Popular Science Monthly/Volume 72/April 1908/Our Inland Waterways

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APRIL, 1908




WE are in the throes of our second waterway agitation. The movement extends from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the Great Lakes to the Gulf, and involves every state and territory. The first agitation followed hard on the Revolution, and in far-reaching effect shared with the Declaration of Independence the distinction of opening the most important era in American history; the present agitation seems to promise a peaceful yet potent revolution in our material progress and in appreciation of the fundamental elements of national character and strength.

The Early Agitation and its Results

When the American colonies revolted against a tax imposed by a foreign monarchy the pendulum of feeling swung far toward purely local self-government throughout independent states. Yet within five years after the states were established and loosely confederated, questions of interstate relations arose; and when George Washington and others foresaw the increasing importance of commerce, and sought to develop the requisite facilities in connection with the typical interstate Potomac River, they induced Virginia and Maryland jointly to create a commission to devise plans of procedure. This was our original Inland Waterways Commission, the prototype, too, of the Interstate Commerce Commission; it represented the first recurrent swing of the pendulum toward interdependent organization. The commissioners met at Alexandria in March, 1785, and adjourned to Mount Vernon as Washington's guests. Obstacles arose, especially in the prevailing sentiment for supreme state autonomy; and with the view of increasing both the wisdom and the weight of their findings, they ended by arranging an interstate conference in Annapolis in 1786. Here opinion took shape as to the use of interstate and other waterways (then the sole lines of commercial movement) and as to the interdependence of the states; yet so many collateral questions arose, and so decided need was felt for larger authority, that no final action was taken beyond arranging for a joint convention of delegates from the several states to be held in Philadelphia in 1787. This convention, designed primarily to consider interstate commerce and waterways, took up also other relations between the states; the delegates found themselves confronted by the gravest possible questions affecting the prosperity and perpetuity of their respective communities and commonwealths; they deliberated and gradually adjusted these with intelligence and integrity unsurpassed in assemblages of men—and the outcome was the American Constitution, which made the infant commonwealths a nation.[1]

The work of the first waterways commission is significant in its bearing on later conditions and events—even to-day. In a sense the world was young in 1785; the sum of knowledge was but half, the knowledge of North America hardly a hundredth part, of that now prevailing—yet the original commissioners and first conferees and final delegates all took stock, so well as might be, of state and national possessions as affecting the conditions and prospects for the perpetuity of a growing country. To them and to the people who later adopted their findings land was the primary value, minerals a casual adjunct, forests an obstruction to travel and settlement yet a convenience, water an incident though a means of commerce, riparian rights an abstract albeit obstructive inheritance; and in the light of these views of fundamental values (the essential factors of national growth), certain powers were expressly granted by the people to the federal government, certain rights were expressly given or denied to the states, and any inchoate powers and rights were implicitly reserved for future division in accordance with the eternal principles recognized and set down—and without which were the constitution, in the words of Marshall, "a splendid bauble" (McCulloch v. Maryland et al.; Dillon's compilation, 1903, p. 277). Perhaps because it was what the great jurist afterward described as the "oppressed and degraded state of commerce" (Brown v. Maryland; ibid., p. 539) that led to the creation of the commission and so to the conference and convention, the "commerce clause" of the constitution is notably condensed and comprehensive—so condensed that even within the lifetime of many of its framers the genius of Marshall was invoked to define it in opinions demonstrating that the object of the instrument was to permit rather than to prevent exercise of governmental functions, so comprehensive that it has met and promises forever to meet a growth of commerce transcending the most roseate dreams possible in 1787.

The first-fruit of the constitution was renewed activity in commercial development: Washington's difficulties on the Potomac passed, and he planned an adjunct canal to connect the long-settled tide-water region with the virgin Ohio country beyond the mountains; Dewitt Clinton evolved his then stupendous project of uniting the Atlantic seaboard and Lake Erie by an artificial waterway; and just a century ago Albert Gallatin, sustained by the sympathy of Thomas Jefferson, outlined a plan for waterway improvement and commercial development which in broad adjustment of the means and ends of national development has never been surpassed and seldom approached.

