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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 364-366
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The Great Kanawha Navigation
The Great Kanawha Navigation. By Emory L. Kemp. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000. Pp. xii+300. $45.
One of the early schemes for a trans-Appalachian waterway system involved linking the James River in Virginia, which flowed into the Atlantic, with the Great Kanawha River, a tributary of the Ohio. Although this project was never consummated, the dream of a central water line survived into the post-Civil War era. Between 1875 and 1898 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed a series of ten low-lift moveable dams [End Page 364] spread over nearly one hundred miles from the Great Kanawha's confluence with the Ohio to the origin of the river at the confluence of the Gauley and New Rivers in West Virginia. The completion of this project made the Great Kanawha the first fully controlled river navigation in America. After these movable dams became obsolete in the 1920s, the Corps of Engineers began replacing them with three fixed dams with roller gates and locks, much of the construction undertaken with New Deal funding. Heavily used by barge traffic in coal and chemicals from its creation, the Great Kanawha River navigation remains one of the nation's most heavily used "artificial" waterways.
In The Great Kanawha Navigation, Emory Kemp describes the construction of this major American hydraulic engineering system. The volume seems to have emerged from a CRM project authorized by the Corps of Engineers, focusing on the locks, dams, and associated structures erected in the 1920s and 1930s. This probably explains the weight given to the three major periods of work on the Kanawha navigation. The early period of development, the antebellum era, receives only a few pages. The middle period, roughly from 1875 to 1900, is treated much more extensively, but the bulk of the volume (around two-thirds) focuses on the work carried out in the 1920s and 1930s.
Kemp bases his detailed narrative heavily on archival records, supplemented by published government documents and contemporary engineering literature. This volume's contributions to historical literature lie primarily in four areas. First, it provides a detailed case study of American hydraulic engineering on a major navigable waterway. Second, it contains useful material on the Corps of Engineers' use of moveable dams to improve navigation, a technology not very well known; here, Kemp's work supplements Leland Johnson's Davis Island Lock and Dam (1985), which deals with the Corps' use of moveable dams in another location. Third, The Great Kanawha Navigation provides a good case study of the relationship between the Corps of Engineers and the civilian contractors used to erect Corps-engineered structures. Finally, it provides some very interesting information on the difficulties of implementing New Deal labor legislation on a specific construction site.
There are, however, a variety of minor shortcomings. One lies in an area that is among the book's strengths--its abundant illustrations. Often these are not well related to the text, which never refers the reader to a specific image; the illustrations are just there, located somewhere near the relevant text. Captions are brief. I would have preferred more extensive captions, telling me what I should notice in the illustration. The volume also needed to have a good map in front, showing the location of the locks and dams on the Kanawha and the coalfields, industries, and cities that the navigation served. The first map of the navigation system (reproduced from archival sources and not very clear) does not appear until page 94. Since I was not [End Page 365] familiar with the geography of the river, I found it very difficult to follow the narrative until that point. Finally, Kemp's overuse of the passive voice and his very detailed construction narratives sometimes make for ponderous reading.
The chief fault of the volume lies in the absence of broader analysis. Kemp has provided readers with an abundance of interesting data, generally well organized. But rarely does he connect the work on the Great Kanawha Navigation with larger...