The Future of Our Navigable Waters



THERE are many indications, apparent even to the eye of the careless watcher, that we are coming to a critical period in the conduct of our public works in general, and of that part which relates to river and harbor improvement in particular. Although these signs take the shape of public agitation and political unrest in the regions most affected by this special form of internal improvement, they are based on something more fundamental. The National Rivers and Harbors Congress, which will meet in Washington this month to formulate a demand for larger and more systematic appropriations in the direction which its title indicates, is itself directly representative of the commercial organizations of the entire country; but it is brought into existence by, and gains its importance from, a general movement among all the people, commercial and non-commercial, who are seeking from necessity some better use of their running waters. This necessity is the result of an evolution.

In the early days of the nation, water routes were the only commercial highways. The Western, the Central, and the Eastern rivers all bore their part in local and in international trade; so that of them Chief Justice Marshall said, in Gibbons vs. Ogden, that they were the only means by which the interior parts of the nation might share in foreign trade and were therefore of national importance. Later, when the railway came, and when the panic of the forties had halted our canal development, there resulted a shifting of trade routes somewhat abnormal and, under natural conditions, merely temporary. Inventive genius, always attracted to novelty, turned from the steamboat to the locomotive, so that the latter quickly outstripped its old river rival in economic development. The Civil War forced the north to extend and develop its railways, so that its crops might move to the eastern seaboard instead of by their natural route down the Mississippi valley. Even before the war our western rivers had been snag-infested and bar-obstructed, and after the struggle they were in worse condition. Railway rates were lower than steamboat rates had been. The era of extravagance was gone, and there was no longer sufficient inducement in rates to keep steamboats carrying under the handicap of high insurance, and great risk of loss, with its accompanying psychologically deterrent effect upon both boatman and shipper. The mouth of the Mississippi was blocked by bars, while New York was open to deep and cheap-carrying steamships. So the river trade fell away, no new type of river carrier was developed, and the lagging government improvement was never sufficient to produce a channel to offset these handicaps.

That has brought us to to-day, when we view a region extending from the Alleghanies to the Rockies, in which there are twenty thousand miles of river navigable or susceptible of navigation, on which there is but one profitable and significant movement of cargo — that of coal from the Ohio to New Orleans. Eastward and westward the railways still bear the freight, hauling it over the mountains to the seaboard; interfered with only by those other railroads which, as the levee lines have been closed, have adopted Mississippi River grade from St. Louis to the Gulf. That this is so would not necessarily cause uneasiness, in spite of the waste of opportunity offered by the magnificent waterways of the Mississippi system, were it not that the railways are no longer able to do the work put upon them. With governmental regulation of rates, with ample terminal facilities, and with enough tracks so that South Dakota might never go cold in winter, or stack its grain on the ground; with equipment to handle all that Chicago and Minneapolis and St. Louis can furnish, together with the corn of Nebraska and Kansas, the fruits of Arkansas and Missouri, the lumber of Michigan and of Mississippi, the railways would be sufficient servants. But we have not such equipment nor can we have it in any conceivable time; nor have we a rate regulation which will bring these things near the cost of water carriage. The Centre — and I am using the Mississippi system as an example in this because it is the most striking and because the present movement originated on its banks — is confronted by two principal problems: to get its products to the seaboard at the cheapest possible rate consistent with speedy carriage; and to get from the seaboard the imports it must have. Problems of internal trade are secondary to these, and will be solved in the same working out.

For the purpose of handling this foreign trade the Centre has at present established certain well-known collecting and distributing points which are the basis of freight rates, the aggregating places of both local and through traffic, and, as it happens, are themselves the greatest manufacturing cities in the region. These points are Pittsburg, especially notable for its coal, iron, and steel tonnage; Chicago, the principal depot of the lakes, a manufacturing city of high rank and the greatest railway aggregating centre in the world; Minneapolis and St. Paul, at once the chief flouring cities of the nation and the collecting and distributing foci for the north and for the newer Canada; Kansas City, St, Joseph, Omaha, and Sioux City, the hoppers into which flows the great grain harvest of the west and northwest, the gateways through which must go all the imported and eastern merchandise and fuel consumed by the producers of grain, and the points at which are produced a great part of our export meat products; and St. Louis, a progressive city of large and growing manufacturing interests and a jobbing centre of national importance, having as its tributary country the entire southwest. Into these cities pours the golden flood from the harvest fields, the countless miles of coal, the train upon train of steel and other building material, the endless loads of manufactured and natural food products — pours in to stagnate in the congested yards; for so overburdened are the railways that a loaded car moves now but an average of twenty-five miles a day.

