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Building Texas: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

This Primary Source Adventure (PSA) will expose the learner to the important role that the United States Army Corps of Engineers had on Texas and America.

    To explore how the Civil Corps of Engineers have had a significant impact on Texas citizens and Texas lakes, students are presented images and documents from the Portal to Texas History. Army Corps of Engineers image

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Building Texas: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

by Vale Fitzpatrick

In 1794 Congress organized the Corps of Artillerists and Engineers, but it was not until 1802 that it established a separate corps of engineers; the Corp’s existence dates from this year. At the same time Congress established a military academy at West Point, New York. During the first half of the 19th century West Point was the major and for a time, the only engineering school in the country. It was not until 1866 that a non engineer was appointed superintendent of West Point.

The young American nation depended on commerce, and its waterways were the lifeblood commerce. The Corps of Engineers, with its work on canals, rivers, and roads created routes from western farms to eastern markets and passages through the Appalachian Mountains to the frontier facilitating settlement.

The Corps of Engineers contributed to many aspects of United States development. They constructed the National Road between Cumberland, Maryland, and Vandalia, Illinois, throughout 1811-1841, in which the first cast iron bridge in the United States was constructed. In 1819 John C. Calhoun, then Secretary of War, recommended that the Corps of Engineers improve waterway navigation and other transportation systems to facilitate Army movements while facilitating national growth. Congress passed the General Survey Act which authorized the President to use army engineers to survey road and canal routes, and appropriated funds for improving navigation on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. By 1829, the Corps of Engineers were using snag boats to clear the rivers. This marked the beginning of the Corps’ dual role of civil and military engineering projects. The Corps would build dams, deepen and widen rivers, and create cannels and shipping locks. Such improvements proved crucial to the economic growth of the young nation. The Corps began to create detailed reports on rivers such as the Mississippi which allowed levees and dams to be built for flood control, a task they continue to execute. By 1852 the Corps of Engineers had assumed responsibility for supervising lighthouse construction.

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The Army Corps of engineers was responsible for coastal defense and until the 1860s planned and erected such fortifications. When costal fortifications became obsolete the Corps constructed other means of defense.

The Army Corps of Engineers was appointed to complete the Panama Canal project after the civilian chief engineers resigned. The project was never the responsibility of the Corps’ but its engineering officers supervised the project. The years following World War I were famine years for the War Department, as the American people reverted to their traditional postwar custom of reducing the military to a skeleton force. The war to end all wars had been fought and won. Disarmament, neutrality, and isolationism were widely accepted as desirable and attainable goals by the American populace.1

During the depression, operating under the aegis of the Civilian Works Administration (CWA), the U.S. Army Construction Division had its first experience with “make work” projects. In the first few months, the division spent $24.3 million at 265 posts, cemeteries, and guard camps and employed 55,000 men. The bulk of the money went for wages, and virtually all the work was of a pick and shovel variety: improving drainage, grading roads, and the like. In 1935 Congress authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to supplement its “308 reports” with studies to take into account important changes in economic factors as they occur and additional stream flow records or other factual data. This authority endowed the Corps with broad reaching authority to undertake continuing river basin planning, with an emphasis on navigation and flood control.

During World War II a significant amount of home front construction was undertaken by the U.S. Army Quartermasters Corps and the Corps of Engineers, which amounted to more than 27,000 projects, costing 15.3 billion dollars (1970s prices). Among its major projects were military camps and cantonments to house 5.3 million troops; plants to mass-produce explosives, ammunition, tanks, and planes; hospitals providing nearly half a million beds; a huge network of ports and depots; improvements to principal waterways and flood protection for vital industries; bomber bases which entailed a whole new technology; the Pentagon building; and facilities for the Manhattan Project.2

The Corps of Engineers and its officers had been directly involved in one of the most momentous engineering events of this century, The Manhattan Project. Major General Leslie R. Groves, formerly Deputy Chief of the Construction Division in the Corps was named to direct the Manhattan project. Further, during the cold war, the Army Engineering Corp’s was responsible for most military construction of all Air Force and Army bases, early warning stations, missile silos, and other military facilities. Their engineering expertise was once called upon to oversee NASA’s accelerated construction during the early 1960s.

After World War II the United States Army Corps of Engineers also provided engineering assistance to other nations, in Greece (1947-1949) the Corp administered and supervised large scale civilian works, in addition it provided technical expertise and training to native contractors and artisans. This served the greater purpose of restoring the economy of a friendly nation. The Army Corps of Engineers reconstructed about 900 miles of highway, rebuilt three major ports, restored railroad bridges and tunnels totaling some two miles and upgraded ten airfields, and repaired the Corinth Canal after removing one million cubic yards of earth. Actual construction time was a year and a half.

Today the Corps of Engineers continues in its job of building American infrastructure. The Corps operates, maintains, and occasionally adds capacity at existing hydroelectric plants. In recent years the Corps has become a target of environmental groups. In 1969 the long running dredging program was attacked as environmentally unsound. “All of a sudden, dredging became a four letter word,” remarked Lieutenant General John Morris of the Army Corps of Engineers. “Now this came as rather a surprise to us, since dredging has been a daily activity within the Corps for 150 years and nobody paid much attention to it.” 3 After eight years (1970-78), Congress completed its environmental impact study which concluded that dredging did not have adverse impacts on aquatic life and that dredged materials could be used to create new wetlands. Environmental groups continue to subject the Corps of Engineers to numerous time consuming and expensive lawsuits.

As part of their duties the Corps of Engineers conducts studies on numerous issues, such as water quality, environmental impact, engineering evaluations, and special studies. Such as the A Water Quality in the Rio Grande Basin report on Toxic Substances Study, which was a joint Mexican/United States, research study into the toxic parameters, of the Rio Grande. Reports such as these can have political consequences as Mexico did not react well to the report’s conclusion that it was responsible for contributing most of the toxicants listed in the study.

Water is essential to life, in Texas one key source of potable drinking water are lakes. Modern Texas is blessed by having many lakes, however, nearly all are artificial. Caddo Lake is the only natural major lake in the state. Reservoirs such as Lake Texoma, on the Red River, Toledo Bend Reservoir, on the Sabine River, Sam Rayburn Reservoir, and Lake Lewisville, were all created under the direction of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, thus making Texas a much more habitable state.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers supports the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) response to natural disasters. After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Corps engaged more than 3,800 personnel or more than ten percent of the Corps’ total manpower in relief and reconstruction efforts.


1Jesse A. Remington & Lenore Fine. United States Army In World War II: The Technical Services: The Corps of Engineers: Construction in the United States. (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History United States Army, 2003), 42.

2Fine & Jesse A. Remington. United States Army In World War II: The Technical Services The Corps of Engineers: Construction in the United States. (Washington, D.C. Center of Military History United States Army, 2003)

3The History of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Alexandria, Virginia: Office of History: Headquarters, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1998), 58-59.