Bio Sketch: Samuel Forrer (1793-1874), Miami-Erie Canal engineer

Samuel Forrer was born January 6, 1793, on his father’s farm in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania (near Harrisburg), the eldest surviving son of J. Christian Forrer (1765-1828) and Elizabeth Neidig (1770-1853).[1]

Samuel Forrer (1793-1874)

Samuel Forrer (1793-1874) (Dayton Metro Library, Forrer-Peirce-Wood Collection, 3:10)

When Samuel was three years old, his father sold the farm in Pennsylvania and moved the family to a 700-acre farm in Luray, Page County, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley. This farm had a flour mill, tannery, and blacksmith shop, and using his father’s many various tools, Samuel demonstrated a natural inclination towards and aptitude for mechanical pursuits and mill-work from a young age. As a young man, Samuel aspired to become a millwright but could not convince his parents to allow him to become an apprentice. In addition to working on his father’s farm, Samuel received a typical country school education. One of Samuel’s last teachers, Mr. Moderitt, had knowledge of plane trigonometry and basic surveying, which he shared with interested students, including 16-year-old Samuel.[2]

In 1814, at the age of 21, Samuel visited Ohio for the first time but returned to his father’s home in Virginia soon afterward.[3]

In 1817, Samuel returned to Ohio to stay, traveling down river from Pittsburgh on a skiff, and settling first at Cincinnati. It had initially been his intention to apply for a position with the surveyor of public lands, but finding on his first day in town that there were many applicants for those positions, he abandoned the idea and on the second day found employment as a journeyman carpenter, boarding at the home of his employer.[4]

In the evenings, Samuel studied mathematics through a night school in the city. The county surveyor, who was a frequent visitor to the house, had noticed these efforts and inquired of Samuel’s employer about his habits and character.[5] Apparently receiving positive answers to his inquiries, he offered Samuel a position as deputy surveyor of Hamilton County, pending the completion of a satisfactory survey. Samuel gladly accepted the offer, completed the survey, and was confirmed in the position.[6]

In 1818 and 1819, Samuel was also deputy surveyor, under principal surveyor Robert C. Anderson, of the Virginia Military District of Ohio, surveying the areas north of Greenville.[7]

In 1820, William Steele hired Samuel to examine the summit between the Scioto and Sandusky rivers, to determine whether Lake Erie and the Ohio River might be connected by means of a canal. This was Samuel’s first canal-related civil engineering job.[8]

The results of Steele’s survey were forwarded to the Ohio General Assembly, which had requested information pertaining to potential canals in Ohio. In January 1822, the Assembly authorized formation of a Board of Canal Commissioners, which had authority to employ surveyors who would examine several potential routes for a canal connecting the Ohio River and Lake Erie.[9]

There were few civil engineers in Ohio in those days. The Canal Commissioners appointed nationally prominent civil engineer James Geddes, who had been instrumental in the construction of the Erie Canal in New York, as Chief Engineer, with Isaac Jerome as Assistant Engineer.[10]

Samuel had been working outside Ohio for about a year when the Ohio canal surveying project got underway. However, Ohio governor Ethan A. Brown encouraged Samuel to return and to seek any engineering position he could get on the Ohio canal project. As there was no other opening, Samuel accepted a position as a junior rodman. However, Samuel soon advanced, first to senior rodman, then to Assistant Engineer following the resignation of Jerome. These exploratory surveys continued from 1822 through 1824.[11]

In January 1825, the Canal Commission recommended construction. Although it had been hoped that a single route connecting Cincinnati to the Scioto River and finally Lake Erie would prove practical, this was not found to be the case. Taking into account politics and economics, as well as engineering, two routes were proposed: the Ohio-Erie Canal would connect the Ohio River at Portsmouth to Lake Erie, and the Miami Canal would connect Cincinnati to Dayton (and eventually Lake Erie, when it would become known as the Miami-Erie Canal). In February 1825, the Ohio General Assembly authorized the construction of canals along both routes.[12]

