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by William A. Bradley, March 1986

Civil Engineering, as a separate department, was established in 1909, but it was very much a part of the school from its beginnings.

The Agricultural College of the State of Michigan was created by the legislature in 1855 in an act providing for the purchase of a site "within 10 miles of Lansing" on "not less than 500 acres" at no more than $15 an acre. In June of 1855, a tract of 676.57 acres was purchased; of this, only 3 acres had been cleared. During the next 2 years, a College Hall, a boarding hall and a brick barn were built, and the college opened to its first students on May 13, 1857, with four faculty members; one of these was Calvin Tracy, who was to teach mathematics and surveying. He was authorized to purchase a surveyor's compass and level "with the necessary equipment for surveying and leveling in the Agricultural College."

The 63 new students attended classes in the mornings and worked three hours in the afternoon, felling trees, planting orchards or hauling brick to build homes on Faculty Row for the professors and their families. Within a year 60 acres of land had been cleared, but it was still primitive; Dr. William Beal, in his history of the college, reported that Tracy shot several deer as they foraged on the young wheat and he hunted wild turkeys south of the Red Cedar in the college woods.

One of the courses taken by seniors in the fixed curriculum was Rural and Civil Engineering. In 1861, T.C.Abbot, who later became the second president of the college, was designated as Professor of Rural and Civil Engineering, although his earlier and later designation was as Professor of History and English Literature. In 1861 the college graduated its first class, but had no commencement, since the Civil War had started and 6 of the 7 graduates had enlisted in a special company of engineers which was to serve under General Fremont.

In his 1864 report, President Abbot recommended that a civil engineer be appointed to the Faculty of Instruction and this was finally done in 1875 when Mr. Rolla C. Carpenter, an 1873 graduate of the college who also was a Civil Engineering graduate of Michigan University, was hired as instructor--becoming the department of Mathematics and Civil Engineering. His first year, the class in Civil Engineering used Wood's revision of Mahan's Civil Engineering, studying the chapters on materials, strength of materials, framing, masonry, roads, canals, rivers and bridges. During his 15 years at the college, Prof. Carpenter taught classes in Civil Engineering and Math, while serving the college in many other ways. He was the surveyor, supervised the steam works and the carpenter shop, designed and supervised construction of a dam on the Red Cedar river (designing his own pile driver), designed the new Mechanical laboratory, supervised the manufacture of 400,000 bricks, designed a new bath house for students (with 10 tubs), taught French, and in 1884 served as the coach of the somewhat loosely organized college football team (which didn't have any outside games that year).

The Land Grant Act of 1862 had specified the teaching of "such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts". Thus, in 1885, a two year course in Mechanic Arts was started; this soon expanded into a 4 year Mechanical course - later Mechanical Engineering. The same year, the first engineering building, the Mechanical Building, was built.

In 1890, Professor Carpenter left for a position at Cornell University and after a year, Professor Herman K. Vedder, a C.E. graduate of Cornell University with a Master's degree in Structural Engineering, was appointed as the Professor of Mathematics and Civil Engineering. He continued to teach the courses in math and civil engineering and to provide expertise to the college in its engineering work. About this time also, in 1892, the second chapter in the nation of Tau Beta Pi was started at the college.

Campus life during these early years was not always easy; East Lansing was just a small village, travel to Lansing was sometimes nearly impossible in the spring and fall when the roads became mires of mud and the streetcar which later connected the town and the college hadn't been built. Until the 1890's college was in session in the spring, summer and fall so that the students could practice agriculture at the college during growing season and because many of them depended on winter teaching jobs in the country schools for their expenses. With the changes to the current sequence with winter courses, new problems were confronted. Professor Vedder, in his 1897 report to the college president, wrote: "allow me to urge the early installation of sanitary conveniences at College Hall", the change in terms "requiring long class-work in winter months, make this necessary".

Since many of the engineering students planned for a Civil Engineering career, Professor Vedder, in 1901, expressed that "there is a demand for a course of study" allowing "specialization along Civil Engineering lines"; on December 4, 1901, the governing board of the college approved the new option. 17 members of the junior class chose it. Added to the department curriculum were "topographical drawing and sketching, shadows and perspective, railroad surveying, bridge analysis and design, masonry, arches and pavements". On June 18, 1903, 14 seniors became the first graduates from the Civil Engineering option.

