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From Trains to Waterworks and Fame

For the week of Monday October 31, 2005

On November 4, 1821, Thomas Coltrin Keefer was born to George and Jane Keefer in Thorold, Upper Canada. Little did they know that he would grow to become one of the pre-eminent civil engineers in North America.

Thomas C. Keefer
© Library and Archives Canada / PA-33463
A graduate of Upper Canada College, Keefer went directly from school to work as a “navvy” on the Erie and Welland Canals apprenticing as a civil engineer. During 1849, he was put in charge of the hydraulic surveys on the St. Lawrence River where he gained valuable knowledge. But merit did not come until he was commissioned to prepare a study for Montréal merchants that advocated the idea that rail networks held the key to future development in regions. His publication, The Philosophy of Railroads (1850), went through five printed editions by 1871.

Keefer’s fame rests chiefly in his role as an engineer in public works, an enterprise that he entered in 1853 as the chief engineer for the Montréal Waterworks. With disease spreading quickly in these unsanitary times, the city, citing a need for clean water, employed Keefer to construct its water system. He also drafted plans for Halifax, Quebec City, Ottawa, and most notably, Hamilton. In 1859, the Hamilton Waterworks were completed and the city witnessed the formal opening by the Prince of Wales in 1860.

The Hamilton Waterworks
© Parks Canada / HRS #740
In constructing the Hamilton waterworks, Keefer used a natural basin to collect water from Lake Ontario that was percolated through a sand filter to the pumping well at an engine house. Except for the main pipes, the entire system was manufactured by Canadian industry and was in service until 1929.

As a result of his resounding success in public works, Keefer was nominated for membership in 1877 to the American Society of Civil Engineers and became its first Canadian president in 1888. In the meantime, he was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1881 and founded the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers in 1887. This society still exists and is dedicated to the strict adherence of professional standards in the occupation as well as in faculties of engineering.

Thomas Coltrin Keefer played a pivotal role in the development of an infant country and decades later, his theories and labours on public water systems are hailed as ingenious. Keefer’s innovations were far before their time and were not standardized by American counterparts until the 1890s. His exceptional work resonates in the annals of his profession and the Hamilton Waterworks remains as a National Historic Site.

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