Engineers Before Regulation

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The Early Years

The history of engineering in Manitoba is long and storied but the advent of engineering did not coincide with the formation of an engineering association in 1920. Human ingenuity, and the application of engineering principles to the solving of practical problems, has origins lost in antiquity. We see examples in the technologies developed by Indigenous peoples of the North American plains to provide themselves with shelter (teepee) and transportation (canoe). Few people would have called themselves engineers prior to the mid-1800s but the pace of engineering innovation quickened with the railway boom in the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada in the 1850s. Thirty years later, with the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway to the Pacific coast, the ranks of engineers swelled. Most of them were trained in the time-honoured practice of apprenticeship with established engineers, rather than in technical schools or universities. Most came from Britain or the United States.

The earliest known engineer to practise in the area that would become Manitoba was Simon James Dawson (1820–1902). In 1857, he and geology professor Henry Youle Hind (1823–1908) were dispatched by the Imperial Government to explore and survey a land-based all-British North America route from Lake Superior to Fort Garry that avoided the treacherous waters of the Winnipeg River. Their report to the government stimulated interest in the region and, by 1868, Dawson was commissioned to construct a water- and land-based route that would eventually take his name.

Dawson Road linkage

In the 1870s, with the impending arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway in Manitoba, engineers and politicians sparred over the best place to cross the Red River. Sandford Fleming (1827–1915), the railway’s Chief Engineer in charge of surveys, wanted the line to cross at Selkirk where elevation was higher, and riverbanks were more stable. However, the boosters of Winnipeg wanted it to cross in their city instead; so, they made a bold move to change the CPR’s mind. In return for relocating its line to Winnipeg, the city would construct a bridge across the Red River, construct a line of track west of the city, provide land for maintenance shops, and the railway property in the city would be free of taxes in perpetuity.

    “Winnipeg city council is awaiting an engineer’s report regarding the practicality of constructing a rail bridge [the Louise Bridge] which could also be used for local traffic (vehicle/pedestrian) across the Red River. They are currently using a ferry/scow.” (5 October 1874, Manitoba Free Press)
    “Thomas Jeff Thompson, an engineer based in Kingston Ontario who has previously done design work in Manitoba, commented on a tender for a bridge estimate advertised in Ontario but with no technical information in which to base the estimate. Information was available in Winnipeg, but the five-day journey there would only allow a few weeks to come up with a design and estimate. He suggested that this was not a truly open public tendering competition.” (16 January 1880, Manitoba Free Press)
     “The late city council had authorized the bridge engineer to ask for tenders accompanied by plans. This was a new method. He asked if businessmen would take the same course in their own private affairs. He referred to the fact that jobbery had been committed in our city works in the past. He also spoke of the large increase in taxation which the building of the bridge would entail for the next twenty years. He urged that plans should be prepared, and approved by the engineer, and then let all contractors who wish tender of the same work.” (20 January 1880, Manitoba Free Press)

In the years that followed, rail lines were constructed throughout southern Manitoba, and Winnipeg quickly became a railway hub, with CPR Chief Engineer John Godfrey Sullivan (1863–1938) based out of the Winnipeg office.

As the population of the new province of Manitoba grew, demand soared for the services of civil engineers. In the beginning, there were few engineers practising in the area; so, consulting engineers were often brought in from outside the province from places such as Toronto, Montreal, Minneapolis and New York City. The new city of Winnipeg was also developing its basic infrastructure to service a growing population, with corresponding needs for land drainage, roads, clean water, sewers, ferries and bridges, and eventually street cars and street lighting. As early as 1874, a year after its incorporation, with a population of 1,869, Winnipeg had an engineer on its municipal staff.

The nature of the work done by the newly hired engineer, and his close interactions with the city council, can be gleaned from excerpts from the Manitoba Free Press:

   “The City Engineer attended the Winnipeg city council meeting to explain the drainage issue across from city hall. The roads were dirt and street drainage was an issue. Councillors enquired about digging a ditch across the road, however the engineer pointed out that it would simply fill in due to traffic moving across. A box drain was recommended instead of digging a ditch. One of the councillors suggested that a main sewer was the proper solution and that they should not focus so much on the various small mud holes.” (7 July 1874, Manitoba Free Press)
    “The committee also submitted the report of the City Engineer on a system of surface drains for the business centre of the city, and recommended that the system be not adopted, that money be thus saved, and that a system of deep sewage be adopted.” (15 July 1874, Manitoba Free Press)

Henry Norlande Ruttan (1848–1925), City Engineer for Winnipeg from 1885 to 1914, played a prominent role in the development of its infrastructure, as the city’s population grew from 16,000 to 130,000. He played a pivotal role in moving the water supply from the Assiniboine River to a series of wells around the city. In 1905, Ruttan partially designed a high-pressure fire protection system and supervised its construction. Yet, despite the high regard in which he was widely held, Ruttan’s 29-year tenure was not without its troubles. In 1896, two city councillors, believing that the public’s prejudice against the council arose from incompetence in the engineer’s department, tried to have Ruttan dismissed. Complaints against him were refuted and a vote on the motion was defeated 2 to 8. Likewise, a dispute in 1901 over poor decisions surrounding the construction of macadam roads and problems with the new water system came to naught.

The Need for Professionalism

As the 20th century dawned, cities were becoming larger, industry more complex, and society more sophisticated. The demand for engineers grew correspondingly which, in turn, led to concerns about their level of competence and responsibility. In 1909, the Brandon Sun reported on a defamation lawsuit filed by Brandon’s City Engineer, Walter Henderson Shillinglaw (1864–1957), against a city councillor as a result of public complaints over the design and construction of the First Street Bridge over the Assiniboine River:

    “…That the engineer had proved himself incompetent, that he had admitted his incompetency at the meeting of the committee held before the deputation left for Montreal. That if he had had time, he would have caused the strengthening of the bridge, which was a sign of incompetency. That when he returned from Montreal his report again proved the engineer’s incompetency.… If the city engineer had resigned when he was expected to, he would have carried with him the onus of the mistakes made in the building of the bridge, which now falls on the city council…. Mr. Shillinglaw is responsible for the mistake, and on the ground that the city engineer had proved himself incompetent to hold the position, it is my opinion that the city engineer should be requested to resign.” (25 March 1909, Manitoba Free Press)

Shillinglaw claimed that his professional reputation was damaged by the allegations. In the course of the trial, it was revealed that Shillinglaw had had three years of engineering education from the School of Practical Science in Toronto (precursor to the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Engineering) but he failed his final exams. He was a member of the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers, but his entry had been based only on experience and not on examinations or proof of qualifications. In the course of work on the Brandon bridge, he had placed an assistant in charge of day-to-day supervision, but he did not involve himself in its intimate details, including a change in the plans from reinforced concrete to steel girders. Despite concerns expressed by the steel supplier, and by the Canadian Pacific Railway that would use the finished bridge, that the new design did not have sufficient strength, work had continued. Ultimately, the bridge was redesigned with double the load capacity of the original plans. A jury found in favour of Shillinglaw but awarded damages in the princely sum of $1. He subsequently stepped down as City Engineer. The case illustrated numerous deficiencies, including Shillinglaw’s incomplete education and the inadequacy of processes for project oversight and accountability, verification of designs and maintenance of records, all of which highlighted the need for better oversight and management of the engineering profession.

Compiled by

Ryan Bernier, P. Eng.
Review and Editing by Gordon Goldsborough, PhD., Jim Burns, PhD.
Posted by Glen N. Cook, P. Eng. (SM), FEC