History of the Intracoastal Waterway - Part 2

In Part 1 of the History of the ICW, we looked at how the Intracoastal Waterway was an undeveloped area that was much needed for trade and that getting improvements made was not as easy as it sounded until the right people stepped in. In part 2, you’ll be able to get a better look at how things changed once the 19th century continued on and what took place into the 20th century. Then, take a look at how that has affected what the area is used for today.

Developing the ICW in the 19th century

When the General Survey Act took place in 1824 that stated that the president has the authorization to have surveys made for any points of interest to the country where routes could be used for transportation, Gallatin’s Intracoastal plans were to be worked on once and for all. The proposed sections of his plan were finally built, such as the Cape Cod Canal and the Delaware and Raritan Canal.

Later in 1826, Congress decided to allow for the first survey for a canal on the inland side, between the Gulf and the ocean which also led to the growth of steam power for transportation on both land and sea. The coastal improvements continued going forward, such as the Houston Ship Channel, but things suffered when the Civil War concluded. There also became a larger priority in railroad transportation over water transport, but water transport still had something going for it that railroad travel did not: a larger hauling capacity.

Finally around the 1880’s is when Congress decided it wanted to improve the waterways to allow for transportation competition and the 1882 act was signed to help in the development of waterways with freedom from tolls. Unfortunately, President Chester Arthur vetoed this but it was passed anyway and the freedom from tolls and taxes on waterways was promoted by Congress.

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How things evolved in the 20th century and today

Once the 20th century rolled around, the diesel engine had just been invented and was being used in transportation fuels from coal and steam. Fuel consumption was up and studies began to find the most efficient methods for moving cargo.

Now that the channels were deepened, steering improved and simultaneously the Panama Canal Act was passed to revive waterway transportation in this country, opening the Panama Canal for coastal shipping to reach the west coast finally. When World War I took place, it was noticeable the need for bulk cargo transport and Congress decided to establish the Federal Barge Lines to create cheaper ways to transport farming supplies.

Things continued to evolve in the 1920s with the beginning of water carrier operations, the construction of both the Louisiana and Texas Intracoastal Waterways, surveying the area east of New Orleans, and the passing of the River and Harbor Act of January 21, 1927. There was a big wakeup call once World War II arrived, when German submarines sank our merchant ships on the East Coast, highlighting the importance of efficient transportation within the continental US.

Today, the waterway has many spots of shallow waters despite the law requiring minimum depths of 12 feet throughout, but funding has been an issue. Fuel taxes are charged since there are no tolls and this helps to maintain facilities. The ICW spans the Eastern Seaboard, beginning around New Jersey’s Manasquan River, connecting at the Manasquan Inlet and extending to Brownsville, Texas at the Gulf of Mexico. It’s used to today for a heavy amount of commercial activity, but of course, also for recreational purposes.

You’ll often see snowbirds moving south for the winter or north for the summer along the ICW, or for days when the ocean is too rough for travel. It’s easy to travel since there are several rivers allowing access to ports like the Mississippi, Savannah, and the Hudson.

If you’ve ever wondered the backstory of the Intracoastal Waterway’s network of canals, rivers, bays, and inlets along the Eastern Seaboard, this is a look at where it began and how it progressed as a form of water transportation.

Today, it makes for the perfect boating vacation, such as to Fort Lauderdale’s Millionaire’s Row or to head out from Jacksonville on a seven-day cruise, but it was once used simply to allow for a safer way to do business away from the ocean. Enjoy vacationing on the ICW knowing that it has had a long history of evolving into what it is today.