Portrait of Augustus Hemenway

Canton Local History Blog

Patty Ryburn, Local History Librarian at the Canton Public Library, will periodically share her research into town history, library history and genealogy.  Feel free to email her any questions you may have at caill@ocln.org!

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Mar 20

Oliver Smith Chapman (18 Aug 1811 - 8 Feb 1877)

Posted on March 20, 2021 at 3:22 PM by Patty Ryburn

Oliver Smith Chapman

(18 Aug 1811 - 8 Feb 1877)

Born in Belchertown in western Massachusetts, Oliver Smith Chapman came to Canton in his early twenties as a result of his involvement in the construction of the Canton Viaduct, c. 1834.  Following his father’s occupation as a wheelwright, Oliver also established a sawmill and later found his mechanical proclivities well suited to the transportation industry of the age--the railroad.  At that time, a large part of the labor of excavation and laying of track was hand done--by pick and shovel, cart and horse--and largely taken on by Irish and Scottish immigrants.  It was laborious, dirty and dangerous work but also fertile ground for the introduction of machinery well-suited to the task at hand.  The railroad was welcome technology to a quickly growing country whose needs for the more rapid transport of goods and citizens were nearly outpacing its ability to keep up.

Oliver Smith Chapman’s cousin William Smith Otis hit upon just such a device to hasten the construction of the railroad--one which could excavate through even the most difficult terrain.  Eventually patented just before his premature death, his  officially named “Crane-Excavator for Excavating and Removing Earth” vastly improved both the speed and efficiency of the previously rudimentary methods of railroad construction; it is now simply referred to as a “steam shovel”.  Incidentally, William Otis’ family had more than one skilled inventor; William’s cousin Elisha Otis retains his mark in history for inventing the safety device preventing elevators from free fall.

First used on the Western Railroad in Massachusetts, Otis’ steam powered mechanical excavator made its way to Canton for work on the ground breaking (pun intended) of the new Boston and Providence Railroad which would pass over the Viaduct--now one of the oldest surviving multiple-arch stone railroad bridges in the U.S.  Along with his cousin William, Oliver Smith Chapman was perfectly positioned as an up-and-coming railroad engineer to figure prominently in this historic venture as well as to profit from it.

Although William Otis met an untimely death in 1839 at age 26, O.S. Chapman’s continued involvement in the railroad and the subsequent wealth he enjoyed would continue for decades and allow him to display the community generosity and philanthropy for which he eventually came to be known.  

Years after the death of both his first wife and his cousin William, Oliver married William’s widow Elizabeth (nee Everett) Otis and together they had a large family, eventually raised in the home that Chapman had first rented as a young transplant to Canton when he worked on the Viaduct.  Once known as “Ye way to Old Forge” today we know the address as Chapman St. and the home as an impressive example of a well-restored and well-maintained example of early nineteenth century architecture, improved over the years by the addition of modern comforts and conveniences.

In addition to renewing and improving the patent on the steam shovel--a device that, though much evolved, is still in use today--Oliver Smith Chapman’s career included his involvement in the construction of the Vermont Central Railroad and the creation of Boston’s Back Bay.  He was named a director of the Union Pacific and the Canada Southern Railroads and later in his life helped to form the local Neponset Mills then located near the Viaduct at the intersection with Walpole St.  His legacy, however, illustrates his civic and political efforts and contributions as well as those to local landmarks and institutions.  

In his three plus decades of Canton residency, Chapman was an active and energetic citizen, serving on committees, directing, guiding, donating and influencing townspeople to support projects benefiting the town.  He labored quietly, sometimes anonymously, but without personal gain and always with the welfare of the town at heart.  A particular passion was the expansion and beautification of the Canton Corner Cemetery--an inviting and historic final resting place--and he is remembered in Huntoon’s history of the town as one who “did more to beautify and adorn this sacred place than any other.”  Chapman was involved in the relocation of Col. Richard Gridley’s remains and the construction of a fitting memorial to this Revolutionary War hero.  

Included above is a photograph of Chapman’s cemetery memorial and an invitation to walk the grounds of this historic gem in our midst in order to better acquaint yourself with those who’ve gone before and whose life’s work included the betterment of the town of Canton.


Canton Bicentennial Historical Committee.  Canton Comes of Age 1797 - 1997 A History of the Town of Canton, Massachusetts.  Canton, Massachusetts: Lanier Professional Services, 1997.






Galvin, Edward D.  A History of Canton Junction.  Portland, Maine: Humboldt National Graphics, Inc., 1987. 

Huntoon, Daniel Thomas Vose.  History of the Town of Canton, 

Norfolk County, MassachusettsCanton, Massachusetts: J. Wilson and Son, 1893.