Defense Media Network

History of Army Corps of Engineers Projects: Panama Canal to World War II

Part 1

The evolution of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has mirrored the nation it serves. One of the most enduring themes of the two-century history of the Army Corps of Engineers is that as technology has developed, USACE has embraced it, reflecting its advance in the systems and facilities it has constructed to meet America’s challenges. Whether facing natural disasters or realigning military infrastructure, USACE has always built to order.

“The Corps of Engineers has been around for a long time,” said John Lonnquest, chief of the USACE Office of History. “What it has done has changed based on what the nation needs.”

In the 20th century, the United States’ needs grew exponentially. A burgeoning economy, population, and sense of ambition dictated the construction of a civil and military infrastructure to support it all. America’s maturation as a nation and as a world power was inextricably linked to the water.


The Panama Canal

USACE did not build the Panama Canal. But without the expertise and dedication of USACE engineers, America’s efforts to complete the canal project might have failed just as those of the French did before them.

Panama Canal Construction

The middle and lower Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal, looking north from the lighthouse on the west wall. In the distance is the Atlantic entrance of the canal, Oct. 27, 1913. Photo courtesy of Office of History, Headquarters, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

In 1904, the Theodore Roosevelt administration established the Isthmian Canal Commission to oversee the project. Its first chief engineer, John F. Wallace, formerly chief engineer and general manager of the Illinois Central Railroad, resigned a year later, unable to brook the lack of infrastructure, bureaucratic inefficiency, and tropical disease hampering it.

John Frank Stevens, who had built the Great Northern Railway, was subsequently appointed chief engineer. Stevens successfully argued for a change in the design to a canal and lock system, significantly improved canal project equipment and logistics, and collaborated in efforts to reduce the incidences of malaria. Nevertheless, he left the project in 1907 for more lucrative work.

President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Col. George W. Goethals to succeed Stevens as chief engineer, using the logic that “No. 1, an Army engineer couldn’t quit as the first two [civilian] engineers had and No. 2, the new plan called for locks, dams, concrete, things that Army engineers were used to dealing with,” USACE historian James Garber explained.

While the Panama Canal didn’t break new engineering ground, it was distinct in scale, location, and number of concurrent projects. Multiple dams, three sets of locks, and 10 miles of deep excavation were all done within a 60-mile radius. Railroad trains arrived at excavation locations once a minute to remove dirt, often carrying it 35 miles away.

“It was systems engineering at its finest,” Garber added.

Goethals abetted the process by dividing the engineering and excavation work into three divisions: the Atlantic Division, under Lt. Col. William L. Sibert; the Pacific Division, under Sydney B. Williamson (the only civilian member of the executive team); and the Central Division, under Lt. Col. David D. Gaillard.

Each of these men made huge contributions to canal construction and its ultimate completion in 1914. The decision to bring in USACE’s engineers to run the endeavor was instrumental to its success, said Garber. It was the highlight of the officers’ careers and a prime example of USACE personnel at work on projects beyond its specific scope.


The Federalization of Flood Control

Though it seems unimaginable today, flood control was not considered the responsibility of the federal government prior to the 20th century.

Beforehand, a patchwork of public and private dams and levees, many built during the 1850s, provided minor relief – particularly on the Mississippi River, where routine flooding became a vexing problem as human activity encroached. A succession of Mississippi and other large tributary floods would provide the catalyst for federal and USACE engagement. Such dams and levees as were previously built were funded by taxing state and local populations. Many of these were neglected and later destroyed during the Civil War, after which an impoverished South was unable to restore them.

But growing pressure for flood control and navigation improvements led to calls for federal involvement and to the 1879 establishment of the Mississippi River Commission, a body that included three members from USACE. The commission was authorized to build and repair levees largely to aid navigation, but dramatic Mississippi flooding in 1912 and 1913 led to federal legislation aimed specifically at flood control.

The first Flood Control Act of 1917, pushed by Democratic Sen. Joseph E. Ransdell of Louisiana and Democratic Rep. Benjamin G. Humphreys II of Mississippi, appropriated $45 million for flood control on the Lower Mississippi. A second Flood Control Act came in 1928, spurred by a catastrophic 1927 Lower Mississippi River flood that inundated more than 16 million acres, forced 500,000 people from their homes, and killed more than 250 residents.