With the conquest of natural power through the control of steam (which indeed led to one of Marshall's masterly interpretations of the "commerce clause") conditions changed, and the railway opened an era in settlement and production such as the world never before saw and may not see again—indeed, while material and immaterial agencies can not well be compared, it is not too much to say that just as the American constitution made our nation, so the American railway made our country a world-power. Population and riches beyond the imaginings of the nation's founders followed and were bound by the iron bands until great commonwealths bridged the continent, until it were easier to think of millions than of thousands before, until one seventh of our swollen wealth came to be railway property and its ownership a factor in law-making, until every-day ideas of domestic travel and transportation came to connote railways alone.

Meantime the prophetic visions of Washington and Jefferson and Clinton and Gallatin faded—for a time. True, the canals projected by the earlier commissioners along the Potomac and connecting Delaware and Chesapeake Bays were constructed, Erie Canal was completed, the Delaware and Raritan, Morris, Lehigh and a dozen others were put into operation—yet they gradually passed into the ownership or controlling influence of railway corporations, and half of them were virtually abandoned. True, the steam packet traffic of the Mississippi and Ohio attained high efficiency and a sumptuousness of appointment starting back-woods simplicity toward culture, while the Missouri was so navigated as to open the opulent storehouses of the vast northwest—yet, as railway enterprise grew and the slip-shod ways of slave-labor passed, the territory was tapped and the traffic transferred to overland lines until river traffic was virtually dead, the water-fronts of every river town from St. Paul to New Orleans (save "Natchez on the Hill") controlled by railway interests, and the once resplendent river vessels reduced to rattletraps. True, federal provision for river improvement continued sporadically under what was long jocosely styled the "pork barrel" committee, from which the stigma finally faded under the leadership of the stainless and brilliant Burton, until the aggregate expenditures for rivers and canals reached several hundred millions—yet the federal policy remained repressive and commonwealths and capitalists held aloof: there was never a cabinet officer charged with the duty of developing or maintaining commerce by water, the admirable engineer corps was barred from initiative by custom and even by law, the Rivers and Harbors Committee found its chief function in scaling down or turning down estimates and projects presented by the people. Mechanism for progress there was none; of means of repression there were many. And population and production gradually overtook and then outpassed railway capacity.

The Re-awakening

Shortly after the abundant harvests of 1906 were gathered a great popular movement began to stir the interior and the west, and a cry went up against an intangible but real tyranny of transportation that barred produce from markets and withheld supplies from the producers. The movement did not arise in a day; by some it was foreseen for months, by others it was felt only when the pinch of winter came with fuel-famine and need for clothing and transported food-stuffs; yet even by mid-autumn some millions of citizens were astir—far more than felt the thrall of foreign stress a century and a third before. At first the movement was vague and without definite aim; groups met for discussion, conferences were called, complaints were voiced, and then county boards and state legislatures were invoked, and national law-makers were deluged with appeals from half a million constituents. The situation was simple—within a decade the productions of the northern interior had doubled, while transportation facilities had increased but a small fraction. Fortunately it was sized first by railway men: there were not cars enough; neither were there locomotives enough to move the cars required for the products, nor tracks enough to carry the trains; there were not terminals enough for the rolling stock, nor could these be acquired without imposing a ruinous burden; there was not iron enough in the country to build the cars and locomotives and tracks, not available labor enough to mine and smelt the ore—and besides the cost (estimated, e. g., by James J. Hill at $5,000,000,000 to $8,000,000,000, or one third to one half of our aggregate railway investments) would consume so large a part of our currency as to paralyze other business. Even if the extension were possible, the relief would be but temporary; with normal growth of the country and ordinary increase in production it would be effective for only seven to ten years. So railway magnates and the masses began to see alike that the congestion of freight was a general condition affecting every industry and the entire country, and one not to be remedied by local and temporary means. Thenceforward discussions and conventions took a definite aim—and for the first time in our industrial history, railway corporations, commercial organizations, producers, and consumers, all united in a common movement for the common good.

