Maintaining Water Access to the Head of Navigation at North East

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Main Street North East about 1914. Source: private collection.

The Army Corps of Engineers worked to maintain water access to communities located at the head of navigation of many rivers on the Chesapeake, beginning after the Civil War.  That ongoing struggle, extending well into the 1900s, required a constant effort as the Corps mapped waterways, carried out dredging, removed shoals and built dikes, making the waterways navigable for sailing and steam vessels.

For places that had grown steadily because of the location at the top of a waterway, the silting of the river beds was a problem, making them nearly unreachable via the traditional routes, except on high tide.  These centuries of labor generated a lot of helpful technical reports, many of them done by the engineers, and those old original records are often available to help understand the passage of centuries along a stream.  As the Corps superintended the dredging, they produced pages of notes, sketches, hand-drawn maps, letters, official correspondence, and official documents.  Many of these surviving manuscripts are stored safely away in the Philadelphia Branch of the National Archives.

The North East River was one of those watercourses that received attention.  The Engineers did a detailed examination of the waterway for the House of Representatives, surveying it to its head in 1937.  The United States dredged a channel of 6’ feet depth to the Davis Wharf in North East in 1893, at a cost of $5,140, “exclusive of an expenditures of $15,500 under prior authorizations.”  At this point commercial interests desired to have a channel 10 feet deep to a point 300-feet above the foot of Church Street, ending in a suitable turning and anchorage basin.  If the Government would agree to do this proponents offered to “furnish necessary rights-of-way and spill-disposal areas, construct a public wharf, and contribute $100 toward the cost of improvement.”

Noting the value in this work, the report said there were 1,500 inhabitants, principally engaged in the manufacture of brick, insulating products and baskets, processing of vegetables and fish, and the repair of boats.  The nearby areas were devoted chiefly to farming, although a number of summer residential developments are located along the lower reaches of the stream.  The commerce of the harbor for 1935 consisted of 10,000 tons of fish and 500 tons of salt at a fish-pickling plant near the lower town limits.

If the work was performed, it should lead to the receipt of substantial quantities of petroleum products, building materials, fertilizers and miscellaneous freights with saving in transportation costs estimated at $3,750, the authors estimated.

When another study was done in 1910, it notes that the town of 1,000 has a taxable basis of $500,000, and is governed by a board of five commissioners.  It contained one bank, a grade and high school, a newspaper, two hotels, three churches, two brickyard, a shirt factory, basket factory, cannery three fish-packing houses, charcoal kiln, flour mill, electric light plant, boat building and cooperage plants.  One railroad passed by the town.  Twenty eight sailing craft and 92 power boats were owned here, 75 percent of them having a capacity of 10 tons or less.

The river front in North East about 1914.  Source:  Private collection

The river front in North East about 1914. Source: Private collection

Army Corps of Engineers Report on the North East River at North East - 1937,  Source:  National Archives

Army Corps of Engineers Report on the North East River at North East – 1937, Source: National Archives

Water transportation was limited to one 35-ton power boat, drawing 5 feet of water, which plied between North East and Baltimore.  It had to wait for flood tide to pass over the bar a condition which was causing a failing off of profits.

There are additional examinations in the 1870s and 1800s and these manuscripts help answer many of our questions about the time and place, especially those highly detailed maps drawn so long ago.



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