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Water Planning in the Progressive Era: The Inland Waterways Commission Reconsidered

From: Journal of Policy History
Volume 18, Number 4, 2006
pp. 389-418 | 10.1353/jph.2006.0014

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In 1909, moving freight by rail cost seven to ten times more than by water. Yet despite crowded terminals and a severe shortage of rolling stock, railroads carried eight times more freight by weight than ships and barges, and canal tonnage had fallen by two-thirds since 1880. The railroads, according to President Theodore Roosevelt, were "no longer able to move crops and manufactures rapidly enough to secure the prompt transaction of the business of the Nation. . . . There appears to be but one complete remedy—the development of a complementary system of transportation by water." Perishable foods and high-value factory goods would always travel by rail, Roosevelt acknowledged, but bulky cargo such as wheat, coal, timber, and iron could and should move by water. Improving the nation's waterways would increase the profits of railroads and manufacturers, provide capital for expansion, and reduce the cost of living. It would serve as a tonic to the entire economy.

In March 1907, at Roosevelt's behest, Congress created a temporary Inland Waterways Commission to investigate the transportation crisis. That commission lasted until the end of his presidency. Roosevelt was interested in more than transportation. He wanted water projects to be considered in relation to other natural resources. By the end of 1907, after the commission had looked at shipping on the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes, several of its members—though not a majority—concluded that the nation needed a comprehensive water policy along with an autonomous commission of experts to plan and construct water projects that embraced entire river basins. At the end of 1907, Senator Francis G. Newlands of Nevada introduced the first bill to create a permanent commission, and over the next decade he drafted several more. An emasculated version became law in 1917, but most members of Congress considered Newlands's plan either impractical or unconstitutional. Three years later, Congress all but eliminated the hope of centralized water planning when it replaced the Inland Waterways Commission with the Federal Power Commission.

Historians have portrayed the Inland Waterways Commission as a lost opportunity to coordinate both conservation policies and public works. Yet they have taken the arguments used by proponents of the commission too much at face value. This article questions the assumption that the commission was a triumph of science, a symbol of modernization, or a harbinger of the modern, centralized state. More important than the "gospel of efficiency," the Inland Waterways Commission dressed the distributional, sectional, pork barrel, politics of the nineteenth century in new clothes. The conservation agencies created in the Progressive Era, no less than Congress, resisted the independent commission–or at best gave it lukewarm support. Furthermore, water users as well as "experts" questioned the foundational idea upon which the commission rested: multiple-use water planning. Nevertheless, the political structure of the nineteenth century proved remarkably durable and adaptive, at least in the realm of land and water policies.

The Hays Thesis

Save for students of conservation policies, the Inland Waterways Commission has been neglected by historians of the early twentieth century, and the historians of conservation have relied far too uncritically on Samuel P. Hays's Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency: The Progressive Conservation Movement, 1890–1920, first published in 1959. Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency is a classic of American political history and a seminal book in American environmental history as well. It is powerful, persuasive, and perceptive. True, few historians writing today look at the motives of Progressive Era conservationists with the charity or adoration of those who published in the 1950s or 1960s. Nevertheless, many of Hays's assumptions and conclusions have proven extremely durable among students of water policy.

In 1906 and 1907, according to Hays, "basin-wide river development suddenly captured the imagination of . . . conservation leaders." "Flood waters, now wasted, could, if harnessed, aid navigation, produce electric energy, and provide water for irrigation and industrial use. It also became clear to these men that maximum development required multiple-purpose development." Conservationists, according to Hays, embraced sweeping new ideas: that water was the most important natural resource; that it was one resource with many uses; that those uses could be unified and coordinated; that protecting...

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