Seen large, our primary industries are production and distribution, the latter effected by trade and transportation; and in 1906 it became clear that production had so far outgrown transportation and trade (including every phase of merchandising and banking and broking) as to prevent the normal development of either—i. e., entire sections of the country were confronted by the stern necessity of finding new and more economical transportation facilities, or else ceasing to develop. In fact while citizens and statesmen were seeking facilities and discussing the resumption of water traffic, settlement and production actually stopped over scores of thousands of square miles in the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon and California: nor can it recommence, save perhaps feebly and sporadically, until transportation is provided. For conditions are changing: In the first place, human nature being as it is, the luxuries of yesterday are the necessities of to-day, so that the time of the independent and self-supporting squatter family has passed, and that of the interdependent settlement or community united on the joint basis of human sympathy and convenient currency has come in its stead. In the second place, water and fuel are no longer mere redundancies if not obstructions to settlement, but essentials to be gained only through collective action. In the third place, the multiplication of communities necessarily involves a much more rapid increase of lines of communication, in accordance with the mathematical law of combination: two communities may be connected by one line, while three communities require three lines; four demand six lines, five need 10 lines, six, 15 lines, eight, 28 lines, twelve, 66 lines; if the lines were not combined, the county seats of a state of a hundred counties would require 4,950 lines of communication to connect them, while the thousand towns of a section would require 49,950 lines—so that a reason for the breaking down of transportation systems in a growing country is the inexorable physical law under which the lines connecting communities increase in rapid ratio. Thus the congestion of traffic in the land of magnificent distances forming the interior and the west in 1906 was inevitable; production and trade had simply outgrown transportation facilities; the railways failed because the marts were too far apart for their carrying capacity—and the old-time packets were gone!

Creation of the Waterways Commission

Of the conventions of 1906, two were especially effective; that of November in St. Louis, out of which grew the Lakes-to-Gulf Deep Waterway Association, and the Washington session of the Rivers and Harbors Congress in December, at which the attendance and interest were beyond precedent. During the latter, strong delegations called on the president, the speaker of the house, the chairman of the Rivers and Harbors Committee; and later the Lakes-to-Gulf Deep Waterway Association led in petitions to the president from organizations of citizens in the interior to "appoint and empower a commission or board of five persons to prepare and report a comprehensive plan for the improvement and control of the Mississippi River system and other inland waterways in such manner that the rivers of the country may be fully utilized for navigation and other industrial purposes." Meantime the Rivers and Harbors Committee reported a bill providing for a somewhat similar commission, though in the pressure attending the closing days of a short session it failed of final action. A score of petitions reached the president during the first week of March, 1907; and on March 14, after combining the two movements toward the same end, he created the present Inland Waterways Commission of nine members, through an instrument of signal vigor and originality:

In creating this Commission I am influenced by broad considerations of national policy. . . . Our inland waterways as a whole have thus far received scant attention. It is becoming clear that our streams should be considered and conserved as great natural resources. . . . The time has come for merging local projects and uses of the inland waters in a comprehensive plan designed for the benefit of the entire country. . . . The task is a great one, yet it is certainly not too great for us to approach. The results which it seems to promise are even greater. . . . The present congestion affects chiefly the people of the Mississippi Valley, and they demand relief. When the congestion of which they complain is relieved, the whole country will share the good results. . . . It is not possible to frame so large a plan. . . for the control of our rivers without taking account of the orderly development of other natural resources. . . . The cost will necessarily be large,. . . but it will be small in comparison with the $17,000,000,000 of capital now invested in steam railways,. . . [which] investment has been a constant source of profit to the people, and without it our industrial progress would have been impossible.

These fundamental utterances, with requisite explication of details, outlined a policy to which people and press responded with enthusiasm.