Yet, by reason of natural causes which have induced the selection of town sites, and by reason of the early dependence of railways upon river traffic, each of these large cities lies at the head of one of the main divisions of the Mississippi system. Pittsburg lies at the head of the Ohio; Chicago at the head of the “Lakes-tothe-Gulf” route, in the gap left by the ancient outlet of Lake Michigan to the Great Water; Minneapolis and St. Paul are at the head of the upper Mississippi; the Missouri River points on the upper reach of the lower Missouri; and St. Louis, near which all these divisions join, is, or would be but for the present absurd administrative districting, at the upper end of the main trunk line itself.

It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that the people of the Centre, looking over the possibilities by which they may escape from the present crowded condition of their transportation routes, have observed these great channels leading from the aggregating places almost in a direct line to the seaboard, exactly in the path which their trade should take, and have demanded in anger and in astonishment first, an explanation of their inutility, and, second, their immediate transformation into proper traffic arteries. These people have been coming during several years to firmer purpose in this regard, and now have enlarged their activity until it becomes national in its scope, that method and purpose may be introduced into our conduct of water highways.

The non-utilization of these waters is not hard to understand. I have already given some of the reasons for it. The others are no less simple. In the early days, when, under the decision of Justice Marshall, Congress began to appropriate money for river improvement, no department was provided which could properly undertake the work. Before that, occasional appropriations had been made for harbor improvement, and had been spent by special direction, sometimes under the eye of the Secretary of the Treasury, sometimes by the collector of the port involved. The first western river improvement work was done by a civilian under appointment from the president. Henry M. Shreve, who had invented the snag-boat, was made Superintendent of Western Rivers, and held the post many years, clearing the channels and saving vessel owners several million dollars a year, in risks and cargo losses. But as the river work increased from simple snagging to a consideration of more intricate problems involving the slackwatering of the Ohio, the leveeing of the Mississippi, and the provision of an adequate navigable outlet for the Valley, the need of engineering skill in obtaining advice induced Congress to call upon its military engineers for technical reports. From this grew the practice of indicating that appropriations should be made under the charge of the Department of War, and so grew up the practice of spending these civil expenditures for commercial purposes under military direction.

That is really the fundamental fault. The military engineer obtains at West Point a training in civil engineering that has especial direction to military matters. He is not usually a person with a leaning toward trade, or he would not have chosen the army. More than that, he has no business experience whatever, and seldom comes to have any proper understanding of trade requirements and large business movements. After the civil war a large corps of engineers, released from the construction of military works, was sent upon surveying expeditions along our coasts and rivers, and the improvements they recommended were in many cases adopted by Congress and carried out, or partly carried out. The execution was left to the care of these engineers, who, detached from one task and assigned to another, seldom attained that love of a task for itself which is the spirit of civil engineering. There grew up in the Department of War, and in cooperation between that Department and Congress, a mode rather than a system of procedure. The day had passed when each river was needed as the only outlet for the people on its banks. Railways carried the great trade. Rivers handled only local trade. So Congressmen fell into the habit, here and there, of recommending improvements for their local rivers, so that money might be spent in their districts, or that local trade might be benefited. Each such request was referred to a military engineer, who reported upon the feasibility of the work. Later, his report was made to include what is, by courtesy, termed a commercial report, so that Congress may know how trade justifies this expenditure. This trade report is never based upon any large outlook. It never considers the real problems of the river valley. It takes into consideration the present local trade of the towns along the way, the number of steamboats now existing and the amount they carry, — always a rough guess, — and endeavors to provide an estimate of the amount that will be saved by the investment in local freight rates. So low have we sunk, in the absence of modern steamboats, that on many streams we can no longer find trade to estimate; accordingly the engineer estimates the amount to which railway rates are “regulated” by the possibility of some one some day using a steamboat on the river. On this a board of review of army engineers debates and reports to the Rivers and Harbors Committee, and the latter includes in the bill some item supposed to represent the original project — dwarfed and deformed by successive estimators until its originator would not recognize it.

