Book Review: Designing Gotham: West Point Engineers and the Rise of Modern New York, 1817-1898


by Jon Scott Logel

Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2016. Pp. xii, 264. Illus., maps, chron., notes, biblio., index. $45.00. ISBN: 0807163724

How West Pointers Built New York

Although the story of how West Point provided the bulk of the engineers who built America in the nineteenth century is well known, Prof. Logel (Naval War College), points out that their role in the rise of New York is not only far less celebrated, but is also perhaps their most important contribution to the new nation.

Logel opens with a fairly detailed look at the academy Point curriculum in the sciences and engineering. He notes that almost from the start, USMA-trained engineers began building much of America’s infrastructure, particularly railroads, helping to establish engineering as a profession in the new nation, in part by their work in the field and also by playing a role in establishing most of the country’s schools of engineering.

Logel then goes on to trace the influence of Academy graduates on New York. ; mapping the geological foundation, helping develop the now famous rigid street grid, supervising the construction of the Erie Canal and the Croton water system many more marvels right up through the Brooklyn Bridge. They also were active in improvements to navigation, most famously in the clearing of Hell Gate, the greatest deliberate explosion in history to that time, and much more, including Col. Egbert L. Viele’s famous 1874 map of the city’s sub surface structures – waterways, stony outcrops, and the like – which is still of use in major construction projects.

Logel points out that West Point engineers also brought their organizational skills to important administrative posts, such as Commissioner of Police or of Docks, along the way not only turning New York into the nation’s economic power house, but also laying the basis for several professional organizations and learned societies. He notes that the officers involved, some famous – George B. McClellan, Henry Slocum, FitzJohn Porter – and some not so famous – Egbert Viele, George Greene, John Newton – went to the city for different reasons. Some were assigned there as part of their military duties. Some, having left the service, did so for the professional opportunities involved, and some others, such as McClellan or Porter, for personal vindication. Logel touches on municipal politics, veterans’ affairs, Tammany Hall, immigration, and much more.

Although technical details on some of the engineering feats are sparse, and the book could use some better maps, Designing Gotham, a volume in the LSU Press series “Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War”, is a good read for those interested in the history of West Point, the engineering profession in American society, or the history of New York.

Note: Designing Gotham is also available in pdf, ISBN 978-0-8071-6373-3, and as an e-Book, ISBN 978-0-8071-6374-0.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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