With construction on the two canals about to begin, the Canal Commission appointed Micajah Williams and Alfred Kelley as Acting Commissioners; David S. Bates (also known as Judge Bates) as Principal Engineer; and Samuel Forrer and William Price as Resident Engineers (Forrer on the Miami Canal; Price on the Ohio-Erie Canal). (Bates and Price, like Geddes, had also worked on the Erie Canal project.) On July 4, 1825, work began on the Ohio-Erie Canal; construction on the Miami Canal began a few weeks later on July 21, 1825.[13]

Shortly after canal construction began, Samuel met the young woman who would soon become his wife: Sarah Howard (1807-1887).[14] Samuel and Sarah seem to have met through mutual friends while she was attending school in Cincinnati.[15] After an apparently brief courtship, Samuel and Sarah were married on the evening of February 8, 1826, at the home of Rev. William Burke in Cincinnati. Evidently, the two entered into this marriage without the consent of Sarah’s parents, who were members of the Society of Friends, which strongly disapproves of members marrying non-Quakers; they seem to have accepted it eventually, however.[16]

[For more on Samuel and Sarah’s courtship/marriage, check out the series “A Little Quaker Love Story” here on my blog.]

Samuel’s career required frequent travel, as illustrated by the many letters he wrote over the years to his wife and children back in Dayton.[17] The Forrer family resided at the southeast corner of First and Ludlow Streets in Dayton until late summer 1863, when, due to some financial hardships, they sold their home downtown and moved into their son-in-law Luther Bruen’s house, while they built a new home on a parcel of land adjacent to the property of their son-in-law Jeremiah H. Peirce in Harrison Township just west of present-day Forest Avenue. They moved into their new house in 1864.[18]

Samuel and Sarah had six children:

  1. Elizabeth Hannah Forrer was born Feb. 28, 1827, and died Jan. 16, 1874; she married Jeremiah H. Peirce.[19]
  2. Edward was born Aug. 30, 1830, and died Dec. 28, 1838.[20]
  3. Augusta was born Apr. 5, 1833, and died Oct. 18, 1907; she married Luther B. Bruen.[21]
  4. Ann was born June 28, 1835, and died Jan. 11, 1837.[22]
  5. Mary was born Aug. 24, 1838, and died Sept. 2, 1929; she also married Jeremiah H. Peirce.[23]
  6. Howard was born Nov. 11, 1841, and died July 22, 1864.[24]

Samuel served as Resident Engineer on the Miami Canal from 1825 to 1831. In that capacity, he had many general supervisory responsibilities, including making estimates and reporting to the Acting Commissioner on the quantity of work completed by the contractors.[25] Furthermore, during his tenure as Resident Engineer, he “located the whole of the Miami and Erie canal and its branches, and a great portion of the Ohio canal.”[26]

The Miami Canal was opened in Dayton on January 25, 1829. On that day, the second canal boat to arrive in Dayton from Cincinnati was called The Forrer. This clearly illustrates how important was Forrer’s role in the creation of the Miami Canal. The Forrer was second only to the Gov. Brown, which had arrived earlier that same day; the Gov. Brown was named after Ethan A. Brown, Ohio governor from 181-1822 and often called “Father of the Ohio Canals.”[27]

Miami-Erie Canal looking north from Third Street, Dayton, Ohio (1900)

Miami-Erie Canal looking north from Third Street, Dayton, Ohio (1900) (Dayton Metro Library, Montgomery County Picture File, photo # 2411)

In 1832 or 1833, Samuel was appointed to the Board of Canal Commissioners and served in that position for three years. During that time, Samuel served as Acting Commissioner and managed the activities of the Miami Extension.[28]

In 1836, the Board of Canal Commissioners was eliminated and replaced by a Board of Public Works. At that time, Samuel was appointed Principal Engineer of the Miami Canal, “to re-examine and resurvey the [Miami] Extension.”[29]