The commission began active work on the Mississippi in May, followed by inspection trips through the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi and lower Missouri in September and October. They were accompanied by the president from Keokuk to Memphis in what was designed as a simple inspection yet proved to be at once the most notable pageant in the history of the Mississippi Valley and the most impressive demonstration any president ever saw—for in addition to the fact of his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt was as a Moses leading the people from an "oppressed and degraded state of commerce" in which they found themselves beleaguered, as did their forebears a century and a quarter before. Nearly all the water craft of the river system were assembled; railways abandoned schedules and stopped freight traffic to accommodate specials; entire towns were evacuated that the inhabitants might gather on the river front. On the average each river town—Keokuk, Quincy, Hannibal, Louisiana, St. Louis, Cape Girardeau, Ste. Genevieve, Cairo, Memphis, and the rest—showed more spectators standing out to salute the presidential party than its entire population; while day and night the air was rent with acclamations of voice, steam whistle, shrieking siren, salvo of guns, and roar and rattle of fireworks.

Individual members of the commission, singly or in groups, studied the Ohio, the upper Missouri and its tributaries, the vast Columbia Valley and Puget Sound, the California rivers, Rio Colorado, the streams of the Gulf slope, and the waters and projects of the Atlantic slope. And the interest of citizens grew in every state, until the autumn of 1907 produced such a crop of conventions and such a volume of support for waterway improvement as no other peaceful issue ever evoked. The Irrigation Congress in Sacramento in September; the Lakes-to-Gulf meeting at Memphis, the Upper Mississippi Improvement convention at Moline, the Interstate Waterway convention at Victoria (Texas), and the celebration of the opening of Hennepin Canal at Sterling, in October; the Trans-Mississippi Congress at Muskogee, the Atlantic Deeper Waterway conference at Philadelphia, the Drainage Congress at Baltimore, the Gulf State Waterway convention at Birmingham, and the Ohio Improvement Association meeting at Wheeling, in November; the National Rivers and Harbors Congress at Washington in December—these were among the national or interstate conventions devoted either primarily or secondarily to waterway improvement and attended by hundreds or thousands of delegates from every state and territory and representing every industrial and public interest of the country during the closing months of 1907. And state executives have commenced to combine not only with their constituents but with each other; at Sacramento there were five governors, at Memphis eighteen, at Muskogee and Washington half a dozen each and at several others from one to three.

Nor is this the end: Under their broad instructions the commission found it needful to consider not merely the improvement of our rivers but the use and conservation of related resources; and deeming the proper administration of these a duty devolving jointly on the nation and the states, they asked the president to follow Washington's example by invoking the advice of our several co-sovereignties in a conference on the conservation of natural resources. Acceding to the request, the president has invited all the governors of states and territories (each with three advisers) to convene in the White House in May next and discuss ways and means of conserving the waters and other resources of the country with him and with those cabinet officers, justices of the supreme court, senators, and representatives whose duties may permit attendance—and nearly all the executives have already accepted and named their coadjutors.

So the events of the young century strikingly duplicate those immediately succeeding American Independence: Again questions of commerce and interstate relations have become paramount—and in multiplied magnitude and complexity; again it has become necessary to take stock of those material possessions on which the perpetuity of our people must depend—though now the possessions comprise not only the land areas contemplated by the founders but the still greater values residing in waters and woods and mines and soils, which were inchoate then but have come into actuality and dominance through the natural growth and orderly development of the nation; again it seems necessary for a waterways commission to appeal from its own court to an interstate conference representing that highest tribune, the poeple—though now the appeal can not result in a federal constitution (which came from the former in such perfection as to meet all later needs), yet can hardly fail to bring about a closer readjustment of the magnified sovereignties and multiplied possessions developed on that fundamental platform. The president has expressed the feeling that the May conference promises to be one of the most important assemblages in our history; and the people and the press have concurred with a unanimity seldom evoked, and giving assurance that the anticipation will be realized.

