Charles Ellet Jr.

1810 – 1862

Charles Ellet was born on January 1st 1810 in Penn’s Manor, Pennsylvania. He was raised and educated in Bristol, Pennsylvania.

At an early age he had shown an unusual talent for mathematics. At the age of sixteen, Ellet had surpassed the scope of the school’s mathematical curriculum. Charles Ellet began his career as a surveyor and assistant engineer on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal 1828.

From 1831–1832, Ellet, traveled to Europe, and enrolled himself at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, France. At this school he studied the various engineering works that were taking place in France, Germany, and Britain.

After a term of study, Charles secured employment on various engineering works. His first was an assistant at the James River project. Soon afterward he was hired as chief engineer of the Kanawha Canal project.

His main focus, at this point in time, was devoted primarily to the study of various methods of inland communication, more particularly suspension bridges. Charles Ellet married in1840 to Elvira Augusta Stuart. They had four children, Mary Virginia, Charles Rivers, Cornelia Daniel, and William Ellet.

In 1841-1842, he was responsible for constructing the world’s first long-span, wire-cable suspension bridge across the Schuylkill River at Fairmont, Pennsylvania.

After his success in the first bridge he prepared plans for many other suspension bridges. Some of these include one across the Mississippi River at St. Louis, another across the Connecticut River at Middletown, and one across the Potomac River at Georgetown.

After a period of time as both a chief engineer and president of the Schuylkill Navigation Company, Ellet designed and built the first suspension bridge across the Niagara River downstream of the Niagara Falls. Following his success and disappointment (explained in the First Suspension Bridge) at Niagara Falls, Charles Ellet built what was then the longest single span bridge in the world. This bridge stretched over the Ohio River at Wheeling, West Virginia.

Ellet introduced North America to a technique he had learned in France. It was the binding of small wires together to make the cables which suspended the bridge. The central span of the suspension bridge over the Ohio River was at 1,010 feet (308 meters). Prior to its completion in 1849, nothing else compared to the length of the bridge. The only problem was that the bridge failed under wind forces in 1854. However, Ellet’s towers remained standing and the bridge was rebuilt.

In 1850 he was called upon by the war department to make surveys and investigation for the preparation of adequate plans for protecting the delta of the Mississippi River. Having previously been employed on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, Charles Ellet became chief engineer of the Central Railroad of Virginia.

In1853, Ellet built a railroad over the Blue Ridge at RockFish Gap, which was probably then, the most remarkable line in existence. It crossed the mountain at a height of 1,845 feet, 8 miles long, and had a maximum grading of 296 feet per mile and minimum radius of curvature of 234 feet.

Following the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, Charles Ellet designed and developed a steam-powered ship for the Union (Northern) forces. This allowed the Union to ram the Confederates on the Mississippi River.

The Secretary of War appointed Charles Ellet, Colonel of Engineers and commissioned him to buy vessels and convert them into rams.

From these purchased vessels, on June 6th 1862, Ellet led a fleet of nine rams in the Battle of Memphis. A battle was fought, in which, Ellet in commanding the war ship “Queen of the West”. His ship rammed the Confederate ship “General Lovell”, nearly cutting it in half, and causing it to sink in a few seconds.

The Union side was victorious, but in the course of the fighting Charles Ellet was fatally wounded. When the collision occurred, Charles Ellet, who was standing on deck in an exposed position, was struck in the knee by a bullet that caused his death. Colonel Charles Ellet died at Cairo, Illinois on June 21, 1862.

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