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Intercoastal Waterway / Intracoastal Waterway (ICW)

The ICW [the terms Intercoastal Waterway and Intracoastal Waterway occur with equal freqency in official publications] consists of a combination of natural and man-made/man-enhanced waterways, traversing parallel to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the US from Manasquan Inlet, New Jersey to the Texas/Mexican border. The direction of buoyage in the ICW is generally southerly along the Atlantic coast and Westerly along the Gulf coast, unless otherwise indicated. (RED MARKERS ON RIGHT when heading South or West.)

The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway [AIWW], conceived by Albert Gallatin in 1808, was not essentially completed until the 1930s. It is a hybrid creation comprised of two widely separated ship canals north of Norfolk, Virginia, and a string of barge canals south of that port. The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway is a continuous sheltered waterway used by commercial and private shallow draft vessels. The waterway extends from New Jersey to Florida. The AIWW provides pleasure boaters and commercial shippers with a protected inland channel between Norfolk, Virginia and Miami, Florida. Commerce south of Norfolk is entirely domestic and mostly short haul, tributary to the nearest commercial centers and seaports.

Although not a thoroughfare over which the goods of the North and South are exchanged, as envisioned by early planners, the waterway nevertheless carries large amounts of freight and is heavily used by recreational vessels. Long-distance shipments along the seaboard are cheaper and quicker by large coastwise vessels than by vessels suited to the restricted channels south of Norfolk.

The Gulf Intercoastal Waterway (GIWW) is the largest component (1,109 miles) of a larger waterway system, labeled the Gulf Coast (comprising 1,992 miles). However, the Gulf Coast System is composed of various small rivers, navigable bayous and channels. The Gulf Intercoastal Waterway is itself bisected into two parts, an eastern portion as well the expected western section. The eastern portion stretches along the Gulf of Mexico from New Orleans to Key West while the western part encompasses New Orleans to Brownsville, Texas.

The Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association [GICA] was organized in 1905, to promote the idea of a single channel that would connect all major Gulf coast ports. This very idea materialized some 44 years later, with the formal completion of the Waterway in June, 1949.

The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway more than paid its way during the bitter U-boat warfare of World War II, when the U.S. used it to transport 90 million tons of vital supplies, safe from preying U-boats in the Gulf. Given the GIWW’s geographic positioning, petroleum is the dominant commodity, as such, 47.6% of traffic was that of petroleum and its related products in 2003. The next largest commodities transported along the GIWW are chemicals (22.2%) and while crude materials (17.6%). All other commodities were 5.5% or less.

The tidal streams, bays, and sounds that lie along and just within the shoreline of much of the Atlantic coast were indispensable arteries of communication and commerce for early settlers in America. Not many years passed before they began to speak of linking the waterways together with canals at one place or another to extend their usefulness. Such enterprises were too formidable for seventeenth-century resources.

The United States possessed an inland navigation extending from Massachusetts to the southern extremity of Georgia (then the southernmost Atlantic seaboard state) that was principally, if not solely, interrupted by four necks of land: Cape Cod, New Jersey between the Raritan and Delaware rivers, the peninsula between the Delaware River and Chesapeake Bay, and the marshy tract between Chesapeake Bay and Albemarle Sound. With canals cut through them, a sea vessel could travel by rivers, bays, and sounds from Boston to Beaufort and Swansboro in North Carolina.

With three links of Gallatin's projected intracoastal waterway completed by the late 1830s, a small vessel could travel from New London, Connecticut, at the eastern end of Long Island Sound, all the way to the large sounds of North Carolina without ever being exposed to the open sea. Long-distance shipments by this inside passage, however, were not often made. It was generally quicker and cheaper to make long transports by sea.

The Dismal Swamp Canal and the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal form alternative routes along the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway between the Chesapeake Bay and Albemarle Sound. The canals and the rest of the waterway are maintained and cared for by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. The history of these two canals, which contain the only locks along the AIWW, paints a vivid picture of the development of transportation that goes back over two hundred years. The Dismal Swamp Canal is the oldest operating artificial waterway in the United States. The completed canal would open in 1805, twelve years after it was begun. Because it was so shallow, its use was limited to flat boats and log rafts. Construction of the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal was accomplished by seven steam dredges on floating platforms. Had an attempt been made to dig the canal prior to steam-powered technology, it would have failed. When the canal was finished in 1859, it was an engineering marvel.

