Rivers and waterways were the primary paths of commerce in the new country. They provided routes from western farms to eastern markets. They promised a new life to the seaboard émigré and financial reward for the Mississippi Valley merchant. Without its great rivers, the vast, thickly forested region west of the Appalachians would have remained impenetrable to all but the most resourceful early pioneers.
Consequently, western politicians such as Henry Clay agitated for federal assistance to improve rivers. At the same time, the War of 1812 showed the importance of a reliable inland navigation system to national defense. There was, however, a question as to whether transportation was, under the Constitution, a legitimate federal activity. This question was resolved when the Supreme Court ruled that the Commerce Clause of the Constitution granted the federal government the authority not only to regulate navigation and commerce, but also to make necessary navigation improvements.
The system of harbors and waterways maintained by the Corps of Engineers remains one of the most important parts of the nation's transportation system. The Corps maintains the nation's waterways as a safe, reliable and economically efficient navigation system. The 12,000 miles of inland waterways maintained by the Corps carry one sixth of the nation's inter-city cargo. The importance of the Corps mission in maintaining depths at more than 500 harbors, meanwhile, is underscored by an estimated one job in five in the United States being dependent, to some extent, on the commerce handled by these ports.
River and Harbor work by the Corps of Engineers in New England was initiated by a congressional appropriation of $20,000 on May 26, 1824, "to repair Plymouth Beach, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and thereby prevent the harbor at that place from being destroyed." From that initial project at America's first permanent settlement, New England District has completed 170 navigation projects, including 11 deep draft ports and adjacent waterways. The most visible of the Corps' navigation responsibilities in New England is the Cape Cod Canal, which has been operated by the federal government since 1928. The canal is 17.5 miles long and is traversed by 19,000 vessels annually. In addition, its recreation features attract over 10 million annual visitors to the project.
To see projects in each state, please click on one of the following links: