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A historical testament to the American engineer

Engineer's Witness, by Ralph Greenhill. Boston: David R. Godine. 200 pp. $35. In this book, Ralph Greenhill tries, without too much false or professional adulation, to bring out the importance of the civil engineer. One is left with the clear impression that the bridging of America's wild rivers contributed to the growth of the United States as much as the emancipation of the blacks; the vast and efficient water systems were as much part of progress as the Social Security Act; and the expansion of the railroad, through its bridges, cuttings, snowsheds, and terminals, opened up the interior as efficiently as any act of Congress.

When early pioneers started settling the continent of North America, they followed the path of least resistance. Mountains, deep rivers, and canyons were avoided wherever possible. Towns blossomed where rivers could be forded and where wagon trains could slip between the high mountain ranges at passes such as the famous Cumberland Gap. It wasn't until someone with practical knowledge of engineering principles traveled with the pioneers that natural obstacles became less of a problem.

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Relatively unrecognized then, engineers are still relegated to the sidelines of history and social progress. Statues and memorials to Robert Stephenson, Isambard K. Brunel, Montgomery C. Meigs, and other engineering greats generally will not be found on the front lawns of state capitols.

Some engineering projects were modest, such as a wooden trestle across a small stream; but some were magnificent, such as the Niagara Falls hydroelectric system of tunnels, pipes, generators, and bridges built over 100 years ago. The history here is purely American. The world's largest arched bridge made of stone was built in 1864 in Washington, D.C., and it is still the largest in America; the original rawhide, wrapped green to tighten as it dried, still binds the timbers of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City; and visitors can still ride to the top of New Hampshire's Mt. Washington in the original locomotives -- a sure testament to the engineers' craft.

Visually, the 90-plus photographic plates are a worthy complement. When one considers that chemicals, plate boxes, water, and even a dark room, in addition to several cameras and film, had to be carried to the remotest areas, the photos, stereographs, and daguerreotypes here are that much more remarkable. They, like the steel and stone memorials spread across the continent, attest to the ingenuity and vision of the American engineer, and Mr. Greenhill's dramatic pictorials and informative texts celebrate the imagination, industry, and sheer exuberance of 19th-century America.

Roy Barnacle, who works on the Monitor's staff, is a ferroequinologist (train buff).

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