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- Biographies of Working Men - 3/22 -


as a matter of fact there is no other engineer to whom the rise of the present "iron age" in engineering work is more directly and immediately to be attributed than to himself.

Meanwhile, the Eskdale pioneer did not forget his mother. For years he had constantly written to her, in _print hand_, so that the letters might be more easily read by her aged eyes; he had sent her money in full proportion to his means; and he had taken every possible care to let her declining years be as comfortable as his altered circumstances could readily make them. And now, in the midst of this great and responsible work, he found time to "run down" to Eskdale (very different "running down" from that which we ourselves can do by the London and North Western Railway), to see his aged mother once more before she died. What a meeting that must have been, between the poor old widow of the Eskdale shepherd, and her successful son, the county surveyor of Shropshire, and engineer of the great and important Ellesmere Canal!

While Telford was working busily upon his wonderful canal, he had many other schemes to carry out of hardly less importance, in connection with his appointment as county surveyor. His beautiful iron bridge across the Severn at Build was was another application of his favourite metal to the needs of the new world that was gradually growing up in industrial England; and so satisfied was he with the result of his experiment (for though not absolutely the first, it was one of the first iron bridges ever built) that he proposed another magnificent idea, which unfortunately was never carried into execution. Old London Bridge had begun to get a trifle shaky; and instead of rebuilding it, Telford wished to span the whole river by a single iron arch, whose splendid dimensions would have formed one of the most remarkable engineering triumphs ever invented. The scheme, for some good reason, doubtless, was not adopted; but it is impossible to look at Telford's grand drawing of the proposed bridge--a single bold arch, curving across the Thames from side to side, with the dome of St Paul's rising majestically above it-- without a feeling of regret that such a noble piece of theoretical architecture was never realized in actual fact.

Telford had now come to be regarded as the great practical authority upon all that concerned roads or communications; and he was reaping the due money-reward of his diligence and skill. Every day he was called upon to design new bridges and other important structures in all parts of the kingdom, but more especially in Scotland and on the Welsh border. Many of the most picturesque bridges in Britain, which every tourist has admired, often without inquiring or thinking of the hand that planned them, were designed by his inventive brain. The exquisite stone arch which links the two banks of the lesser Scotch Dee in its gorge at Tongueland is one of the most picturesque; for Telford was a bit of an artist at heart, and, unlike too many modern railway constructors, he always endeavoured to make his bridges and aqueducts beautify rather than spoil the scenery in whose midst they stood. Especially was he called in to lay out the great system of roads by which the Scotch Highlands, then so lately reclaimed from a state of comparative barbarism, were laid open for the great development they have since undergone. In the earlier part of the century, it is true, a few central highways had been run through the very heart of that great solid block of mountains; but these were purely military roads, to enable the king's soldiers more easily to march against the revolted clans, and they had hardly more connection with the life of the country than the bare military posts, like Fort William and Fort Augustus, which guarded their ends, had to do with the ordinary life of a commercial town. Meanwhile, however, the Highlands had begun gradually to settle down; and Telford's roads were intended for the far higher and better purpose of opening out the interior of northern Scotland to the humanizing influences of trade and industry.

Fully to describe the great work which the mature engineer constructed in the Highland region, would take up more space than could be allotted to such a subject anywhere save in a complete industrial history of roads and travelling in modern Britain. It must suffice to say that when Telford took the matter in hand, the vast block of country north and west of the Great Glen of Caledonia (which divides the Highlands in two between Inverness and Ben Nevis)--a block comprising the counties of Caithness, Sutherland, Ross, Cromarty, and half Inverness--had literally nothing within it worthy of being called a road. Wheeled carts or carriages were almost unknown, and all burdens were conveyed on pack- horses, or, worse still, on the broad backs of Highland lassies. The people lived in small scattered villages, and communications from one to another were well-nigh impossible. Telford set to work to give the country, not a road or two, but a main system of roads. First, he bridged the broad river Tay at Dunkeld, so as to allow of a direct route straight into the very jaws of the Highlands. Then, he also bridged over the Beauly at Inverness, so as to connect the opposite sides of the Great Glen with one another. Next, he laid out a number of trunk lines, running through the country on both banks, to the very north of Caithness, and the very west of the Isle of Skye. Whoever to this day travels on the main thoroughfares in the greater Scottish Islands--in Arran, Islay, Jura, Mull; or in the wild peninsula of Morvern, and the Land of Lorne; or through the rugged regions of Inverness-shire and Ross-shire, where the railway has not yet penetrated,--travels throughout on Telford's roads. The number of large bridges and other great engineering masterpieces on this network of roads is enormous; among the most famous and the most beautiful, are the exquisite single arch which spans the Spey just beside the lofty rearing rocks of Craig Ellachie, and the bridge across the Dee, beneath the purple heather-clad braes of Ballater. Altogether, on Telford's Highland roads alone, there are no fewer than twelve hundred bridges.