Two principal things — and many minor ones — result from this mode of procedure: first, that, there being no large outlook on rivers and harbors, there is no connection between any two projects and therefore no general benefit to the nation; and second, that there is no one whose business it is to enter into and carry out these projects or who is certain of the money to do so. To remedy the former of these, President Roosevelt has appointed a Waterways Commission, the first commission ever created in America to make a complete study of our water routes and to consider them from a national point of view. For the second, we have a brilliant example on the Ohio River, where, in 1875, on a report from Majors Merrill and Weitzel, Congress adopted a slackwatering plan. The excellent plan presented was for movable dams, and it was pointed out by the engineers that the real benefit of these improvements would not be obtained until the first thirteen, extending over the steep slope from Pittsburg to Wheeling, were in place. The engineers’ plan was for building the thirteen locks all together, in two years, and then the thirteen dams the next year; so that not more than four years would elapse during which navigation would be hindered, and at the end of four years, the whole being done, the country would at once reap the benefit of the investment. Congress adopted the slackwatering idea, but ordered only one dam, which was delayed by scanty appropriations and not completed until 1885. Then two more darns were authorized. One by one they have been added since then, but the first six are not yet complete. Congress had gone ahead downstream with other dams, one even, No. 37, below Cincinnati; but though we have spent about ten million dollars on the reach between Pittsburg and Wheeling we have not yet obtained the real benefit of even that improvement, nor shall we until perhaps ten or twenty years from now, when dams not yet even authorized are ordered and completed. At present the Ohio has been surveyed for a ninefoot slackwater channel, and it is estimated that sixty-three million dollars will be needed to complete it to Cairo; but at the present rate of operations it will require about 150 years to attain that end.

I have not the space or the inclination here to go into our river improvements in detail under this second head. Nevertheless I must point out the situation on the main trunk lines which confronts the people of the Centre. This Ohio, partially slackwatered, bears the greatest burdens at the cheapest rates of any river in the world except the lower Mississippi. Coal, in cargoes which below Louisville amount sometimes to sixty thousand tons, are carried along on ninefoot draft, at a cost of not more than a third of a mill a ton mile — a rate which can be considerably reduced by systematic operations. These cargoes, however, can go only at moderate stages of the river. These moderate stages come at a time when coal is the only thing waiting to travel — iron and steel, grain and manufactured goods being too valuable to be left lying in pools waiting for the river to rise. Yet when the Ohio is slackwatered all the way, everything on it can be carried at a rate under a mill a ton mile, during all but the coldest winter months.

The Chicago trunk line to the lakes, which in our infant days earned three hundred thousand dollars a year in tolls, now lies idle, a shallow canal outgrown by trade, connecting the Illinois with Lake Michigan. The Illinois has seven feet of water, the Mississippi above St. Louis five or six. At the head of the route Chicago is slowly advancing its drainage canal down over the edge of the divide toward Lake Joliet, having already spent fifty million dollars to carry this waterway, twenty-two feet deep, to the Illinois, and leaving but twenty-eight million dollars for Congress to spend to carry it to St. Louis with a fourteen-foot depth; but Congress, relying upon some old engineers’ reports, believes an eightfoot channel would be enough, and does nothing to obtain even that. The upper Mississippi last year had six feet of water in it, but not with certainty. It is designed that the river should carry a four-foot six-inch draft. The lower Missouri was taken in hand in 1884 by an expert commission which endeavored to reshape it to commercial purposes. They found that with the use of simple mattress revetment with stone facing and brush contraction works the banks could be held permanently, the channel made stable and deepened to six feet, and the river freed from obstructing bars. In the wdiole life of the Commission until it was abolished in 1902, it had but two and a half million dollars for this work, while it was required to devote its attention to spending five million dollars specially designated by Congress for protecting town fronts, railway embankments, and railway bridges. It established beyond cavil that the Missouri, like any other alluvial river, must be handled systematically, must be taken in hand at a fixed point and from there improved dowmstream, leaving no gaps; and that by this means it can be made to carry a six-foot channel from Omaha, and probably from Sioux City, to its mouth, even at extreme low water. When it had established this fact and opened the river to six-foot boats for two hundred and seventy-five miles from its mouth, influence was brought to bear at Washington, and the scheme was abolished.

