James Geddes (engineer)

wikipedia Wikipedia view on Wikipedia
James Geddes
Geddes-james 1810.jpg
Born(1763-07-22)July 22, 1763
DiedAugust 17, 1838(1838-08-17) (aged 75)
OccupationEngineer, surveyor, legislator

James Geddes (July 22, 1763 – August 17, 1838) was born in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and was a prominent engineer, surveyor, New York State legislator and U.S. Congressman who was instrumental in the planning of the Erie Canal and other canals in the United States. He was also at the forefront of development of the salt industry at Onondaga Lake near Syracuse, New York beginning in 1794.


The son of a Scottish farmer, he worked on his parents farm and taught school for a few years before moving to Kentucky for a short time, but left there due to his opposition to slavery.[1] For a brief period he was employed as a schoolmaster in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.[2]

Salt manufacture[edit]

James Geddes arrived in Salt Point outside of Syracuse in 1793 after leaving his previous job as a schoolmaster in Carlisle, Pennsylvania to manufacture salt in the Onondaga Salt Springs Reservation. At that time, Geddes was not allowed to buy land next to the salt springs because the Iroquois retained common rights to the lake and land around it. He returned to his home in Pennsylvania to form a business to manufacture salt, although he did not stay there long and soon returned to New York. During that period, residents of Salt Point, who were known as squatters, were very protective of the land on which they were squatting and they did not take kindly to visitors attempting to share the resources.[2]

Geddes returned to the area in April 1794, however, instead of settling in Salt Point, he moved to the most southwest point of the lake to an area that is within the town of Geddes of today. At that time, three other towns were involved in the manufacturing of salt; on the lower southeast of the lake was Salt Point and further north was Green Point, which no longer exists and on the other side of the lake, in the northeast corner, was Liverpool.[2] Geddes investigated the brine springs and set up a salt works at Geddesburgh, now Solvay.[3]

He acquired land from members of the Onondaga Indians and eventually became an adopted member of their tribe after providing gifts for them.[3]


Geddes was hired in 1797 by the State of New York to survey Onondaga Salt Springs Reservation and lay out the first road in Salt Point.[2]

In 1798, Salt Point became the village of Salina. The Surveyor-General, Simeon DeWitt employed Geddes to design the streets. Although Geddes had no formal training in surveying, DeWitt saw great potential in him. Soon Geddes sold his interest in the Geddes salt works to pursue other interests and surveying continued to be an important role for much of his life.[2]

Previously, the main roads through Onondaga County were centered in the midsection of the county (around Manlius, Onondaga Hill, Onondaga Hollow and Marcellus) running east-west.

In the village of Salina, the first two streets surveyed by Geddes were Free Street and Canal Street which are now called Hiawatha Boulevard and North Salina Street. Next, he named Center and Salt Streets which are now LeMoyne and Park Streets. Although there was organization to the land, "Salina continued to keep a shanty town quality." As time passed, lots were sold and "proper" buildings were erected.[2]

James Geddes did not choose to live in Salina or Onondaga Hill, another village he surveyed that summer, but instead made his home three miles west of his old salt works in what is called Fairmount today. By this time he had sold his interest in the salt works, continued surveying, and began to study law. In 1800, he was admitted to the bar and was appointed Justice of the Peace. He was becoming well-known and was to be further drawn into public life.[2]

Salt springs road[edit]

During 1804, an act was passed that directed the sale of 250 acres (1,000,000 m2) of the Onondaga Salt Springs Reservation for the purpose of "laying out and improving a road" running from lot 49, Manlius, to lot 38, Onondaga, east and west through the reservation. James Geddes laid out the design of the new road in "rather an irregular form so that as much dry land might be secured as possible."[4]

Geddes village[edit]

The Village of Geddes was founded by James Geddes in 1807, and incorporated in 1832, with 20 lots on either side of West Genesee St. This "Old Geddes Village" was annexed into the City of Syracuse on May 20, 1886. The Town of Geddes was founded in 1848 and made to include "...all that part of the town of Salina west of the [Onondaga] lake not embraced in the City of Syracuse"[5]

Erie canal[edit]

Geddes became involved in canal building during the first decade of the 1800s. He was a self-trained engineer and surveyor and an early supporter of a proposed canal to the Great Lakes. Geddes was appointed by the New York State Surveyor General to explore possible routes for a canal. After much study, he determined that only two routes had the necessary water sources to support a canal. These two routes eventually became the Ohio and Erie Canal and the Miami and Erie Canal.[1]

Based in part on Geddes' recommendations, the Legislature established a canal commission in 1810. Geddes was one of five engineers chosen in 1816 to supervise the construction of the Erie Canal. He also was appointed chief engineer of the Ohio and Erie Canal.[1]

Canal commissions[edit]

After completing the work for the Ohio Canal Commission, Geddes helped survey the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. He worked in this capacity until 1828, when he accepted a position with State of Pennsylvania in the design of the states's canal system. In 1 826, Geddes surveyed the Chenango River and recommended Whitesboro as the point to connect it to the Erie Canal.[6] During the late 1820s, Geddes also surveyed a canal plot in Canada.[1]


He was a member of the New York State Assembly (Onondaga Co.) in 1804 and 1822. He was elected as a Federalist to the 13th United States Congress, holding office from March 4, 1813, to March 3, 1815.

Later life[edit]

His son, George Geddes, was a New York State legislator. His grandson, also called James Geddes, was a civil engineer and agriculturist.

Geddes died at Camillus, New York on August 17, 1838 at age 75.


The modern-day town of Geddes[7] is named for him as well as Geddes Street in Syracuse. The James Geddes Apartments in Syracuse are also named in memorium of Geddes and his Grandson, both local politicians.

U.S. House of Representatives
New district Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 19th congressional district

Succeeded by
Victory Birdseye


  1. ^ a b c d "James Geddes". Ohio Historical Society, 2010. Retrieved September 4, 2010.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "New York, Syracuse". Atlantis, 2010. Retrieved November 3, 2010.
  3. ^ a b "Rich in Tradition, Village of Geddes Recalls Many Events as It Marks the 99th Anniversary of Its Incorporation". Syracuse Herald, April 19, 1931, Section 2, Pgs. 6 & 10. Retrieved 2010-08-24.
  4. ^ Bannan, Theresa. Pioneer Irish of Onondaga: (about 1776-1847). The Knickerbocker Press, New York, 1913. Retrieved October 23, 2010.
  5. ^ "Town History". Town of Geddes. Retrieved January 23, 2017.
  6. ^ Chenango Canal Whitford http://www.mikalac.com/tech/tra/chenango.html
  7. ^ Gannett, Henry (1905). The Origin of Certain Place Names in the United States. Govt. Print. Off. p. 135.