History of Civil Engineering at UMN

Civil engineering was one of the first three engineering majors at the University of Minnesota. In 1871, the Board of Regents voted to form a civil engineering program in response to the country’s booming urban expansion. The Regents saw how cities on the East Coast were rapidly developing and knew the Midwest would soon need civil engineers to oversee the creation of local urban areas.

The program steadily grew over the following decades and eventually three distinct programs existed: structural engineering, municipal and sanitary engineering, and railway engineering. In 1909, the Regents elected to combine the programs. The department achieved international recognition in 1938 when a ground-breaking research facility opened: the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory (SAFL).

Civil engineering never had a home of its own on campus despite its heritage as one of the founding engineering majors at the University. All that changed in 1983 when the University opened the current Civil Engineering Building, which descends to a record depth of 110 feet below the surface. The building also makes use of numerous energy efficiency technologies to heat and light it. The design of the building was championed by then-head Professor Charles Fairhurst and based on the department’s research. The revolutionary structure received the American Society of Civil Engineer’s Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement of 1983.

Throughout the century, the department has produced valuable research benefiting communities in Minnesota and beyond. Some of the largest water control structures in the world — such as the Guri Dam in Venezuela — have been studied in models at the SAFL. On the local front, faculty were involved with the design of the first wastewater facility in Minnesota, the Pig’s Eye Water Treatment Plant.

The department continues to innovate, particularly in the development of new facilities. In 2005, the department opened the Multi-Axial Subassemblage Testing (MAST) Laboratory, built to subject structures to simulated earthquake loading. Another recent lab is the Minnesota Traffic Observatory, which keeps a high-tech eye on Twin Cities’ roadways.

The Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering is also committed to expanding research beyond traditional areas to solve society’s greatest technical challenges. Faculty and students are addressing environmental problems by developing methods for healing damaged eco-systems and limiting pollution that threatens our planet. As society searches for energy alternatives, the department’s research groups are busy investigating the potential of wind, water, and geothermal power.

The department’s continued responsiveness to modern problems embodies the very impetus for its creation more than 100 years ago. In 1871, the University created a civil engineering program to help build the communities we live in today. Now the department is ensuring society’s well-being by improving our communities for tomorrow.