History of the Department

150-year history of the Department


Hon. James McGill
After a few years in the wilderness, and acquiring a good deal of wealth, James McGill decided to settle in Montreal where he undertook a very active political and public life.

When James McGill contemplated his will, after making sure that his family was financially secure, he decided to leave 10,000 pounds and his 46-acre country estate for the founding of a university. The estate was known as Burnside and it extended from what is now Boulevard René-Lévesque up to Mount Royal. Over the years, parts of the estate were sold off to prevent bankruptcy. James McGill passed away in 1813.





In 1821, with a Royal Charter from King George IV, McGill College was founded with medicine as its first taught discipline. On October 7, 1839, Governor General Sir John Colborne laid the cornerstone of the Arts Building, and on September 6, 1843, the Faculty of Arts was officially established. At this time McGill University had a principal, a professor, and 3 students (2 of whom were nephews of the principal). Needless to say, enrolment increased rapidly.

In 1855 the Board of Governors appointed William Dawson, originally of Nova Scotia, as Principal of McGill. Principal Dawson had a profound influence on the development of the university, and under his command McGill expanded tremendously. 

The First Graduating Class



In 1856, Principal Dawson created Civil Engineering as an option in Arts in response to the high demand for railroads. The option was available to 3rd or 4th year Arts students. 

The following year Mark Hamilton was appointed Professor of Civil Engineering and in 1858 John Gooding became the first engineer to graduate from McGill. The India Office in London recognized the diploma as acceptable, and over the following years the number of students in Civil Engineering increased. All was progressing well when the economy went into a recession. The number of registrations in this discipline began to decrease in 1862, and sadly, in 1863 McGill was forced to terminate Civil Engineering. 



It took eight years and the planning of the Ontario government to establish a School of Engineering at the University of Toronto before Principal Dawson made another attempt at engineering. Being afraid that Eastern Canadian students would go to Toronto, he pressured the Board of Governors to reinstate the department.  This time it was called the Department of Applied Science, and G.F. Armstrong was appointed Professor of Civil Engineering. The degree was called Bachelor of Applied Science (BASc) and it was a three-year course instead of the previous one-year program.

Five years later Professor Armstrong retired and was replaced by Professor Henry Taylor Bovey, a Cambridge graduate. Shortly after Professor Bovey's appointment, in 1878, the department was made a faculty, and he became the first Dean of the Faculty of Applied Science. Civil and Mechanical Engineering were initially a combined field.  Enrolment in the newly created faculty increased tremendously and overcrowding was soon a problem.

Sir William Macdonald
In 1889, Thomas Workman gave $60,000 for the construction of the Workman Building, which now connects the Macdonald and McConnell buildings.

Macdonald Engineering Building was erected in 1893









Soon after, William Macdonald provided funds for the original Macdonald Engineering Building, which opened in 1893.


Testing a beam at the turn of the 20th century
At the end of the century the length of the program was increased to 4 years.  In the 1891 - 92 session, surveying was added to civil engineering, and the division was renamed as the Department of Civil Engineering and Surveying. In the 1898 - 99 session the name of the degree was changed to Bachelor of Science (BSc).


Soon after it was gutted by fire on April 5th 1907









On April 5, 1907, tragedy befell the Faculty of Applied Science -- the Macdonald Engineering Building burnt down due to an electrical fire.


Sir William Macdonald offered a new Engineering Building







Once again William Macdonald came to the rescue of the faculty, and by the end of April building plans had been drawn. By 1909, reconstruction was completed on today's existing building that bears the name of its benevolent donor. William Macdonald donated over $13 million to McGill over his lifetime.


In 1929, the department was renamed as the Department of Civil Engineering and Applied Mechanics. Two years later the faculty and degree were renamed to today's official name -- the Faculty of Engineering and Bachelor of Engineering (BEng). In 2021 the department was renamed as the Department of Civil Engineering.


Engineering started with Civil Engineering and then expanded to the present seven divisions. During the 1857-62 period, 15 students received a Diploma in Civil Engineering, and there was one civil engineering professor. Today, approximately 350 undergraduate students and 80 graduate students are enrolled in the Department of Civil Engineering. The Department has come a long way since 1858. It has had a glorious past and all indications show a bright future.

Back to top