The real secret of Mississippi River utilization, however, lies in none of these divisions but in the trunk from St. Louis to the sea. In 1879 Congress appointed a commission to take charge of and develop that line. Later, this commission was restricted, by an absurd ruling, to the river below Cairo, a city without important railway terminals, and thus was brought about the ruin of the St. Louis river trade. It cannot be made too clear that trade requires a safe, steady, and uniform channel. With six feet, seven feet, eight feet, or ten feet, it really makes little difference which, vessels can go steadily on their way, carrying cargo economically; but not if they are built or loaded for a seven or a ten-foot channel, and are suddenly confronted with a six-foot passage over a bar. Then they are stopped, and the next trip they must either run “light ” or not at all, for trade will not risk being delayed in that way.

The Mississippi River Commission, by long experiment, established a method of revetment and contraction which reduces the channel in that stream to a science. It came to the point where it could estimate with fair accuracy the cost of revetting every necessary bank in the stream and obtaining a ten-foot channel from Cairo to the sea, a permanent, safe channel open all the year round. Then Congress failed to back it up. There had been years without appropriations; much had been lost by abandonment of work for lack of funds; there had been varying directions; now came an order to abandon revetment and to take up dredging. That order the commission has been forced to obey. It has spent twenty million dollars on levees, several millions on dredging, but only eleven million dollars in thirty years on permanent channel works. Thanks to that eleven million dollars the Commission gives us to-day a ten-foot channel everywhere below Cairo. But above Cairo, in the 180-mile reach to St. Louis, is chaos. There, too, Congress has ordered the revetment process cast away and dredges relied upon. A dredged channel is never a commercial success in such a river. Security there is based only on the fact that at the earliest possible moment after a bar shows, the engineers will dredge it away. A revetted channel guarantees that a bar will never form. Only such a guarantee will induce trade. Last year there were eight feet of wnter from St. Louis to Cairo. No one could predict what there would be another year. And not until St. Louis is made the head of the river trunk will the river below Cairo or the river above it attain the trade it should carry, or will the Chicago route, the Upper Mississippi, or the Missouri begin to carry the trade to which each is entitled. It is estimated now that seventy million dollars will give a permanent, safe fourteen-foot channel from Cairo down, thirty million dollars wall carry it to St. Louis, and twenty-eight million dollars more to Lake Joliet and so to Chicago.

We have spent two hundred million dollars on the w’aters of the Mississippi system. Some years ago a Frenchman, M. Vétillart, came hither to prepare a report for his government on “Navigation in the United States.” He found then, and he would find to-day, that there is not in existence any map showing where the streams are on which this money has been spent, indicating the head of navigation on each, the amount of water in the streams, or the number of months during which the river can be used. There were three government departments having lists of navigable streams, and no two agreed in the number or the names, or in the hydrology of the streams. There was not in America a man who had looked at all of these streams as a system and understood their interrelations. Nor were there any reliable statistics of trade on them, nor any way to get such statistics. If he should come to-day, he would find that there are no two streams in America having the same size locks throughout, and hardly a single river having a uniform standard of lock chamber. He would find the Tennessee improved with locks of one size — and the size of the lock chamber prescribes the dimensions of the boat to use that river — and the Cumberland, a similar stream adjoining it and of the same depth, about to be blocked to all Tennessee River boats, with locks about eight feet narrower and considerably shorter. He would find, in fact, chaos ; and he would understand the helplessness with which the Rivers and Harbors Committee confessed to the last Congress that the nation is committed already to river projects which it will cost five hundred million dollars to complete, without any connection among these projects, no logical order of completion of them, and only favor and engineering reports as guides to direct Congress in spending its money this year on one, next year or next decade on another.

The demand of the Centre and of the nation that this shall be altered is not the only thing that brings Congress to a new attitude. We are in an epoch of hydroelectric development. Every river which is slackwatcred produces a large electric power. That power is developed at government expense, but in the past it has been given away to private persons to use as they would. Now, with several score dams under way or ordered, Congress faces the discovery that that power properly developed and sold will go a long way toward paying for the river improvements. Further, we are coming to an era of swamp drainage. Arkansas, Virginia, Minnesota, Florida, Missouri, Louisiana, are all draining large areas. This drainage is involved with river improvement. We are extending our irrigation work and taking water from our rivers for that. Yet there is no governmental body but an overworked Congress to determine the relations between these several activities.

