Waterways, Inland

views updated May 18 2018


WATERWAYS, INLAND. The United States has an outstanding system of inland waterways, consisting of more than twenty-five thousand miles of navigable rivers and canals, of which twelve thousand miles are commercial waterways. The system, which by definition does not include the Great Lakes or coastal shipping lanes, carries more than 600 million tons of domestic freight each year. This amounts to approximately 16 percent of the total intercity freight movements in the country.

In the colonial period, water transportation was vital. The first settlements were along waterways, and countless vessels sailed the coastal and tidewater streams, serving the trade, travel, and communication needs of the colonies. The waterways also provided the initial travel routes that pioneers used to move west. Virginians and Marylanders traveled along the James and Potomac Rivers; Pennsylvanians advanced via the Susquehanna River and its tributaries; and New Englanders and New Yorkers followed the Connecticut and the Hudson–Mohawk river valleys into the interior.

After the Revolution, with the Appalachian Mountain barrier already breached by roads, the westward movement resumed. Travel by road, however, was expensive, slow, and very uncomfortable. Again the rivers supplied not only the bulk of the transportation needs but also determined the migration patterns of the trans-Appalachian settlers. The frontier population concentrated along the Ohio, the Mississippi, and other western rivers, which were soon teeming with the rude watercraft of the day.

Conflicting visions about the strategic importance of western rivers to the development of the young nation led to the first major sectional conflict among the states. In the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which had ended the Revolutionary War, Britain recognized the right of the United States to travel down the Mississippi River. Spain, however, was not a signator to the Treaty and in 1784 refused to allow American access to New Orleans. Western and southern settlers believed that use of the Mississippi was of crucial importance to the new nation. Some easterners, however, believed that westerners would have little reason to remain in the Union if they had free navigation of the river. After a year of fruitless negotiations with Spain, Congress abandoned its instructions to John Jay to insist on American navigation rights. Jay returned with a treaty that opened up Spanish markets to eastern merchants but relinquished export rights on the lower Mississippi for twenty years. The Jay-Gardoqui Treaty infuriated westerners and southerners. Congress rejected it in 1786. The question of American navigation of the Mississippi was finally settled by Pinckney's Treaty (1795), which gave Americans free access to the river. The United States acquired the whole Mississippi River Valley in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase.

Two major developments of the early nineteenth century—steamboats and canals—enhanced the economic importance of inland waterways. The boats of the eighteenth century were propelled by wind power, water currents, and human energy. But wind power was generally unavailable on the inland waterways, and water currents went in one direction—downstream. On upstream trips, boats traveled very slowly and usually without passengers or freight. The harnessing of steam power allowed boats to carry goods and passengers in both directions on rivers and significantly reduced travel time. Following Robert Fulton's introduction of the steamboat in 1807, steamboating spread rapidly throughout the nation. It developed most fully on the western rivers, particularly after 1815, and by midcentury hundreds of steamboats regularly plied the unexcelled waterway network of the trans-Appalachian West.

Similarly, a mania for building canals swept the country in the early nineteenth century. The War of 1812 vividly demonstrated the need for improved transportation. But it was the completion of the phenomenally successful Erie Canal in New York in 1825 that touched off the rage for canals. When the canal era ended approximately twenty-five years later, there were nearly 4,000 miles of canals in the United States. Although most canal companies failed as their lines were superseded by the railroad, their contemporary economic impact in augmenting the natural waterways of the country was significant, and a few of them survived into the twentieth century, to be incorporated into the modern waterway network.

The railroad, introduced to America in 1830, came of age in the 1850s, giving increasingly effective competition to waterway transportation. In the battle for traffic after the Civil War, the railroads were the easy victors. They had the advantages of speed, directness, and continuity of service. The river shipping lines could not deter the railroad encroachments of the 1870s and 1880s. The nadir of the waterways came at the turn of the century, when the railroads were the undisputed masters of the transportation field. But before this decline, steamboating on the upper Missouri, the Red, the Arkansas, and several Pacific Coast rivers had played a major role in the development of the West.