In 1838, the Board of Public Works was disbanded and the Board of Canal Commissioners reinstated. Samuel was again appointed to the Canal Board.[30]

In 1839, Samuel agreed to the position of Engineer and general superintendent of the turnpikes, including the Dayton and Lebanon Turnpike, Dayton and Springfield Turnpike, and the Great Miami Turnpike.[31]

Political changes came in 1839, and the Canal Board was once again replaced by a Board of Public Works. As the Board was then filled with Democrats, Samuel, a Whig, no longer wished to participate in it, wanting nothing to do with a political circus. For the next few years, he focused on consulting work. Samuel consulted on many public works projects throughout Ohio and the Midwest, including advising on the proposed Richmond and Brookville Canal in Indiana. His expertise was so well-respected in the profession that his advice was often the final word in deciding a controversy.[32]

In 1844 and 1845, Samuel participated in a special commission appointed for planning the construction of a new Montgomery County Courthouse. This “new” courthouse, the excellent example of Greek Revival style architecture now known as the Old Courthouse, was completed in 1850.[33]

Montgomery County Court House in Dayton, 1864

Montgomery County Court House in Dayton, 1864 (Dayton Metro Library, Lutzenberger Photograph Collection, photo # 0085)

By 1845, the Whigs were back in power again, and Samuel consented to return to the Board of Public Works.[34] Around that same time, the former members of the Board of Public Works and Board of Canal Commissioners (including Samuel) were investigated for possible financial misdeeds. Though fault was indeed found with some of them, “there could be no better testimony to Forrer’s character than the fact that the investigation showed the State owed him $40.92.”[35]

In 1846, Samuel traveled east in hopes of being hired as a contractor on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. However, in the end, the canal company did not have the finances to continue the project.[36]

In 1847, Samuel was appointed as engineer and surveyor for the recently-incorporated Central Ohio Railroad, which ran from Wheeling to Zanesville. Samuel was engaged in this work, among his other duties, until at least 1849.[37] Samuel’s role primarily consisted of surveying for the location of the railroad, a duty at which he “greatly excelled” and which was “more suited to his tastes and talents than the details of construction.”[38]

From 1850 to 1855, Samuel was primarily engaged in contracting jobs out of state. From 1850 to 1853, Samuel worked on a canal contract in Indiana. Then, from 1853 to 1855, he worked on a railroad contract in Missouri, with his family staying behind in Dayton.[39]

In 1855, the Board of Public Works began using the Contract System for Repairs. Samuel’s company—Forrer, Burt, & Company (Samuel Forrer, with John S. G. Burt and John Howard)—successfully bid for the contract on Section 7, which included much of the Miami-Erie Canal. However, state politics brought all the contracts under scrutiny in 1856 and 1857. The contract for Section 7 was taken away from Forrer, Burt, & Co., on account of the fact that they had not provided the lowest bid. Samuel wrote and circulated a pamphlet that challenged the quality of the work proposed by the other lower bids. Unfortunately, the repudiation stood.[40]

In 1860, Samuel was appointed Resident Engineer of the Northern Division of the Miami-Erie Canal. In 1861, the Public Works were leased out to private contractors, and Samuel was given the contract for the entire Miami-Erie Canal, with his responsibilities primarily consisting of maintenance and repairs. He remained in this position until the early 1870s.[41]

Samuel retired on February 15, 1873, after having been stricken with paralysis.[42]

Samuel Forrer “holds the distinction of having had the longest association of any individual with the Ohio Canal System. For over fifty years, from the very beginning of Ohio’s canals, he was variously engaged as rodman, surveyor, engineer, contractor, and Commissioner.”[43] It is also of interest to note that Forrer Boulevard in Oakwood was named after Samuel Forrer.[44]

Samuel Forrer died on March 25, 1874, at his home in Dayton, Ohio, apparently from old age; he was 81 years old.[45] He was buried on March 27, 1874, in Woodland Cemetery in Dayton, Ohio.[46]

Tombstone of Samuel Forrer in Woodland Cemetery, Section 102

Tombstone of Samuel Forrer in Woodland Cemetery, Section 102 (photo by the author, 29 Oct. 2011)

*****

This biographical sketch was originally written by Lisa P. Rickey in April 2012 for the Forrer-Peirce-Wood Collection (MS-018) finding aid at the Dayton Metro Library, 215 E. Third St., Dayton, Ohio, 45402; phone (937) 496-8654.