During the early years of this new option, the faculty was overly busy; Prof. Vedder repeatedly protested about the crowded class and laboratory facilities. In 1907, a new Engineering Hall was built at a cost of $110,000. The departments of Mechanical Engineering, Mathematics and Civil Engineering, Drawing and Design, and Physics and Electrical Engineering moved in. The same year, Engineering's first Dean, G.W. Bissell, was appointed, and in 1908 the Division of Engineering was established.

By 1908, of the 232 graduates in engineering since the Civil option was begun, 117 had taken the C.E. option. Professor Vedder proposed that in order to best serve the students, civil engineering should be a separate department and on July 7, 1909, the Department of Civil Engineering was born.

Since that time, the transitions in the college and in Engineering have been many. The Michigan Agricultural College of 1909 became Michigan State College in 1925 and Michigan State University of Agriculture and Applied Science in 1955, in its one hundredth year.

The Division of Engineering added Chemical Engineering, Computer Science, Metallurgical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, the last two being then combined, along with Engineering Drawing, into the present Metallurgy, Mechanics and Materials Science; Agricultural Engineering is also closely allied. The first Engineering Hall burned about 1916 and was replaced by Olds Hall of Engineering, which housed most of the departments until 1962, when the present. Engineering Building was completed. Civil Engineering became the Department of Civil and Sanitary Engineering in 1962 and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in 1985. Its enrollments have. increased, presently having 218 men and 46 women as undergraduates and 74 men and 6 women in the graduate programs.

In the early years, the activities of the faculty in teaching many varied courses and providing engineering services for the college left little time for research. With the establishment of the Engineering Experiment Station in the 1920's, some of the faculty gained research support. The involvement has grown, with increasing grant support producing valuable research and giving support and training to many graduate students. Current research studies include ground water contamination, industrial and hazardous waste management, diffusion of pollutants in the environment, structural dynamics and earthquake engineering, pipe system vibrations, construction materials, soil behavior, cold-regions engineering, transportation planning and safety, structural analysis and design and computer applications in engineering education. The Engineering Research facility, now being built, will serve some of these studies.

Not only on campus, but throughout the state and abroad, Civil Engineering has left its mark. The college, in the late 1800's, conducted Farmer's Institutes throughout the state to take the latest techniques to the farmers. At these, Professor Carpenter discussed sanitation and road building. Later, in the early 1900's, the Railway Institute operated, with several cars of a train fitted out with agricultural exhibits and including road building exhibits. In 1909, this train made 65 stops on an eleven day circuit. In recent times, several members of the department faculty have served in foreign countries as advisors to their engineering education programs.

By far the greatest contribution of Civil Engineering at M.A.C., M.S.C. and M.S.U., however, has been in the education of thousands of men and women who have studied here, obtaining Bachelor's and Master's degrees and Doctorates, and have become involved throughout the world in the creation of engineering projects and in the education of future.


  1. Annual Reports of the State Board of Agriculture, 1862-1957. These contain faculty listings, financial statements and annual reports of each of the departments of the college.
  2. Beal, William J., History of the Michigan Agricultural College, East Lansing, Michigan, 1915.
  3. Dunbar, Willis F., Michigan Institutions of Higher Learning in the Civil War, published by the Michigan Civil War Centennial Observance Commission, Lansing, 1964
  4. Dunbar, Willis F., The Michigan Record in Higher Education, Wayne University Press, Detroit, 1963.
  5. Kuhn, Madison and Blair, Lynn, A Short History of Michigan State, Michigan State College Press, East Lansing, 1955.
  6. Kuhn, Madison, Michigan State, the First Hundred Years, East Lansing, 1955.
  7. Blaisdell, Thomas C., ed., Semi-Centennial Celebration of Michigan State Agricultural College, East Lansing, 1908. This book contains the complete program of the celebration, held May 26, 29-31, 1907.
  8. Murray, Fran, Notes on Civil Engineering department history, 1985.

Phone: (517) 355-5107 Fax: (517) 432-1827 E-mail: cee@egr.msu.edu
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Michigan State University
Engineering Building
428 S. Shaw Lane, Room 3546
East Lansing, MI 48824