Nor is it to be forgotten that in advocating the development of our natural channels of commerce, Roosevelt is but following the footsteps of Washington and Jefferson, and Root but treading the path blazed by his early predecessor Gallatin; though they are supported in cabinet, notably by the progressive Secretaries Garfield and Wilson, far more vigorously than were the pioneers—indeed, never before have a people and an administration been so firmly united in efforts to improve an "oppressed and degraded state of commerce" with the attendant conditions of national prosperity.

The Need for Navigation

The most pressing demand of the day connected with our inland waterways is for navigation and carriage of freight. The need is urgent. The notably reserved and cautious Interstate Commerce Commission has just declared:

It may conservatively be stated that the inadequacy of transportation facilities is little less than alarming; that its continuation may place an arbitrary limit on the future productivity of the land; and that the solution of the difficult financial and physical problems involved is worthy the most earnest thought and effort of all who believe in the full development of our country and the largest opportunity for its people.

While we now have 26,200 miles of navigable rivers and some 2,800 miles of canals in operation (with nearly as much more inoperative or abandoned) which during 1904 carried, respectively, 127,000,000 and 5,000,000 tons of freight, we have also 222,500 miles of railways which during 1906 carried 1,631,374,219 tons—i. e., although the United States has a more extensive and better distributed natural system of inland waterways than any other country, and despite the fact that water carriage costs on the average but a third or a fourth as much as rail carriage, less than one ninth of our freight lines are waterways, and only one twelfth of our commodities are carried by water. And of our aggregate assets of say $107,000,000,000, our steam railways have risen to some $16,000,000,000 or $18,000,000,000, or nearly one sixth, which even at first sight seems out of proportion; and the disproportion becomes still more glaring when current production is compared with railway earnings—the former in 1906 reaching $7,000,000,000 to $10,000,000,000 (according to mode of estimate of farm products) and the latter $2,325,765,167, or fully one fourth as much. The case is clear; we are employing extravagant agencies and paying exorbitant rates for transportation; the prices of our staples depend too little on cost of production, too largely on cost of carriage.

The condition is not new, only grown worse yearly; it led largely to the establishment of the Department of Commerce and Labor, and wholly to the creation of some of its bureaus; it has led to legislation in several states, and thence to conflict between state and federal authority in a number of cases; and above all else it has led to such paralysis of settlement and production as to check the growth of the country. In a dozen states the "oppressed and degraded state of commerce" is not an idle phrase; it denotes a condition now intolerable, and soon to be suicidal unless relieved, and that by measures both prompt and permanent. Our productions are ample and our ports sufficient to maintain a beneficial balance of international trade; yet products and ports were but a burden unless the one can be laid down at the other at prices permitting interchange with the rest of the world. Our Panama Canal is a gateway to the nations—yet of what profit to us unless our exports can be delivered on the sea-board at a competitive figure, i. e., at a reasonable increase on the cost of production? The time has come to inquire whether Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle are to be gateways for growth or mere leak-holes of national wealth; whether the advantages of great-circle steam-lines may not overbalance productivity and transfer dominant commercial lines and centers beyond our boundaries; whether we are able to balance our magnificent distances and splendid productivity in such wise as to maintain that economy of transportation and reasonableness of delivery of both imports and exports requisite for a world-power! The questions are nation-wide. Twenty-odd states and forty million inhabitants of the interior are actually suffering from the congestion; fifteen states and thirty million people on the Atlantic coast are complaining under imposts of burdensome traffic; the western states with their seven millions, which would triple in ten years were the burden removed, find their growth paralyzed by the same cause.

