Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Army Corps Report of 1894

In compliance with the River and Harbor Act of 1894, the US Army Corps of Engineers examined the mouth of Port Tobacco Creek to determine whether it warranted improvement. The report, a digital copy of which Elsie kindly provided, specifies "Chapel Point Harbor, at the junction of the Potomac and Port Tobacco rivers."

Here are some of the more interesting quotations that pertain to sedimentation and the nature of river commerce in the last decade of the 19th century:

"Chapel Point wharf is situated on the east side of the [Port Tobacco] river; Brent's Wharf is on the opposite side, just above Chapel Point. In order to enter Port Tobacco River from the main channel of the Potomac it is necessary to pass over extensive flats that lie on the northeast of the main channel for a distance of about 3 miles before the mouth of Port Tobacco River is reached. Over these flats the Coast Survey soundings of 1862 show depths of 9 to 9.5 feet at low tide, the latter depth still holding at the mouth. In an examination made in 1882 [see yesterday's blog], the depth off Windmill Point is given as 10.6 feet. Above the mouth the depth gradually decreases to 7.5 feet at Chapel Point, where the river is over one-half of a mile wide. Above Chapel Point the depth decreases rapidly, and at Warehouse Point, the former landing for Port Tobacco Court-House, where the Coast Survey chart showed a depth of 3 feet, hardly any depth of water can now be found at low tide. This deterioration is said to be due to the sediment brought into the river from the adjacent lands under cultivation."

"Those interested in the improvement of Chapel Point desire that the depth of water be increased so that the Washington, Norfolk, and Baltimore steamers can make easy landings, and make use of it as a winter harbor when the upper Potomac is closed by ice, freight and passengers to be then forwarded by the proposed railroad. While Chapel Point Harbor, if improved, would make a fair ice harbor, it may be stated that the closing of the Potomac River by ice is so infrequent that an expenditure at this point for this object would not be justified.

The report tells us at least two important things: sedimentation continued throughout the late 19th century and, as also noted in the report of a dozen years earlier, eroding farmland was recognized as the principal culprit. While we have not yet uncovered the relevant documents, I think we can infer that at least some local people were calling for federal action to reopen navigation on Port Tobacco Creek, in the mistaken belief, or excessively optimistic perspective, that steamboats would recapture the region's commercial traffic from the railroads. A quarter-century later, automobiles captured that market, steamboats disappeared, and local railroads increasingly focused on the delivery of coal.

I'll have an interesting aerial photograph of Port Tobacco Creek to show and talk about tomorrow in connection with some field observations the PTAP team made more than a year ago.


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