Additional information about the sketch’s subject can be found in that collection. For more information about the manuscript collection’s contents, please see the original PDF finding aid available in the Local History Room of the Dayton Metro Library, the OhioLINK EAD Repository entry, or the WorldCat record.

Please contact the Dayton Metro Library or this blog’s author for more information about how to access the original finding aid or the manuscript collection.


[1] Frank Bruen, Christian Forrer, the Clockmaker, and his Descendants (Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1939), 87, 92; Samuel Forrer, “Notes for an Autobiography,” Forrer-Peirce-Wood Collection (hereafter cited as FPW), 3:8, Dayton Metro Library (Dayton, Ohio); Forrer Genealogical Data, FPW, 7:12. See also FPW, Series I, Subseries 4: Other Forrer Family Members.

[2] Forrer, “Notes for an Autobiography,” FPW, 3:8; Bruen, Christian Forrer, 96; Frank W. Trevorrow, “Ohio Canal Men: Samuel Forrer,” in Ohio’s Canals: History, Description, Biography ([Oberlin, OH]: s. n., 1973), 67.

[3] Forrer, “Notes for an Autobiography,” FPW, 3:8.

[4] Forrer, “Notes for an Autobiography,” FPW, 3:8.

[5] Samuel mentions in his “Notes for an Autobiography” that both his employer (a man named “Benjamin” but whose last name is not given) and the county surveyor are both members of the Society of Friends. The county surveyor is probably Joseph Gest, who was county and city surveyor for many years in those early days and who was a member of the Society of Friends.

[6] Forrer, “Notes for an Autobiography,” FPW, 3:8; Bruen, Christian Forrer, 96; John F. Edgar, Pioneer Life in Dayton and Vicinity, 1796-1840 (Dayton, OH: United Brethren Publishing House, 1896), 187; Trevorrow, “Ohio Canal Men: Samuel Forrer,” 67.

[7] Forrer, “Notes for an Autobiography,” FPW, 3:8; Bruen, Christian Forrer, 96-97; Edgar, Pioneer Life in Dayton, 187; Trevorrow, “Ohio Canal Men: Samuel Forrer,” 67.

[8] Forrer, “Notes for an Autobiography,” FPW, 3:8; Bruen, Christian Forrer, 97; Charles Whittlesey, “Pioneer Engineers of Ohio,” in Historical Collections of Ohio, edited by Henry Howe, vol. 1 (Norwalk, OH: Laning Printing Co., 1896), 121; Edgar, Pioneer Life in Dayton, 187-188; Trevorrow, “Ohio Canal Men: Samuel Forrer,” 67.

[9] Whittlesey, “Pioneer Engineers of Ohio,” 119-120; C. C. Huntington and Cloys P. McClelland, History of the Ohio Canals, Their Construction, Cost, Use and Partial Abandonment (Columbus, OH: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1905), 12-16; Jack Gieck, A Photo Album of Ohio’s Canal Era, 1825-1913 (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1988), 4; Bruen, Christian Forrer, 97.

The Canal Commissioners appointed in January 1822 were: Alfred Kelley, Benjamin Tappan, Thomas Worthington, Isaac Minor, Jeremiah Morrow, Ebenezer Buckingham, Jr., and Ohio Governor Ethan A. Brown (Huntington & McClelland, 14). In February 1825, the following men were appointed to the Board of Canal Commissioners: Kelley, Worthington, Tappan, Minor, Micajah T. Williams, John Johnston, and Nathaniel Beasley (Huntington & McClelland, 16).