Will the improvement of waterways and the restoration of water traffic bring relief? Certainly the plan promises much, while no other promises anything. It has been estimated that our 29,000 miles of inland waterways (exclusive of lakes, bays, sounds, etc.) might be doubled at a cost of $500,000,000 to $800,000,000,[2] i. e., one tenth of the amount required to raise railways to the capacity required to-day; and it is safe to say that when the nation adopts a progressive waterway policy, private enterprise will build the boats—and that when this is done our great productive areas can deliver exports at and receive imports from the coast cities at an average of not more than half and probably less than a third of the present cost. With the readjustment of transportation lines, the railways might change from trans-continental carriers of bulk freight to feeders of the waterways; yet their efficiency as public utilities need not decline, and their profits might increase, as recently held by President Harahan (of the Illinois Central Railway). The superior economy of water transportation, which has been shown statistically over and over again, may be illustrated by the fact that a river packet can be built at a cost of two miles of railway (including rolling stock but not right-of-way or terminals) and will carry three 400-ton train-loads of freight; or that a tow and barges suited to the Mississippi-Ohio traffic can be built for the cost of four or five miles of railway and will carry 150 train-loads; or that the entire cost of waterway development contemplated would hardly suffice to build and equip a single trans-continental double-track railway with the requisite rights-of-way and terminals.

Nor is waterway improvement a new venture, involving unknown factors: Many of the problems were solved practically by Washington and Clinton and their contemporaries through canal systems that would unquestionably be in use to-day had not the railways better met temporary needs; most of the rest have been solved in European countries that are to-day better advanced than ourselves both in waterway development and in that adjustment of transportation to production on which national prosperity must depend. In the light of this experience it would seem easy to return to and perfect Gallatin's great waterway system; and in the light of present needs, it should begin in the interior with a deep channel from the Great Lakes to the Gulf, and in the East with an Inner Passage from Massachusetts to Florida—and these main arteries should be coupled with passages skirting the Gulf coast and with improved tributaries in such manner that standardized barges may pass from Benton to Boston or to Brownsville, or from any lake port to any sea port with some choice of routes: and eventually through the Minnesota and Red River of the North to Lake Winnepeg and Hudson Bay, in order that the grain-fields of the Canadian plains may find outlet to the sea during a longer open season than that of Hudson Strait. And at the same time the pressing need of the Pacific Coast should be met; the treasure-houses of the Columbia and Snake should be unlocked and a way made into Puget Sound, while the golden gardens of California Valley should be opened to ships going down to the sea in order that the grains and fruits now rotting in bin and on branch may be turned to human good and national welfare. The details are innumerable; the demands irresistible.

Among the waterways, three or four should be improved not merely to meet commercial needs, but as a patriotic duty: First in importance is the Lakes-to-Gulf project; for should disaster befall and Canada pass into unfriendly hands, the enemy might within a week put war vessels into the Lakes through Welland Canal or the still larger Huron Canal (of which we hear little thus far), in which case catastrophe could be averted only by a waterway of war-ship capacity from the Gulf to Lake Michigan. Scarcely less important is the protected passage projected for the Atlantic slope, though since the baseless Cervera scare the details need not be pursued; while the connection of the Columbia with Puget Sound, and the extension of San Francisco and Suisun bays need no more than mention in connection with the military possibilities of the day and the "national defense" of the founders.

The Value of Water in Itself

While navigation is the most pressing use for our waterways, there are others of no less present value and future promise. Neither Washington's waterway commissioners nor their successors took much account of water save as a way for commerce; they failed to recognize water in itself as a resource and hence an object of property, except vaguely under the imported common-law notion of riparian rights—i. e., rights vesting essentially in the land with the water as an appurtenance thereto. Now as settlement extended into the arid regions, the pioneers learned through the bitterest experiences within human capacity that water itself is a primary value, indeed the greatest of all values; and gradually a new concept arose, under which individuals, then communities, and finally (in some cases) states came to recognize actual ownership in water.[3] As the concept took form it became clear that the value of land itself—the chief value reckoned by the founders—is determined chiefly by the water on or in its substance, for if too wet it is worthless, if too dry a menace to life; indeed the market value of each acre of arable land in the United States to-day is determined within some ten per cent. by the associated water—i. e., the water-value is nine when the land-value is one.

