Biography of Elnathan Sweet


IN THE profession of a surveyor and civil engineer, a name known far and near is that of Elnathan Sweet – a man who for the past fourteen years has claimed the city of Albany as his residence. He was born in Cheshire, Mass., on the 20th of November, 1837. He comes from a New England ancestry, noted for their enterprise, solidity and high character, and for the active part they took in pioneer work in this section of the country, and in the dissemination of moral and religious principles in their communities. His father, Rev. Elnathan Sweet, was an earnest, eloquent and pious minister of the Baptist church, who for many years preached in Cheshire and Adams, Mass., and who removed to Stephentown, Rensselaer County, N. Y., in 1842, and carried on a very successful pastorate there until his death, in 1879, at age of eighty-two. His mother, whose maiden name was Chloe Cole, was a daughter of a substantial farmer of Berkshire, Mass; she died in 1872, at the age of sixty-eight. Of this old couple it may truly be said that they were lovely and pleasant in their lives and in their deaths were not long divided.

His great-grandfather, Elnathan Sweet, removed from Dutchess County, N. Y., to Stephentown about the year 1762, and was one of the first settlers of that fertile region. He made his home on a tract of five hundred acres, which was a part of the land of the manor of Rensselaerwyck, situated about four miles from Lebanon Springs, where he built a log-house and went to work to clear up the forests around him. This large farm has remained in possession of the Sweet family for over a hundred years, the greater part of it being still owned by the present Elnathan Sweet, who has paid many a pleasant visit in later years to the old homestead, where once ” his childhood fancy strayed.” Among other New England pioneers who found their way to Stephentown – named in honor of Stephen Van Rensselaer, the patroon of the manor – about the year 1766, where Joshua, Caleb and Benjamin Gardner, three brothers of good scriptural names suggestive of subduing a wilderness land, Nathan Rose, Alexander Brown, Joseph Rogers and old Asa Douglas, whose grandson, Asa Douglas, is said to have been the first child born in Stephentown. And it may be stated here that the great statesman, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, was a descendant of this family.

Elnathan Sweet, the subject of this memoir, was about five years old when his parents removed to Stephentown, and there he grew up strong and healthy in the midst of a beautiful, bold and striking scenery. His education was carefully attended to by thoughtful and vigilant parents. He was first sent to the public school of Stephentown, and being naturally of a studious disposition and apt in learning, his parents encouraged him to keep right on in the pathway of knowledge. He gladly followed their advice, and was prepared for a collegiate course at the Hancock select school. In 1857 he entered the junior class of Union college and graduated there in the scientific course in 1859, at the age of twenty-one. By his tastes and inclinations from early youth he was designed for a surveyor and civil engineer, and like a true, earnest student, desiring of excelling in some special study, he bent all his energies toward mastering the details of the particular subject of engineering; and how well he has succeeded in accomplishing the grand aims of his early studies in this department, his subsequent career fully shows.

After his collegiate graduation he was appointed deputy surveyor in Kansas and Nebraska, under Gen. Ward B. Burnett, surveyor-general of that then new and undeveloped region, where thriving towns and villages have since sprung up on every side. When young Sweet arrived there the wounds of ” bleeding Kansas ” had but recently been healed, and the virgin soil of the new territory was just ready to be cultivated by true, law-abiding pioneers, and vast extents of wild lands were soon to be turned into fruitful fields, producing golden harvests, throughout the great west. Our young and adventurous surveyor and engineer remained in those wild, waste western regions about a year, actively engaged in public land survey. But while discharging his duties there he was seized with an intermittent fever, and obliged to return home to regain his health, which required about two years re-establishing.

With his characteristic energy and love of adventure he went to Pennsylvania and re-entered the engineering business, opening an office at Franklin, Venango County, in the midst of the oil regions. There he followed his profession with constant activity until 1867, and in the following winter, went to the West Indies as engineer and superintendent of the Santo Domingo Copper company.

