with the American system, and so far be international.

As the Dominion was not in a position to undertake it as a public work, the enterprise must depend upon the lands of the Fertile Belt. If these would not repay the cost, the road was not worth building. The railway was the proper colonization road, and railway lands would sell when and where free grant lands could not be given away without it, while the purchasers of land were more desirable as settlers than a quasi pauper emigration imported, at the public expense, to colonize free grant lands. The principle of our assessment law is, that the property benefited shall pay the tax; the lands, therefore, whether by the Government or a company, should be devoted to secure the railway. There was a great principle involved in our proposed march westward from Lake Superior; it was an assertion of Canadian nationality, in the face of the Monroe Doctrine.

There was also an Imperial element in the question, and the same reason, which had induced the Empire to promote the Intercolonial from Halifax to Quebec by a guarantee, applied with greater force to a Pacific railway which would directly connect the naval stations of Halifax and Esquimault through British territory. The Imperial Government knew that a tier of British provinces extending across the continent could not be held together without a railway. The railway engineer should have preceded the land surveyor and the Provincial Cabinet to Red river to show that Canada had something more to offer the Metis than a constitution and a tariff.

Whether Confederation was wise or unwise; whether a Pacific railway was financially practicable or not westward extension of the former without the latter he believed to be impossible.

He did not think it necessary to provide for the Pacific section. If the road to and through the Fertile Belt was secured, British Columbia and the Pacific Ocean commerce should make it a through line.

In February, 1870, Mr. Keefer brought about a convention of municipalities in the Ottawa valley, including the city of Montreal, at which he said that “if Confederation was to be extended across the continent, a continuous railway on Canadian soil was indispensable,” and that he “sincerely believed the enterprise they were met to consider, was the beginning of a Canadian Pacific railway,” and the following year British Columbia was annexed to the Canadian Confederation on the basis of such a railway.

In 1877, Mr. Keefer was appointed the Executive Commissioner for the Paris Exhibition, and, while in that position, was named a member of the International Jury, for class 66, architecture and engineering. He received the most flattering acknowledgments from both English and French for the successful manner in which he discharged the arduous and important duties committed to him. France showed her appreciation by conferring upon him one of the higher grades of the Legion of Honor.

Mr. Keefer is a member of the “Institution of Civil Engineers,” London, and also the “American Society of Civil Engineers,” New York.

As is here seen, the brief record of the life of Mr. Keefer is closely interwoven with the history of the internal improvements of Canada. The impress of his mind and hand is upon the grandest enterprises of the country, and his name will be remembered by future generations, as long as canals and railways are in use.



MLA Source Citation:

The Canadian Biographical Dictionary and Portrait Gallery of Eminent and Self Made Men, Ontario, Volume 1. Toronto: Toronto American Biographical Pub. Co. 1880. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 27 August 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/canada/biographical-sketch-of-thomas-c-keefer-m-inst-c-e-c-m-g.htm - Last updated on Aug 7th, 2012


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