Just when the victory of the railroads seemed complete, however, a reemergence of the waterways occurred. This rebirth resulted from at least four factors: (1) government development of various waterways for multipurpose use, including flood control, irrigation, power production, recreation, and navigation; (2) national security considerations, reflecting the need for alternative transportation facilities, particularly following the development of submarines and their threat to oceanborne commerce; (3) a vastly improved maritime technology; and(4) the inherent economy of water transportation. The federal effort to restore the economic competitiveness of the inland waterways began in 1876 when President Grant signed the Rivers and Harbors Appropriations Act. In 1879, Congress created the Mississippi River Commission to unify development of Mississippi River navigation. Further appropriations for rivers and harbors followed.

By the turn-of-the-century, conservationists regarded waterway development as an integral component of conservation policy. But development of the waterways proceeded slowly until 1907, when President Roosevelt appointed a commission to prepare a comprehensive plan for improvement of the nation's waterways. The 1908 preliminary report of the Inland Waterways Commission and the alarming congestion of traffic on the railroads prior to World War I revealed the need for reviving the moribund waterways. As a result, the federal government not only began extensive canal and river canalization projects but also chartered the Inland Waterways Corporation in 1924 to operate a barge line on the Mississippi. Coupled with remarkable advances in marine technology—including the modern, diesel-powered tugboat; huge, special-purpose barges and tankers; and improved all-weather, day-and-night navigational systems—these developments have led to a significant return of traffic to the waterways.

As both cause and consequence of the increase in waterway traffic, the federal government, in the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, devoted increasingly greater sums to the development of navigational river and canal channels and harbors. Important twentieth-century projects included completion of the Atlantic Intracoastal and Gulf Intracoastal waterways—protected ship or barge channels stretching, in the one case, all the way from New England to the Florida Keys, excepting only a route across New Jersey, and in the other case, from Brownsville, Texas, as far as St. Marks, Florida. Other notable projects include the recanalization of the Ohio River, with new locks of 110 by 1,200 feet; the development of both the Columbia River and the St. Lawrence Seaway, the latter opened in 1959; and the opening of new channels in the South and Southwest, partly the result of the multifaceted Tennessee Valley Authority project initiated in the 1930s. Upon completion of the Tennessee–Tombigbee project in 1985, many resources were shifted to maintenance of existing waterworks. All of these programs, carried out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and not always without controversy, have been in accordance with the national transportation policy of fostering both cooperation and competition between the nation's railroads, waterways, highways, pipelines, and airlines.


Alperin, Lynn M. History of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. Fort Belvoir, Va.: U.S. Army Institute for Water Resources, 1983.

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

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.

Hunchey, James R., et. al. United States Inland Waterways and Ports. Fort Belvoir, Va.: U.S. Army Engineers Institute for Water Resources, 1985.

Hunter, Louis C. Steamboats on the Western Rivers: An Economic and Technological History. 1949. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1993.

Shaw, Ronald E. Canals for a Nation: The Canal Era in the United States, 1790–1860. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990.

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

Ralph D.Gray

Cynthia R.Poe

See alsoCanals ; Conservation ; Inland Waterways Commission ; Mississippi River ; National Waterways Commission ; River and Harbor Improvements ; River Navigation ; Rivers ; Steamboats .

Inland Waterways Commission

views updated May 18 2018


INLAND WATERWAYS COMMISSION. By the beginning of the twentieth century, conservationists regarded development of the nation's waterways as an integral component of conservation policy. In 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt appointed the Inland Waterways Commission to prepare "a comprehensive plan for the improvement and control" of U.S. river systems. In 1908 the commission submitted a bulky preliminary report on rivers, lakes, canals, and railroad competition, urging that future plans for navigation improvement take account of water purification, power development, flood control, and land reclamation. Congress created the National Waterways Commission in 1909 to carry on the work of the Inland Waterways Commission.


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.

Hunchey, James R., et al. United States Inland Waterways and Ports. Fort Belvoir, Va.: U.S. Army Engineers Institute for Water Resources, 1985.

William J.Petersen/c. p.

See alsoRiver and Harbor Improvements ; Waterways, Inland .