Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Wernwag, Lewis

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WERNWAG, Lewis, civil engineer, b. in Alteburg, Würtemberg, Germany, 4 Dec., 1769; d. in Harper's Ferry, Va., 12 Aug., 1843. On leaving school, in order to evade military service, he was secreted by a shepherd in the mountains, who directed his attention to the study of astronomy, natural history, and other scientific subjects. In 1786 he made his way to Amsterdam and thence to Philadelphia. His earliest venture in this country was the building of a machine for making whetstones. Soon afterward he began to build power-mills and bridges. While conducting this business he purchased land containing large quantities of white oak and pine timber in New Jersey, from which he got out, about 1809, the keel for the first U. S. frigate built at the Philadelphia navy-yard. In 1810 he erected a bridge across Neshaminy creek, on the road between Philadelphia and New York, and the next year one across Frankford creek. His third bridge of wood was built across the Schuylkill river in 1812 at Philadelphia. This structure, known as the “Colossus of Fairmount,” consisted of a single arch, the span of which was 340 feet. In consideration of its length of span (it being the longest ever erected), solidity, and strength, the bridge was regarded as one of the wonders of the world. From that time until 1834 he built twenty-nine additional bridges. In 1813 he removed to Phœnixville, Pa., where he took an interest in and charge of the Phœnix nail-works, and there invented the first machine for cutting and heading spikes from four to seven inches in length. The other machinery was also remodelled and greatly improved by him. He purchased coal-lands near Pottsville, which led to his experimenting toward the use of anthracite coal. At first he found it almost impossible to ignite it, but he discovered that, by closing the furnace-doors and introducing air from beneath, combustion was possible. He was sanguine of its ultimate use for fuel, and while the Philadelphians drove from the city the person that offered to sell it, believing he offered stone for coal, he invented and used in his own residence a stove for burning it. The canal of the Schuylkill navigation company, one of the first in the United States, was partially constructed by him, and the Fairmount water-works and dam at Philadelphia were erected in accordance with his plans. In 1819 he removed to Conowingo, Md., where he built a bridge and double saw-mill, and prepared the timber for many bridges. Five years later he removed to Harper's Ferry and purchased the Isle of Virginius, where he continued his business of preparing timber for bridges. His last bridge was across the Potomac at Harper's Ferry for the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, and was built in 1833.