In the spring of 1869, having finished his West India work, he returned to the United States with an excellent reputation as an accomplished engineer, and going to Chicago, assumed the position of chief engineer of the Rock Island and St. Louis railroad. While in this capacity he soon became general superintendent of the road – an office he held until 1872, when a still wider field of professional activity was opened to him. The building of the Northern Pacific railroad was then exciting general attention, especially through the rapidly developing western country. Mr. Sweet saw at a glance what immense advantages the nation would gain on the completion of such an enterprise, and removing to Minnesota, he was engaged for two years as engineer and contractor in the construction of this road.

Returning to New York State near the close of 1874 he opened an engineering office in the city of New York; but not entirely satisfied with metropolitan life he removed, in the spring of 1875, to Albany, and became a permanent resident here. His busy career and eminent professional services were still to be continued in the interests of the public. He was immediately selected as the expert engineer of the Tilden canal investigating committee appointed by Gov. Tilden to unearth the irregularities and, if possible, to remove the abuses in the old system of letting contracts in that department. In 1876 – the centennial year – he was appointed engineer of the eastern division of the state canal, comprising the Erie Canal from Albany to Rome, the Black river and the Champlain canal, and held that office until the summer of 1880, when he resigned to resume his business as contracting engineer. While division engineer he made a series of experiments in determining the laws governing the propulsion of vessels in narrow channels – the results of which were given by him in an elaborate paper which was read before the American society of civil engineers at its twelfth annual convention, May 25th, 1880, and published in its “Transactions.” This paper attracted wide notice at the time of its publication and its statements are strengthened by correct mathematical demonstration. In 1878 he was elected a member of the American society of civil engineers.

In 1879-80 Mr. Sweet made a thorough investigation of the system of the New York elevated railroads and prepared a paper which was adopted as a report of the railroad committee of the assembly.

From 1880 to 1883 he was chiefly engaged in large railroad contracts, mostly on the West Shore line, where he built the great West Point tunnel and about fifty miles of the road north from Catskill to Albany.

The state at that time required his services in furtherance of its important engineering interests, and in the fall of 1883 he was nominated by the Democratic Party as a candidate for the office of state engineer and surveyor, and elected by a plurality of 18,842 over his opponent, Hon. Silas Seymour. So acceptable and popular were his services to the people of the state, that he was re-elected in the fall of 1885, by 12,249 plurality over the republican candidate William V. Van Rensselaer. His administration was eminently successful; one of its most important acts in the interests of the canals was the system of enlarging the locks. As a friend of the canals he also wrote a paper on the importance of the artificial waterways, which was read at the annual convention of the American society of civil engineers at Buffalo, on the 10th of June, 1884, and afterward published in its “Transactions.”

Since leaving the office of state engineer and surveyor Mr. Sweet has devoted most of his time to the building of bridges, making this a specialty. He is now president of the Hilton Bridge Construction Company of this city, whose shops are located on Bridge street in the lumber district, where ample facilities are found for carrying on work on the largest scale, including not only the construction of steel and iron bridges, but in the manufacture of iron and steel roofs, girders, beams and heavy architectural wrought-iron and steel work generally. He was recently elected a director of the Albany Railway Company.

Mr. Sweet has published a technical paper on the construction of bridges, and besides other contributions already mentioned, he made annual reports issued from Albany during the years he held office.

In 1860 he married Miss Marion Rose of Stephentown, by whom he has had eight children, six of whom still survive. His oldest son, a bright and promising young man of twenty-four, died in January, 1886, deeply lamented.

He is much attached to the city of his adoption, and by Albanians is greatly esteemed and popular with all classes. He has a handsome residence at No. 13 Ten Broeck Street and intends, we believe, to spend the remainder of his life – a life already remarkable for its activities and successful accomplishments in the line of his chosen profession – in our midst.

In personal appearance, Mr. Sweet impresses one with the thought that he is absorbed in his profession and cares but little for outward display. His manners are courteous and bland, and he is a good specimen of that simplicity of style and sincerity of friendship, which are the leading characteristics of a gentleman and a scientist.



Noted living Albanians and state officials , A series of biographical sketches. 1891.

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