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U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The history of United States Army Corps of Engineers can be traced to June 1775, when the Continental Congress organized an army with a chief engineer and two assistants.

It was not until 1779, however, that Congress created a separate Corps of Engineers. Army engineers, including several French officers, were instrumental in some of the hard-fought battles of the Revolutionary War.

At the end of the War, the engineers were no longer of service, and were temporarily disbanded.

In 1794, Congress organized a Corps of Artillerists and Engineers, but it was not until 1802, that it reestablished a separate Corps of Engineers. At the same time, Congress established a new military academy at West Point, New York.

The first superintendent, Jonathan Williams, also became the chief engineer of the Corps. During the first half of the 19th century, West Point was the major, and for a while the only, engineering school in the country.

Throughout the 19th century, the Corps supervised the construction of coastal fortifications and mapped much of the American West with the Corps of Topographical Engineers, which was a separate entity for 25 years (18381863).

The Corps of Engineers also constructed lighthouses, helped develop jetties and piers for harbors, and carefully mapped navigation channels.

Although its work on fortifications was important, perhaps the greatest legacy the early Corps of Engineers bestowed to future generations was its work on canals, rivers, and roads.

They provided routes from western farms to eastern markets and for settlers seeking new homes beyond the Appalachian frontier. They were responsible for constructing roads as well.

The most famous project was the Cumberland, or National Road, that was constructed between 1811 and 1841. This road extended from Cumberland, Maryland, across the Appalachian ridges of western Pennsylvania to Wheeling, West Virginia, and then across the midsections of Ohio and Indiana to Vandalia, Illinois.

In 1852, Congress established a Lighthouse Board, which included engineer officers, to oversee lighthouse construction along America's coastline, including the Great Lakes shoreline.

The Corps also contributed substantially to the construction of many public buildings and monuments in Washington, D.C. During President Franklin D. Roosevelts New Deal, the Corps participated in three major hydroelectric power projects: the Passamaquoddy Tidal Power Project in Maine, Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, and Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri River.

The Corps has played a major roll in all of the wars and conflicts the United States has participated in since its founding.

During World War II, Army engineers placed floating, and later, fixed bridges across the rivers of Italy, France, and Germany.

They have played an intricate part of relief efforts during natural disasters, including, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, and oil spills. They help to provide major repairs and rehabilitative work during recovery periods.

The Corps of Engineers, in 1962, created the Engineer Geodesy, Intelligence, and Mapping Research and Development Agency. The agency was renamed the Engineer Topographic Laboratories, in 1967.

During the 1960s and the 1970s, the facility developed automated equipment to produce topographic maps from aerial photographs and improved systems for producing Army field maps.

The topographic laboratories created the Terrain Analysis Center, in 1975, to provide the Army with state-of-the-art engineer intelligence data. In 1991, the center made significant contributions during Operation Desert Storm.

The Corps of Engineers still thinks of itself as an organization ready to help build the nation's infrastructure, just as it did in the early days of the country's colonial days.

Today, however, "infrastructure" means something more than just internal improvements and transportation systems. Maintaining the nation's public works remains an imperative; today's environmental issues are the chief public works challenges.

Developing infrastructure also means developing management techniques, new approaches, and new technology to use resources more efficiently and to reduce resource depletion. Without doubt, the Corps' historical strengths in program management, engineering design, research and development, and construction will prove invaluable as the agency moves forward to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

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Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner.
The story of the American West is the story of a relentless quest for a precious resource: water. It is a tale of rivers diverted and dammed, of polit...

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