In the early 19th century, the Corps constructed many projects in support of the Department of the Treasury. For instance, the Corps built three customs houses and more than half a dozen marine hospitals (to treat merchant seamen). These hospitals were built at such places as Napoleon, Arkansas; Paducah and Louisville, Kentucky; and Natchez, Mississippi. Also for the Department of Treasury, the Corps built a number of lighthouses. Between 1831 and 1851, engineer officers were regularly engaged in this duty, which often involved extraordinarily difficult and perilous construction challenges. In 1852 Congress established a Lighthouse Board, which included engineer officers, to superintend lighthouse construction. Eventually, Corps officers supervised the construction of dozens of lighthouses along the nation's coasts, including the Great Lakes.
The Corps also contributed substantially to the construction of many public buildings and monuments in Washington, D.C. This work began as early as 1822, when Isaac Roberdeau, a topographical engineer, supervised installation of cast iron pipes to bring spring water to the White House and surrounding executive offices. In 1853 responsibility for constructing permanent water supply facilities for Washington fell upon Lieutenant Montgomery C. Meigs. His project included two bridges later to carry traffic as well as water pipes over Cabin John and Rock creeks. Both bridges were engineering feats in their day. The Cabin John Bridge, built between 1857 and 1864, remained the world's longest masonry arch for more than 40 years and is still in use.
In 1867 Congress gave control of public parks and monuments to the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds under the chief of engineers and in 1878 replaced Washington's elected government with a three-man commission. An Army engineer holding the title of engineer commissioner for the District of Columbia served on that board and had responsibility for the city's physical plant until Congress approved the district's current home rule charter in 1967. During the last half of the 19th century, the Corps improved navigation on the Potomac River and its tributaries; expanded the local water supply system; completed the Washington Monument; helped design and construct numerous structures including the Executive Office Building, the Lincoln Memorial, the Library of Congress, and the Government Printing Office; undertook swamp reclamation which resulted in the Tidal Basin; and developed Rock Creek Park as a major urban recreation area.
Despite continuing congressional reservations about federal involvement, the Corps became involved in flood control after the Civil War. Particularly on large rivers such as the Mississippi, floods impaired commerce, destroyed property, and cost lives. In 1879 Congress created the Mississippi River Commission, composed of seven people: three from the Corps including the commission president, three from civilian life including at least two civil engineers, and one from the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. Congress created the commission to insure that the best advice from both the military and civilian communities was heard on the subject of improving the Mississippi River for navigation and flood control.
After much debate, the commission decided to rely principally on levees to protect the lower Mississippi Valley. Cooperating with local levee districts, the Mississippi River Commission oversaw the construction of many levees along the river. Later, this levee construction was supplemented with considerable dredging on the river. The commission also attempted to stop the erosion of banks by constructing willow mattresses. In the early 20th century, the Mississippi River Commission experimented with concrete mattresses. Learning both from the successes and failures of these experiments, the Corps developed the articulated concrete revetment that has been used for several decades to protect the banks of the lower Mississippi River.
Beginning in 1893, another important activity of the Corps of Engineers was the California Debris Commission, a three-member body of Army engineers charged to regulate the streams of California that had been devastated by the sediment washed into them from mining operations. Given substantial power by Congress, the California Debris Commission significantly reduced the stream damage caused by hydraulic mining. The Water Resources Development Act of 1986 eliminated this commission. Its work is now the responsibility of the Corps' South Pacific Division.
In 1917, as the United States prepared to enter World War I, the Corps could look back with satisfaction. The versatility, dedication, and intelligence of engineer officers were truly impressive. For instance, Chief of Engineers Henry M. Robert, who is best known as the author of Robert's Rules of Order, oversaw the planning of the Galveston Seawall, a major engineering project. As an engineer officer, Hiram M. Chittenden supervised the construction of roads, bridges, and aqueducts in Yellowstone National Park. He wrote a report on his survey of reservoir sites in Wyoming and Colorado that contributed to the establishment of what came to be called the Bureau of Reclamation, wrote several important works dealing with the early exploration of the Missouri River Basin by white men, and became a recognized expert on flood control. Finally, George W. Goethals' early work at Davis Island and Muscle Shoals gave him valuable engineering skills and management expertise to successfully finish the Panama Canal. The Panama Canal was built by the Panama Canal Commission, not as is commonly thought by the Corps of Engineers. However, through the efforts of engineer officers such as Goethals, who were detailed to the commission, some of the most difficult construction obstacles were overcome. The canal was opened in August 1914.
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