[10] Whittlesey, “Pioneer Engineers of Ohio,” 119-120; Huntington & McClelland, History of the Ohio Canals, 12-15; Gieck, A Photo Album of Ohio’s Canal Era, 4; Bruen, Christian Forrer, 97.

[11] Forrer, “Notes for an Autobiography,” FPW, 3:8; Bruen, Christian Forrer, 97.

[12] Forrer, “Notes for an Autobiography,” FPW, 3:8; Huntington & McClelland, History of the Ohio Canals, 16-20, 34-37; Gieck, A Photo Album of Ohio’s Canal Era, 5.

The portion of the canal from Cincinnati to Dayton was known as the Miami Canal. An extension known as the Miami Extension Canal, from Dayton to the junction of the Maumee and Auglaize Rivers, was begun in 1833. The Miami Extension was eventually connected to the Wabash and Erie Canal (completed in 1842), which connected the Miami canals to Lake Erie. This completed canal route from Cincinnati to Lake Erie became known as the Miami-Erie Canal in 1849 (Huntington & McClelland, 36-37).

[13] Huntington & McClelland, History of the Ohio Canals, 20-21, 27; Trevorrow, “Ohio Canal Men: Samuel Forrer,” 68, 73; Gieck, A Photo Album of Ohio’s Canal Era, 4-5.

[14] See also FPW, Series I, Subseries 2: Sarah Hastings (Howard) Forrer.

[15] The two met through canal commissioner Micajah T. Williams, a member of the Society of Friends and a friend of Sarah’s father Horton Howard; Samuel knew Williams by his association with the canal.

[16] For more information, see: Samuel Forrer to his father-in-law Horton Howard, 1826, FPW, 1:12; and Horton Howard to his son-in-law Samuel Forrer and his daughter Sarah H. (Howard) Forrer, 1823-1833, FPW, 34:13.

[17] See various letters from Samuel Forrer to his wife and children, FPW, 1:1-11.

[18] Dayton City Directories, 1850-1889; Bruen, Christian Forrer, 94a, 96a; Frances I. Parrott, “Sons and Mothers,” [undated], FPW, 32:4.

A sketch of the Forrers’ home at First and Ludlow can be seen in Bruen (p. 96a); the site is now a parking lot adjacent to the Christ Episcopal Church. A photograph of the Forrers’ 1864 home can be seen in Bruen (p. 94a); this house was located just west of present-day Forest Avenue, a little north of Grand Avenue, near where the Grandview Medical Center now stands.

[19] Forrer Genealogical Data, FPW, 7:12; Bruen, Christian Forrer, 105. See also FPW, Series II, Subseries 2: Elizabeth Hannah (Forrer) Peirce, and in general, Series II: Jeremiah H. Peirce Family.

[20] Forrer Genealogical Data, FPW, 7:12; Bruen, Christian Forrer, 129. See also FPW, Series I, Subseries 4: Other Forrer Family Members.

[21] Forrer Genealogical Data, FPW, 7:12; Bruen, Christian Forrer, 129. See also FPW, Series III, Subseries 1: Bruen Family.

[22] Forrer Genealogical Data, FPW, 7:12; Bruen, Christian Forrer, 136.

[23] Forrer Genealogical Data, FPW, 7:12; Mary (FORRER) Peirce: Will and Estate Documents, FPW, 13:19; Bruen, Christian Forrer, 136. See also FPW, Series II, Subseries 3: Mary (Forrer) Peirce.

[24] Forrer Genealogical Data, FPW, 7:12; Bruen, Christian Forrer, 140. See also FPW, Series I, Subseries 3: Howard Forrer.

[25] Huntington & McClelland, History of the Ohio Canals, 27; Edgar, Pioneer Life in Dayton, 188; Bruen, Christian Forrer, 97;

[26] Bruen, Christian Forrer, 97.