Nor were these the only important labours by which Telford ministered to the comfort and well-being of his Scotch fellow-countrymen. Scotland's debt to the Eskdale stonemason is indeed deep and lasting. While on land, he improved her communications by his great lines of roads, which did on a smaller scale for the Highland valleys what railways have since done for the whole of the civilized world; he also laboured to improve her means of transit at sea by constructing a series of harbours along that bare and inhospitable eastern coast, once almost a desert, but now teeming with great towns and prosperous industries. It was Telford who formed the harbour of Wick, which has since grown from a miserable fishing village into a large town, the capital of the North Sea herring fisheries. It was he who enlarged the petty port of Peterhead into the chief station of the flourishing whaling trade. It was he who secured prosperity for Fraserburgh, and Banff, and many other less important centres; while even Dundee and Aberdeen, the chief commercial cities of the east coast, owe to him a large part of their present extraordinary wealth and industry. When one thinks how large a number of human beings have been benefited by Telford's Scotch harbour works alone, it is impossible not to envy a great engineer his almost unlimited power of permanent usefulness to unborn thousands of his fellow-creatures.

As a canal-maker, Telford was hardly less successful than as a constructor of roads and harbours. It is true, his greatest work in this direction was in one sense a failure. He was employed by Government for many years as the engineer of the Caledonian Canal, which runs up the Great Glen of Caledonia, connecting the line of lakes whose basins occupy that deep hollow in the Highland ranges, and so avoiding the difficult and dangerous sea voyage round the stormy northern capes of Caithness. Unfortunately, though the canal as an engineering work proved to be of the most successful character, it has never succeeded as a commercial undertaking. It was built just at the exact moment when steamboats were on the point of revolutionizing ocean traffic; and so, though in itself a magnificent and lordly undertaking, it failed to satisfy the sanguine hopes of its projectors. But though Telford felt most bitterly the unavoidable ill success of this great scheme, he might well have comforted himself by the good results of his canal-building elsewhere. He went to Sweden to lay out the Gotha Canal, which still forms the main high-road of commerce between Stockholm and the sea; while in England itself some of his works in this direction--such as the improvements on the Birmingham Canal, with its immense tunnel--may fairly be considered as the direct precursors of the great railway efforts of the succeeding generation.

The most remarkable of all Telford's designs, however, and the one which most immediately paved the way for the railway system, was his magnificent Holyhead Road. This wonderful highway he carried through the very midst of the Welsh mountains, at a comparatively level height for its whole distance, in order to form a main road from London to Ireland. On this road occurs Telford's masterpiece of engineering, the Menai suspension bridge, long regarded as one of the wonders of the world, and still one of the most beautiful suspension bridges in all Europe. Hardly less admirable, however, in its own way is the other suspension bridge which he erected at Conway, to carry his road across the mouth of the estuary, beside the grey old castle, with which its charming design harmonizes so well. Even now it is impossible to drive or walk along this famous and picturesque highway without being struck at every turn by the splendid engineering triumphs which it displays throughout its entire length. The contrast, indeed, between the noble grandeur of Telford's bridges, and the works on the neighbouring railways, is by no means flattering in every respect to our too exclusively practical modern civilization.

Telford was now growing an old man. The Menai bridge was begun in 1819 and finished in 1826, when he was sixty-eight years of age; and though he still continued to practise his profession, and to design many valuable bridges, drainage cuts, and other small jobs, that great undertaking was the last masterpiece of his long and useful life. His later days were passed in deserved honour and comparative opulence; for though never an avaricious man, and always anxious to rate his services at their lowest worth, he had gathered together a considerable fortune by the way, almost without seeking it. To the last, his happy cheerful disposition enabled him to go on labouring at the numerous schemes by which he hoped to benefit the world of workers; and so much cheerfulness was surely well earned by a man who could himself look back upon so good a record of work done for the welfare of humanity. At last, on the 2nd of September, 1834, his quiet and valuable life came gently to a close, in the seventy-eighth year of his age. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, and few of the men who sleep within that great national temple more richly deserve the honour than the Westerkirk shepherd-boy. For Thomas Telford's life was not merely one of worldly success; it was still more pre-eminently one of noble ends and public usefulness. Many working men have raised themselves by their own exertions to a position of wealth and dignity far surpassing his; few indeed have conferred so many benefits upon untold thousands of their fellow-men. It is impossible, even now, to travel in any part of England, Wales, or Scotland, without coming across innumerable memorials of Telford's great and useful life; impossible to read the full record of his labours without finding that numberless structures we have long admired for their beauty or utility, owe their origin to the honourable, upright, hardworking, thoroughgoing, journeyman mason of the quiet little Eskdale village. Whether we go into the drained fens of Lincolnshire, or traverse the broad roads of the rugged Snowdon region; whether we turn to St. Katharine's Docks in London, or to the wide quays of Dundee and those of Aberdeen; whether we sail beneath the Menai suspension bridge at Bangor, or drive over the lofty arches that rise sheer from the precipitous river gorge at Cartland, we meet everywhere the lasting traces of that inventive and ingenious brain. And yet, what lad could ever have started in the world under apparently more hopeless circumstances than widow Janet Telford's penniless orphan shepherd-boy Tam, in the bleakest and most remote of all the lonely border valleys of southern Scotland?


Biographies of Working Men - 3/22

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