River and Harbor Improvements

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RIVER AND HARBOR IMPROVEMENTS. Referring in 1783 to his country's extensive natural waterways, George Washington wrote, "Would to God we may have the wisdom to improve them." In colonial times, rivers and lakes were principal avenues of transit; schemes for their development abounded, but scarcities of money and engineering skills precluded large undertakings. With the formation of the federal government in 1789, the outlook brightened. The First Congress enacted legislation for "the establishment and support of the Lighthouses, Beacons, Buoys, and Public Piers." And in 1790, with congressional assent, states began levying tonnage duties to be used for deepening harbors and removing sunken vessels.

The administration of Thomas Jefferson pointed the way toward greater federal involvement with internal improvements. The founding of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1802 was auspicious. The first school of technology in the New World, the academy made possible a technically competent corps of engineers within the army that would be available for infrastructure development. In 1808, at the behest of Congress, Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin produced a farsighted plan that envisaged a grand network of water routes binding together the seaboard states and linking the East Coast with the interior and the Great Lakes. The estimated cost was $20 million. Although the plan captured public interest, financial considerations, debate over the federal role in internal improvements, and the War of 1812 combined to forestall action.

The decade that followed the Treaty of Ghent (1814) witnessed significant changes. The War of 1812 had taught the value of interior lines of communication. Nationalism fostered by the war fired enthusiasm for public works. Navigation projects became important features both of Henry Clay's "American system" and of Secretary of War John C. Calhoun's plans for an adequate defense. Presidential vetoes, based on constitutional scruples, curbed the will of Congress for a time and left the initiative largely to the states. Construction of the Erie Canal, the greatest undertaking of this period, began in 1817 under state auspices.

At length, in March 1824, the historic decision of the Supreme Court in Gibbons v. Ogden cleared the way for prompt enactment of two important laws. In that case, the Court applied an expansive definition of "commerce" to uphold the right of the holder of a federal coasting license to offer service on New York waters despite a state law granting a monopoly to Fulton-Livingston licensees. Congress responded to this broad understanding of its powers under the commerce clause of the Constitution by enacting the General Survey Act of 30 April 1824. That act authorized planning for roads and canals "of national importance in a commercial or military point of view" and empowered the president to employ army engineers in this work. Three weeks later, Congress enacted the appropriation act of 24 May, which provided $75,000 for navigation improvements on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. These acts marked the real beginning of the federal program for waterway development.

Over the next thirty-five years, state and federal governments enacted programs to facilitate commercial use of the nation's waterways. With federal subsidies and technical aid from army engineers, states and chartered companies soon began construction of such important canals as the Chesapeake and Delaware, the Chesapeake and Ohio, and the Louisville and Portland. Between 1824 and 1831, the War Department Board of Engineers for Internal Improvements outlined a comprehensive plan, segments of which were swiftly implemented. At the same time, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers launched a nationwide endeavor to improve rivers that has continued to this day. Snagging on the Mississippi River, opening up the log-choked Red River, deepening the Ohio, preserving Saint Louis as a river port, and clearing harbors all along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts were among its early activities. In 1857, the corps introduced the seagoing hopper dredge at Charleston, South Carolina. The corps also entered the field of lighthouse construction, completing the famous Minots Ledge off the Massachusetts coast and many other lights. The Topographical Engineers, an independent branch from 1838 until the Civil War, also rendered impressive service. The Great Lakes survey, inaugurated in 1841, provided accurate information for shippers; and the Humphreys-Abbot study of the Mississippi, completed in 1861, was a major contribution to the science of hydraulics. Minuscule by latter-day standards (the total cost was less than $20 million), these antebellum programs nevertheless had a decided impact on commercial growth.

A great upsurge of activity followed the Civil War. During the last third of the nineteenth century, the Corps of Engineers expended nearly$333 million on rivers and harbors. To meet its enlarged responsibilities, the corps established a permanent, nationwide system of districts and divisions staffed by military and civilian engineers. Meanwhile, Congress created special organizations designed to meet special needs: the Mississippi River Commission (1879); the Missouri River Commission (1884– 1902); the office of the supervisor, New York harbor (1888); and the California Debris Commission (1893). Among major projects of the period were improvement of the Mississippi River by wing dams, revetments, levees, and construction of the Eads Jetties that opened the river's South Pass to ocean traffic; canalization of the Ohio; provision of a ship channel to connect the waters of the Great Lakes between Buffalo, New York, Chicago, and Duluth, Minnesota; erection of the Tillamook (Oregon) and Stannard Rock (Michigan) lighthouses; and completion of the Muscle Shoals Canal in the Tennessee River and the "Soo" locks at Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, both engineering marvels of the day. Virtually every major harbor on the oceans, the Great Lakes, the Mississippi, and the Ohio was improved for shipping.

A time of great accomplishment, these years were also the hey day of the pork barrel, when many schemes of marginal value won legislative sanction. The Civil War left many civil-works tasks for the Corps of Engineers, including fallen bridges, sunken vessels, twisted rails, broken levees, snags, and silt accumulation. But what began as an effort to restore river commerce turned into a deluge of projects that ensured the satisfaction of various interests in each region of the country. A year after the war ended, Congress appropriated $3.6 million for improvements and surveys at forty-nine sites. By 1882, the annual expenditure for rivers and harbors was more than $18 million and the corps was handling about five hundred assignments. That year, Congress authorized funding for eighteen projects that had received unfavorable reports from the corps. Mark Twain's fictional Columbus River, alias Goose Run, which if "widened, and deepened, and straightened, and made long enough … would be one of the finest rivers in the western country" had many a real life counterpart.