The new concept of water as a primary value in its substance or corpus is not yet crystallized in statute or even in custom; it has come up with the natural growth and orderly development of the country; and it is still an open question whether the powers of the states or of the nation are paramount—though the view that the value pertains to the people and is to be administered primarily by the nation on account of its interstate quality, and secondarily by the states as an appurtenance of the land, would seem to accord with the principles framed into the constitution and interpreted by Marshall and contemporary jurists. Certainly a value of such magnitude as the 40,000,000,000 cubic feet of water flowing annually down to the sea is a natural resource too closely connected with the peace and perpetuity of the nation to long remain neglected; it alone would warrant conference between the executives of state and nation. It is within the memory of many now living that a man able to estimate the value of a raft of logs or a patch of standing timber more closely than his fellows, taking advantage of the fact that forests were still regarded as little more than obstructions to settlement, began to buy small tracts nominally as land but actually for the timber, and continued turning over his growing capital and buying larger and larger tracts as the pineries were despoiled, until he became an undercurrent of power in legislative halls and at last gained wealth probably exceeding that of any other individual in the world's history; and he but exercised prevision in taking freely that which was not at the time regarded as a value. Now, the vast inherent value of our forests is but a bagatelle in comparison with the inherent value of our living waters; the time is ripe for taking stock of this immeasurable resource; and it behooves the people through the representatives in whom they repose confidence to claim this greater heritage on which the lives of the generations must depend.

The Utilization of Power

An ill-recognized value of running water resides in its power, a quantity doubtless sufficient to drive mills and trains and boats, and furnish light and heat and domestic motors for a century or two after our coal is gone. Hitherto this resource has been neglected, partly because the concept of inherent or potential value remained inchoate, and power was not felt to exist until actually developed by dams and races and penstocks; yet the realization that 40,000,000,000,000 cubic feet of river water descending an average of 2,500 feet is a rich possession can not long be delayed, for it exceeds 300,000,000 horse-power, or thrice the pulling power of all the horses now living in the world—even if the sum be tithed for safety it will still reach 30,000,000 horse-power, which at $20 per year would be worth $600,000,000 annually (or more each year than the estimated cost of improving all the rivers of the country), equal—at 3 per cent.—to a capital of $20,000,000,000. And the availability of water-power entered on a new era with the perfecting of electrical transmission in the last decade!

Though the time is not ripe for discussing utilization, a case may be instanced: The boldest water-supply project in our history was undertaken when Los Angeles, a city of only 150,000, bonded itself for $23,000,000 to purchase a riverlet 250 miles away; it seemed an appalling price for continued civic life, yet the people were ready to pay; and it was not until the plans for piping were nearly done that the incidental value of the power was realized—and negotiated at rates yielding ten per cent, on the bonds! Suffice it to add that even if the improvement of our waterways for navigation were to cost five or ten times the amount estimated, the water-power developed incidentally in connection with the works, if judiciously administered, would alone pay the entire cost in from five to twenty years. Picturesque streams and cataracts should be saved as scenic features, for natural beauty is a national asset beyond material measure; but the ignoble wild should be harnessed to the plow of progress.

Fortunately, while the founders failed to define the proprietary interests in the running waters, they recognized their interstate character and granted the nation certain authority over them; and this has been repeatedly confirmed by the courts and crystallized by statutes authorizing the retention of rights in power developed by private means, the time limitation in grants for state or private works, and the leasing of power developed on public works.

Land Waste and Reclamation

Each year the rivers of mainland United States pour into the seas a thousand million tons of richest soil-matter in the form of suspended sediment—an impost greater than all our land-taxes combined, and a commensurate injury to commerce in the lower rivers which are rendered capricious and difficult of control by the unstable load. Moreover, the greater part of the sediment is swept down during floods which annually destroy and depreciate property to the average value of scores if not hundreds of millions, besides preventing development of the fertile lowlands; and furthermore, expert determinations show that the organic contamination of running water varies directly with the suspended sediment, so that muddy water is a common cause of disease and death. Now any comprehensive plan for waterway improvement will necessarily involve prevention of floods by means of far-sighted forestry, intensive farming, judicious reservoir-construction, and other devices whereby the waters will be compelled to flow even clearer and purer than they did before nature's delicate balance between rainfall and slope and natural cover was disturbed by settlement and industry. It is conservatively estimated that the benefits resulting from the clarification and purification of the water will in themselves balance the entire cost of the system of waterway improvement required to relieve the existing congestion of traffic.