[27] Bruen, Christian Forrer, 92; John S. Still, “Ethan A. Brown,” Ohio Historical Society’s Ohio Fundamental Documents web site, last modified 26 July 2005, accessed 20 Dec. 2011: http://www.ohiohistory.org/onlinedoc/ohgovernment/governors/browne.html.

[28] Trevorrow, “Ohio Canal Men: Samuel Forrer,” 72 [he says 1833]; Bruen, Christian Forrer, 97 [he says 1832]; Edgar, Pioneer Life in Dayton, 188 [he says 1832]. Trevorrow states that Samuel was appointed to the Board of Canal Commissioners in 1833; Edgar says 1832.

[29] Trevorrow, “Ohio Canal Men: Samuel Forrer,” 72.

[30] Trevorrow, “Ohio Canal Men: Samuel Forrer,” 73.

[31] Bruen, Christian Forrer, 93.

[32] Trevorrow, “Ohio Canal Men: Samuel Forrer,” 73-75; Bruen, Christian Forrer, 98; Edgar, Pioneer Life in Dayton, 188.

[33] Augustus W. Drury, History of the City of Dayton and Montgomery County, Ohio, (Chicago: Clarke Publishing Co., 1909), vol. 1, 161-162; Trevorrow, “Ohio Canal Men: Samuel Forrer,” 76.

[34] Trevorrow, “Ohio Canal Men: Samuel Forrer,” 75.

The members of the Board of Public Works in 1845 were Samuel Forrer, Oran Follett, and Jacob Blickensderfer, Jr.; the Board had been reduced to 3 members in 1842 (Trevorrow, 75).

[35] Trevorrow, “Ohio Canal Men: Samuel Forrer,” 75.

[36] Trevorrow, “Ohio Canal Men: Samuel Forrer,” 76.

[37] Trevorrow, “Ohio Canal Men: Samuel Forrer,” 78-82; Bruen, Christian Forrer, 98; Edgar, Pioneer Life in Dayton, 188.

[38] Bruen, Christian Forrer, 98.

[39] Trevorrow, “Ohio Canal Men: Samuel Forrer,” 83-84.

[40] Trevorrow, “Ohio Canal Men: Samuel Forrer,” 84-85; Samuel Forrer: “Canal Contracts, Section No. 7, Mr. Forrer’s Statement,” FPW, 3:4.

[41] Trevorrow, “Ohio Canal Men: Samuel Forrer,” 85-86.

[42] Trevorrow, “Ohio Canal Men: Samuel Forrer,” 86; Bruen, Christian Forrer, 96.

[43] Trevorrow, “Ohio Canal Men: Samuel Forrer,” 67.

[44] Charles F. Sullivan, “The Streets of Dayton and Why So Named,” 21 June 1946, in Sullivan’s Papers (Dayton, OH: Dayton & Montgomery County Public Library, 1995?), 602; Bruen, Christian Forrer, 107.

[45] Bruen, Christian Forrer, 92, 94, 96; Forrer Genealogical Data, FPW, 7:12.

[46] Woodland Cemetery & Arboretum Interment Database, accessed 20 Dec. 2011, http://www.woodlandcemetery.org. Samuel is buried in Section 102, Lot 1348.

13 responses to “Bio Sketch: Samuel Forrer (1793-1874), Miami-Erie Canal engineer

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  12. Who was William Steele? I see he inquired about the canal but I don’t see he was involved in the construction. Do you have any specific stories of the workers fueds? Love the information about speculation Sarah and Samuels relationship would have been scrutinized (at least).

    • Hi, Lynn, thanks for your comment. That’s a good question about William Steele. He seems to have been a prominent citizen of Cincinnati at the time who was interested in canals as a possible transportation project in Ohio and paid Forrer (at his own expense) to do that survey so there would be some data to present to the state. The Cincinnati Public Library could probably tell you more about him. And unfortunately I don’t have any information about worker feuds either.

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