In 1860 the state of Massachusetts revived the idea, which had lain dormant since the 1820s, of cutting a canal through Cape Cod between Barnstable Bay and Buzzards Bay. It commissioned the drafting of new plans and in 1870 granted a construction charter to a newly organized Cape Cod Ship Canal Company. The state also asked the federal government to construct a breakwater to shelter the Barnstable Bay entrance, claiming that the work would be comparable to any other federal harbor project. Directed to look into the matter, Boston District Engineer Lieutenant Colonel John Foster suggested a much larger waterway than had been planned. A canal 23 feet deep, 300 feet wide at the surface, and 198 feet wide at the bottom, he advised, would permit the heaviest vessels of the Navy to pass through and allow vessels of all classes to pass each other.

In 1906 Congress authorized a new special commission to determine the cost and advantage of converting the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal to a ship canal. By this time the advocates of a ship canal had significantly changed their tune. No longer urging a direct route to the ocean for Baltimore's foreign trade, they had for several years been touting the strategic and commercial benefits of the existing canal route as part of a great inland waterway.

In 1908 Congressmen Moore and Small introduced resolutions calling for surveys for an inland waterway from Boston to Beaufort, North Carolina, and from Beaufort to Key West. Approved in 1909, the surveys were the first to be made along the entire Atlantic coast. In 1910 Congress empowered the Secretary of War to negotiate the purchase of either the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal or the Dismal Swamp Canal as part of the inland waterway if recommended in the survey report.

By 1910 the United States was contemplating the construction of a series of canals which will give an inland water-way the full length of the Atlantic coast. These canals will supplement the present ones and will give both small and large vessels a course free from storms, ice-floes, or the attacks of enemies. Foreign navigation companies will not be permitted to use these canals and entrance by the enemy can be securely guarded against. In pursuance of this idea, the Cape Cod canal was commenced in January 1910.

While the shortest of the chain, it will be one of the most important and will have a depth of from 24.5 feet to 29 feet. It will connect Boston with the interior chain of communication and work to the northeast of that port will be undertaken later. Further south the system of canals has been nearly completed to Norfolk. The work has not been expensive owing to the utilization of the Chesapeake Bay which is really a vast natural, longitudinal canal. This magnificent bay does not run normal to the coast but turns at right angles, to the north just above the entrance and parallals the coast for one hundred and fifty miles up to about the 40th degree of north latitude.

At the well fortified entrance of the Chesapeake a second basin, extending southward, commences. This second basin is almost as long as the first and in portions has the necessary width and depth. Much work is necessary, however, in dredging and sanitary improvements. It extends to the south of Cape Hatteras and is separated from the Atlantic by dunes protected by many reefs. From that point, about 34 degrees north latitude, the bays and lagoons, cease and the canal must be cut. This will require a considerable outlay of time, money and labor, but no serious difficulties will be met with.

As first contemplated the canal was to connect Boston and Charleston, terminating at^the latter fortified port. In May 1910) the states to the south of Charleston took up the matter and began to urge that the canal be continued to the extreme southern point of Florida. A blockade of this coast, over 1500 miles in length, will be impossible, for it would require an enormous fleet to blockade the numerous outlets of the canal, with the inevitable result of having each blockading squadron widely separated from the others. Under such conditions the defender has only to issue in force from any selected outlet, fall on the separated squadrons and destroy them.

The report on the Boston to Beaufort survey, submitted to Congress early in 1912, recommended two first steps in the development of the waterway: the construction of a 12-foot-deep waterway between Norfolk and Beaufort by way of the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal and the purchase and gradual conversion, so as to interfere as little as possible with existing traffic, of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal into a ship canal 25 feet deep. In the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1912 Congress accepted the first recommendation but not the second.