What, then, are we coming to ? Surely to some simple solution of the whole problem of our national public works which will at the same time correlate the several branches and develop each branch systematically. To return again to the rivers and harbors, we need all the time a trained body — as efficient at least as the Interstate Commerce Commission — to consider all the time the whole problem of waterway improvement, inland and seaboard, and to view it as a unit. This commission needs to consider our internal and external trade, plat the rivers according to their eventual national utility, and plan for their systematic development, in order at the earliest possible moment to attain the use of them. It must adopt standards, so that rivers of A-class, for example, having let us say three-foot draft, shall have lock chambers all of A-size, and that on B-class rivers, which may include the fourfoot, lower reaches of the A-class, there shall be locks of the same size or larger, all B-standard, so that in ascending or descending the streams the A-class vessels may be certain that wherever they go there will be no obstruction between their home port and the sea, or between their home port and any other A-class port. This matter of gauge is as vital in rivers as it is in railway construction. It is so recognized abroad, where Germany, France, Austria, Hungary, and Russia have combined to adopt standard crosssections for their locks and canals, so that a vessel may pass from the Atlantic to the Black Sea overland, or from the Caspian to the Baltic.

This commission must consider possible by-profits of public work, such as that from waterpower. And it must be given the right to initiate systematic works and, upon their authorization by Congress, to carry them through to completion without the necessity of pleading annually for more funds. They must, as a matter of fact, treat public works as if they were private works, for the eventual benefit of the national corporation.

But after all, this is more than commission work. It is department work. Twenty years ago there was introduced into Congress a bill which became known as the Cullom-Breckenridge Bill, providing for the establishment of a Bureau of Public Works in the Department of War to be conducted by the United States Corps of Civil Engineers. It is to such a bill and to some modification of the French and Prussian systems that we must come. The Cullom-Breckenridge Bill was based upon the Prussian system, and had the support, as it was the project, of an Engineering Conference, including most of the important engineering societies of America. The Prussian system of public works upon which it was founded provides for a national technical school for the training of civil engineers for public work, just as army and navy engineers are now trained for their specialties in our country. Young men graduated from the high schools are there admitted and given a rigorous training in engineering, supplemented by a thorough study of the laws of hydraulics and hydrostatics, of meteorology, and all the allied studies which go to make a man river-wise. In our development of this idea all those experiments in the erosive power of water, which are discussed in books to which our army engineers have occasional access, should be the familiar laboratory work of the students. They should have as well a special commercial training, learning the source and the ultimate destination of our principal traffic movements. They must study the means of controlling and deepening rivers in flood and at low stages both here and abroad. And all this must be backed up by rigorous field work upon the rivers themselves.

With such a body of experts to carry on the work, with the creation of a systematic whole, with the determination — and it is law in Germany — not to begin a work until the money for it has been definitely set aside in the largest installments in which it can be used, we will face a wholly new condition in our river improvements. But we must not stop there. In order that we may use these rivers properly there must be a department of utilization which will acquaint our rivermen and merchants, as the Department of Agriculture does our farmers, with the best modern practice in other lands in the use of shallow and deep draft streams. And the value of these reports must be increased by the results of experiments, under tank and river conditions, with models of novel types of hull, of engine, and of propulseur.

This is work for more than a bureau in the War Department. It is work for a bureau in a Department of Public Works, along with bureaus to control irrigation, swamp-drainage, road-making, public building, and whatever other civil engineering activity comes up for governmental undertaking. When we have that, it will not matter so much whether we follow Congressman Bartholdt’s plan and issue bonds enough to carry out all the projects at once, or whether we use only the present twenty-five million dollars or even fifty million dollars a year, — so long as we take up and finish the principal projects, a few at a time, till we have deep water in all our seaboard harbors and rivers, fourteen feet from the lakes to the Gulf, nine feet to Pittsburg, six feet to Minneapolis, and six to Sioux City; and everywhere in the nation, instead of the lagging and disorderly projects of to-day, a swiftly evolving, comprehensive, national system of routes, alive from year’s end to year’s end with fleets of barges driven cheaply, and without undue risk, by economically designed power-boats. The grain of the West, the flour of the North, the wood and iron products of the Lakes, the steel of Pittsburg, will go steadily from the interior to the seaboard. Cotton goods from new centres will go to tidewater, to reach through Panama to western South America. From the Alleghanies to the liockies there will be intercommunication; and imports, without which foreign trade cannot exist, will pour in an increasing tide back from the seaboard to the most remote sections of the interior.

This is not a local matter or a sectional one. It is a national affair. We are a great public corporation. We have money to spend. We must face this sort of a revolution — that instead of so spending this money that each man in the nation may handle a dollar as it goes, we must so spend it that each man, east, west, or central, shall handle two dollars of the increment as it comes back.