And the control of the waters involves reclamation of arid lands by irrigation, and of certain swamp and overflow lands by drainage. It is estimated that these means, extended to projects already in sight, will fit 150,000,000 acres of highly fertile land for settlement, thereby furnishing (in forty-acre farms with necessary villages) homes for an additional population of 20,000,000—or four times that number under the intensive culture which finds "ten acres enough." The expense involved might by judicious administration be made incidental to that required for improving the waterways for navigation (which would hardly exceed that of a trans-continental railway line), while the direct benefits, as illustrated by the operations of the U. S. Reclamation Service to date, would amount to many times the cost.

Development and Conservation

Such are some of the conditions and values brought into view by the recurrent congestion in transportation—for which relief is imperative, else the nation, must sacrifice its supremacy and by reason of its own bigness yield the van of progress to lesser contemporaries. The cost of relief will be large, as the nation is broad and its productions opulent; yet from the standpoint of traffic alone the game will be worth far more than the candle. In addition, the prevention of soil-wash and the purification and clarification of the streams will, as the value of water increases with multiplied population by natural growth and orderly development, more than balance the entire cost; if the works be planned to utilize the incidental water-power, it alone will (with a moderate working capital) not only pay the entire current cost but replace our rapidly decreasing mineral fuels as a source of energy; and a dozen incidental advantages and values clamor to be entered on the credit side of the ledger. Eventually, if not to-day, the nation must take stock not merely of its land but of the 150,000,000,000,000 or 200,000,000,000,000 cubic feet of water annually falling from the heavens on the 2,000,000,000 acres of that land and giving it value—must conserve and control the boon in such manner as to minimize destruction and loss and maximize benefits for citizens and country: and any present step should take the right direction. Other resources, too, demand conservation—especially the timber and coal and oil and iron supplies already largely gone. The sole obstacle to-day is precisely that which confronted Washington and his contemporaries in the earlier waterway agitation—the doubt as to who should act in the public interest. The obstacle was overcome one hundred and twenty years ago: Can its present phase then deter the nation made great by the infant effort? That is the question to be weighed by the executives of states and nation in joint conference in the White House next May.

Fortunately the later statesmen hold a point of vantage; for America has become a nation of science. The sum of knowledge has gained a hundred per cent. and knowledge of the country and its resources has grown a hundred fold since 1787. The lands have been explored and surveyed; the mines have been opened and tested; the rainfall and rivers have been measured; several of the sciences have taken form and placed facts and principles at command; and under the stimulus of a far-sighted patent law invention has harnessed natural forces in a manner inconceivable even a century ago. The early ideas were of extension and diffusion; the present needs are for intensive development and conservation. And while the later stress may be less than the earlier it is attended by wider experience and surer modes of thinking, so that action ought to be easier and safer. Certainly the stress will increase until relieved; and there are those who feel that the present issues and the prospective conference may well mark another epoch in national policy and national growth.

  1. The chain of events is conveniently summarized by Woodrow Wilson, "History of the American People," Vol. III., p. 60, et seq.
  2. The Bartholdt bill now before the house of representatives provides for a bond issue of $500,000,000 for waterway improvement; the Newlands bill pending in the senate provides for a waterway fund of $50,000,000 to be continued by appropriations or bond issues as needed.
  3. Summarized by Hess in "An Illustration of Legal Development—the Passing of the Doctrine of Riparian Rights" (Am. Polit. Science Review, Vol. II., November, 1907, pp. 15-31).