“That was the big one in terms of convincing the federal government to direct massive resources to the flood control problem on the Lower Mississippi River,” USACE Historian Matt Pearcy said.

The Bonnet Carré Spillway in operation. Mississippi River, La., 1973. Photo courtesy of Office of History, Headquarters, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The Bonnet Carré Spillway in operation. Mississippi River, La., 1973. Photo courtesy of Office of History, Headquarters, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The Flood Control Acts drew USACE into a mission it had not participated in prior to 1917. Following the 1927 flood, the chief of engineers, Maj. Gen. Edgar Jadwin, drew up a new comprehensive plan requiring that the water be dispersed through controlled outlets and floodways as well as confined between levees. Congress approved this plan in the 1928 Flood Control Act, placing its implementation under the control of USACE. The legislation launched what today is called the Mississippi River and Tributaries (MR&T) project.

The MR&T project, designed entirely by USACE, is still under way. In 2011, it successfully handled floodwaters surpassing those of 1927, safely dispersing them to the Gulf of Mexico.

USACE’s responsibility for national flood control was codified in the 1936 Flood Control Act, the passage of which was inextricably linked to the New Deal civil works and jobs programs of the era.


The New Deal

Many images, mental and pictorial, of the New Deal are typically of huge water-related projects. This perception dovetails appropriately with USACE’s historical focus on water resources management, a mission that continues today. But the 1930s drive for New Deal civil works projects engaged USACE as never before, expanding its emphasis from navigation and flood control to multipurpose projects.

New Deal water management construction including dams provided flood control, irrigation, navigation, water supply, hydropower, and recreation. Navigation remained a priority with the dredging of a 9-foot channel on the Upper Mississippi, Ohio, and several other major tributaries.

USACE’s civil works portfolio expanded significantly during the New Deal. A slew of projects studied for possible execution in the late 1920s suddenly received federal funding and went forward as a result of New Deal initiatives. Their intent and execution were later echoed in the “stimulus bill” of 2008. For example, USACE historians can point to 1930s-vintage photos of men at work on USACE projects along the southeast Washington, D.C., waterfront that compare with similar photos of projects performed under the recently completed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. While the level of mechanization is far different, the symbolism is similar.

Military Construction, World War II

“The Corps of Engineers’ only significant military construction prior to World War II was limited to coastal fortifications. We started with civil works in 1824 and that’s largely what we did, with the exception of coastal fortifications – Fort McHenry and the like,” said Lonnquest.

In the 1920s and 1930s, USACE engineers were utterly absorbed administering the organization’s massive civil works program, whose budget in 1938 was nearly 400 times greater than its military budget. But as the United States geared up for war, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration judged that the Army Quartermaster Corps was not up to the task of handling the sheer volume of military construction it foresaw.

history of the Army Corps of Engineers

The Bonneville Works Progress Administration Project on the Columbia River, 40 miles east of Portland, Ore., Oct. 26, 1936. Shown is the Bradford Island fish ladder from the south end of the main dam. Photo courtesy of the Office of History, Headquarters, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

After the Destroyers for Bases Agreement of September 1940, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall assigned USACE the job of constructing air bases in the string of British Atlantic territories from Newfoundland to British Guiana. USACE was also asked to begin doing runway construction for the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Administration. In 1941, Congress formally transferred the military construction mission to USACE.

Tapping USACE was a logical decision. It had engineer districts nationwide with experienced construction managers. It also had established relationships with all major American construction firms.

“Overnight the Corps’ workload literally exploded,” Lonnquest explained.

Over the next four years, USACE completed 27,000 military construction projects valued at $15 billion, including housing for 5.3 million soldiers, and aircraft, tank, and ammunition plant construction. It built signature American facilities like the Pentagon, which it completed in 16 months. It put up the infrastructure for the Manhattan Project at a cost of $2 billion, employing 120,000 people in the effort to develop the atomic bomb. USACE also built overseas, preparing staging areas in England and carving out the Ledo Road in Burma.

This article originally appeared in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Building Strong®, Serving the Nation and the Armed Forces 2012-2013 Edition.


Eric Tegler is a writer/broadcaster from Severna Park, Md. His work appears in a variety...