By the turn of the century, comprehensive planning and multiple-purpose projects started to become the focus of federal efforts. In 1902, Congress created the Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors, composed of officers of the corps, to review proposals for waterway development. Over the next seventy years the board turned down 57 percent of the proposals laid before it. Minor streams received progressively less attention; to win approval, projects generally had to promise far-reaching benefits. Symbolic of the new era was the Intracoastal Waterway, authorized in 1909, to connect all ports from Boston to the Rio Grande. The act of 3 March 1909, that also created the National Waterways Commission, contained a little known, but highly significant, section directing the chief of engineers to aim in the future for multipurpose projects. Hence, the way was open to marry navigation improvement with hydropower development and flood protection. In 1917, flood control work on the Mississippi River, which had been carried on by the federal government since 1882 under the guise of navigation improvement, was formally recognized by Congress as a national responsibility. At the same time, Congress authorized the corps to undertake such work on the Sacramento River in California. The following year the Corps of Engineers began construction of their first multipurpose dam at Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

Noteworthy advances took place in the period between World War I and World War II. In 1927, Congress instructed the army to make a comprehensive survey of the multiple-use potentialities of the nation's rivers. During the next decade, the Corps of Engineers prepared some two hundred reports, known as "308 reports," outlining possible development of major river basins for navigation, flood control, irrigation, and power generation. These reports furnished basic guides for many valuable public works projects launched under the New Deal, among them such well-known dams as Bonneville (Oregon), Fort Peck (Montana), Norris (Tennessee), and Shasta (California). At the same time, federal programs for flood control expanded. In 1928, Congress adopted an extensive project for flood protection on the Mississippi, commonly called the Jadwin Plan. A year later, the Corps of Engineers established the U.S. Waterways Experiment Station at Vicksburg, Mississippi, to further the sciences of hydraulics and hydrology. In 1936, nationwide flood-control activities became a function of the corps. From this time forward, the federal government's waterway improvement goals steadily widened to encompass water supply, recreation, fish and wildlife conservation, pollution abatement, and flood plain management.

Programs implemented in the quarter century after World War II were larger in both size and scope than those of the first half of the twentieth century. From a curtailed wartime level of $100 million in 1945, annual expenditures for river and harbor improvements rose sharply to $1.8 billion in 1973. In these years, comprehensive planning attained full maturity. Authorization of the Pick-Sloan Plan for the Missouri River Basin, proposed jointly by the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, launched the nation's first postwar attempt at comprehensive basin development. Constructed under the plan were extensive systems of levees and flood-walls; a nine-foot channel upstream on the Missouri to Sioux City, Iowa; and a series of dams and reservoirs, the largest being Garrison in North Dakota and Oahe, Big Bend, Fort Randall, and Gavins Point in South Dakota. Similar developments followed in the Columbia River and Arkansas River basins. Other projects of special importance in this period were construction of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, recanalization of the Ohio, and modernization of the Black Warrior–Tombigbee Waterway in Alabama. Growing numbers of supertankers and giant cargo vessels spurred efforts to improve harbors and channels and called forth plans for superports.

But by the 1960s, a critical mass of the American public had come to demand that river development projects promote recreation, water quality, and environmental preservation as well as irrigation, navigation, and flood control. The strength of these new interests was reflected in several important laws Congress passed over the next decade including the Wilderness Act (1964), the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (1968), and the National Environmental Policy Act (1969). During this period, the Corps of Engineers began using the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 to address water pollution, and those regulatory efforts helped lead to passage of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972. Environmental concerns also generated intense opposition to specific water projects and in a few cases, to their cancellation. In 1986, Congress passed the Water Resources Development Act, which modified approaches to financing and planning water programs as well as recognized that environmental considerations were an intrinsic factor in water resources planning. In the early 2000s, various organizations and some government agencies were promoting new approaches to river and harbor development including removal of dams, flood control through restoration of wetlands and floodplains, and community riverfront development for recreational and retail purposes.

A river and harbor improvement effort spanning nearly two centuries and embracing more than 4,000 projects has produced far-reaching benefits. Contributing materially to national defense as well as to national prosperity(as of 1998) were almost 300 deep-draft harbors; 25,000 miles of inland waterways, which carry more than 600 million tons of domestic freight each year; 383 reservoir and lake sites, with a total storage capacity of 329 million acre-feet; 75 hydropower dams, with installed capacity of 20.7 million kilowatts; 4,340 recreation sites at 456 corps projects handling 380 million visits per year; and more than 700 flood control projects, which have prevented approximately$6 worth of flood damage for every dollar spent since 1928 (adjusted for inflation).


Bourne, Russell. Americans on the Move: A History of Waterways, Railways, and Highways. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum Publishing, 1995.

Goodrich, Carter. Government Promotion of American Canals and Railroads, 1800–1890. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960.

Hull, William J., and Robert W. Hull. The Origin and Development of the Waterways Policy of the United States. Washington, D.C.: National Waterways Conference, 1967.

Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.

Reuss, Martin. Designing the Bayous: The Control of Water in the Atchafalaya Basin, 1800–1995. Alexandria, Va.: Office of History, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1998.

Scheiber, Harry N. Ohio Canal Era: A Case Study of Government and the Economy, 1820–1861. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1987.

Shallat, Todd. Structures in the Stream: Water, Science, and the Rise of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.

Smith, Frank Ellis. The Politics of Conservation. New York: Pantheon Books, 1966.

Stine, Jeffrey K. Mixing the Waters: Environment, Politics, and the Building of the Tennessee–Tombigbee Waterway. Akron, Ohio: University of Akron Press, 1993.


Jesse A.Remington/c. p.

See alsoEngineers, Corps of ; Gallatin's Report on Roads, Canals, Harbors, and Rivers ; Hydroelectric Power ; Inland Waterways Commission ; Missouri River ; Ohio River ; Survey Act of 1824 ; Tennessee Valley Authority ; Waterways, Inland .