Edwin Ferry Johnson was a native Vermonter and the son of a prominent civil engineer; his father was surveyor-general of Vermont for many years. In early life, Johnson learned the skill of surveying as an apprentice to his father. In 1818, at age 15, he assisted his father when he participated in the great Northeast Boundary Survey of the U.S.-Canada border, a project in which Johnson’s future mentor Alden Partridge was also involved.
Johnson attended Alden Partridge’s American Literary, Scientific, and Military Academy in its earliest years. He trained under Partridge from approximately 1823 to 1825. Though the academy was not granting degrees at that time, in 1836 he received an honorary Master of Arts in recognition of his work.
Only a short time after Johnson completed his time as a student with Captain Partridge, he became an instructor at the academy. He taught math, natural history, and civil engineering and accompanied Partridge when the academy moved to Middletown, Conn. in 1825.
When Partridge closed the academy at Middletown in 1829 in preparation to return to Norwich, Vt., Johnson stayed behind briefly to join the faculty of the newly established Wesleyan University. It wasn’t long, though, until he turned from teaching to the profession for which he had been so extensively trained: engineering.
From 1829 until his death in 1872, Johnson worked tirelessly to build our nation’s infrastructure. From the Erie and Champlain canals to the burgeoning railroad to bridges and waterworks, he held countless leadership positions as he and fellow Norwich engineers led the way in modernizing the landscape of America. He was an early visionary in the development of a nationwide railroad system, writing as early as 1828 that the railroad would become an essential component of American business once it was more fully understood and implemented.
In addition to his influential career as an engineer, Johnson wrote prolifically on engineering and surveying topics, held several patents for inventions, partnered in a variety of business ventures, and served terms as the mayor of Middletown, Conn. and as a state senator.
The final position that Johnson held in his long career was as chief engineer of the new Northern Pacific Railway from 1866 to 1870. Ever dedicated, he remained a consulting engineer for the company from his retirement in 1870 until his death two years later. In 1998, Norwich University acquired a beautiful oil portrait of this great engineer, which is now part of the collections of the Sullivan Museum and History Center.