In 1913 the Corps of Engineers submitted its report on the Beaufort, North Carolina, to Key West, Florida, section of the proposed intracoastal waterway. The Engineers were divided in opinion. The special board of officers making the survey recommended a ten-foot-deep waterway for the entire distance of 925 miles, to be completed in six years at an estimated cost of $31 million. Ultimately the waterway between Beaufort, North Carolina, and Key West was developed, not as single project, but in several sections improved by stages in response to expectations of commercial benefit.

In July 1914 the Cape Cod Canal opened to traffic. It was a narrower waterway than Colonel Foster had proposed, Although its charter depth was 25 feet, its bottom width of only 100 feet and surface width of 200 feet precluded two-way traffic.

After the federal government purchased the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal in 1919, the Corps' Wilmington (Delaware) District directed a reconstruction effort to deepen the channel to 12 feet and add several bridges. Traffic soon increased, and as an immediate result, demands were made to enlarge it. The C&D Ship Canal became part of an intercoastal waterway envisioned to connect existing bodies of water in a line roughly paralleling the coast from Boston, south to Key West, and then west to the Rio Grande.

By 1940 the project to enlarge the Cape Cod Canal was essentially completed. The Corps cut the surface width of the canal to about 700 feet but reduced the bottom width to 480 feet. More gradually sloping banks, the Engineers reasoned, would reduce erosion and provide greater safety if a ship ran aground. In addition to the mooring basins for freighters, the Corps constructed harbors of refuge for small craft at each end of the waterway. During World War II cargo tonnage doubled as convoys bound for Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom assembled in Buzzards Bay and all but the deepest ships sailed through the protected passage. Other merchant ships, whose peacetime routes passed wide of the cape, sought the safety of the canal, and naval vessels of the lighter classes used it extensively. At the height of submarine activity in the Atlantic, as many as 80 merchantmen and warships used the canal in a single day.

The failure of the Delaware and Raritan Canal to meet the requirements of modern water transportation had caused the city of Philadelphia, in 1894, to commission an investigation of feasible ship canal routes across New Jersey. It took the submarine menace of World War II to draw from the Corps, in 1942, a favorable, though divided, review report. The Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors concluded that the value of a barge canal in time of war, together with prospective benefits in normal times, warranted the construction of a 14-foot-deep canal at an estimated cost of $145 million.

Lieutenant General Eugene Reybold, the Chief of Engineers, believing that the war had demonstrated the value of a ship canal that could be built for only 29 percent more, recommended the construction of the 27-foot-deep locked canal for which plans had been drawn. No further reports on the New Jersey ship canal have been completed, and the “Missing Link” in the Intracoastal Waterway is not likely soon to be forged. Changing concepts of war have lessened the military incentive for the canal, and the large problems of cost in relation to benefits and of salt water intrusion still remained.

Lacking a route across New Jersey, light-draft boats may take a sheltered passage down most of the New Jersey coast and into the lower end of Delaware Bay by the New Jersey Intracoastal Waterway. Beginning at Manasquan Inlet, 26 miles south of Sandy Hook, the waterway passes through the 2-mile Point Pleasant Canal to the head of Barnegat Bay, follows a series of bays, lagoons, and thoroughfares inside the New Jersey barrier islands to Cape May Harbor, thence crosses the southern tip of the state by the 3-mile Cape May Canal to enter Delaware Bay about 3 miles above Cape May point.

The state of New Jersey constructed the waterway from Manasquan Inlet to Cape May Harbor, a distance of 106 miles, between 1908 and 1918. Although the authorized dimensions were 100 feet wide and 6 feet deep, the state dredged portions of the channel to depths of 10 and 12 feet. The Corps of Engineers dredged the Cape May Canal, a cut 12 feet deep and 100 feet wide, with Navy Department funds in 1942 as an emergency wartime measure to facilitate transportation along the coast. In 1945 Congress adopted the New Jersey Intracoastal Waterway as a federal project and authorized a through channel 12 feet deep and generally 100 feet wide.

The entire Intracoastal Waterway remained a string of variously named projects until 1947, when all but the last two of the southern reaches were collectively designated the "Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway between Norfolk, Va., and St. Johns River, Fla." The ship canals comprising the waterway in the north and the sections between the St. Johns River and Key West remained separate projects.

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Page last modified: 01-11-2017 19:24:10 ZULU