Brief History of The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers And Early Development of the Saint Johns River

By Cleve Powell
Originally published in the History Corner Section of the September 2008 OAI Newsletter
[Author's Note: This article is written to give a little insight of the Corps of Engineers impact on Jacksonville, Arlington and its citizens down through the years through the Development of the Saint Johns River from Corps records as well as my families.]

Corps History leading up to the establishment of the Jacksonville District.

The following information is taken from the SUN, SAND AND WATER history of the Jacksonville District by George E. Buker. It was published in 1975 two hundred years after the position of Chief Engineer for the newly created Grand Army was created by the Continental Congress on June 16, 1775. It was to provide Military Engineering for the worsening situation with the mother country and Richard Gridley was appointed.

By April 30, 1824 (three years after Florida became a territory) Congress established a mission for performing civil functions for the nation. That mission, many times modified, is still carried out by the Jacksonville District Corp today. It was a long time after Florida became a part of the United States before creation of the Jacksonville District could take place. Prior to the Civil War the Corps of Engineers was not divided into District and Divisional lines. Projects were assigned to engineers for specific projects. In 1852 Congress resumed funding of deferred civil works projects to fund surveys of over a 100 projects including the Saint Johns River. By 1860 all civil works projects had stopped and remained idle throughout the Civil War.

In 1869 Major General Quincy Adams Gilmore was listed in charge of the survey of the mouth of the Saint Johns River, and was in charge of the coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and the Atlantic Coast of Florida; his headquarters was in New York City.

The annual report of 1885 introduced a major change in the organization of river and harbor groupings, and was the beginning of the divisional and district structure still in use today. In 1884-1885 Captain William T. Rossell relieved Gilmore of the southernmost region and was the first District Engineer in Florida. Unlike Gilmore his headquarters was in Jacksonville, Florida. (Note: Gilmore and Rossell Streets in Riverside)

History of the Construction of the Jetties at Mayport

Oscar G. Rawls wrote a paper on the development of the St. Johns River in 1948, which has some interesting details on the jetties as follows: The St. Johns River attracted the first Florida tourist trade, saw the development of the citrus industry and a king’s ransom in lumber used in construction of a growing nation. Export of cotton from the Tallahassee area became profitable in the 1920s and 30s and a weekly steamer schedule was developed from Charleston and Savannah to Middleburg, Picolata, and Palatka. Most of the steamers were small and chose the protected inland route to Savannah, now the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. There was some risk associated with shipping across the SaintXJohns Bar to the ocean. The delay and economic cost associated with shipping to Jacksonville led to the first step in securing deep water at the bar. In 1852, Dr. Abel Baldwin, a civic leader in Jacksonville, went to Washington in an attempt to secure funding for planning improvements to form a deep-water entrance channel to the river. He secured an appropriation of $10,000, which was quite a sizable sum in those days. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers responsible for river and harbor development sent Lt. H. G. Wright to do the study. He recommended a jetty on the north side of the channel only.

Unfortunately, there was opposition to the improvement at Mayport by neighboring ports and it was in 1877 when Doctor Baldwin hired an acknowledged harbor expert, Captain Eads from New Orleans, to make his recommendations. He recommended two converging jetties from the mainland across the bar to deep water, with the jetties being of high level and rising above the surface. It is interesting that he used natures existing width of the river between Mayport and Fort George Island where the river naturally scoured itself to a navigable depth as the design width for the ocean end of the jetty. This plan was approved; General Gilmore in New York City sent George Daubeney to do examination surveys. Daubeney came up with a plan similar to Eads. Plans were made and adopted by Congress on 30 June 1879; in 1880, $125,000 was funded to begin work.

Lieutenant Walter A. Fisk was assigned as the officer in charge, and on 10 November 1880, he opened an office on Fort George. This office was the beginning of a resident engineer in the Jacksonville area. A contract was awarded, and Roderick G. Ross of Lara, Ross and Co., arrived and on 14 December 1880 and preliminary work began. A foundation of a mat of logs covered with brush and topped with stone to a height of about 3′ was laid in 1880 for the south jetty for a distance of 2,785 linear feet; the part seaward of the mean low water line was soon covered with sand. In March of 1881, Congress appropriated $100,000 more. Additional layers were placed on the south jetty and the foundation of the north jetty was started. Congress appropriated another $15,000 and another contractor was hired. However, problems began to occur as portions of the foundations sank as much as 15′ in a single night.

It was later discovered that the log mattress was not flexible enough to prevent undermining. Mr. R. G. Ross, one of the contractors, designed a flexible mattress of bound brush that was cheaper and gave better results. It was also found that two dikes of rock could be laid along the edges and the core could be filled with oyster shell giving excellent results. Much of the early rock was gneiss and granite hauled from New York by seagoing barge. They often arrived in rough weather, and great effort was required to dump the rock in place. Florida Lime Rock was found to work well and had a natural affinity for marine growth that helped bind it together.

It was in 1885 that The Jacksonville District was formed under the direction of Captain Rossell and also the year that my great grandfather, F. W. Bruce, hired on with the Corps in SaintXAugustine as Fort Keeper. His records are reflected in the remainder of this write-up.

F. W. Bruce arrived on the scene being transferred from SaintXAugustine to take over Jetty construction. In 1887 his letters often deal with problems that were encountered, but the work was beginning to show favorable results. Land, 0.94 acres, for the “Mayport Engineering Sub-Office” was purchased from Henry and George Holmes on Nov. 11, 1889. This was the operation center for the river development for many years. The building still exists in Mayport as the Ferry Office, but faces extinction.

About 1890, the report to the Chief of Engineers increased the estimate from $1,306,000 to $1,471,000 with the recommendations that the north jetty be extended 2,360 feet to a point 11,250′ from the shore, and raised to full height for the shoreward 6,700′, and that the south jetty be extended nearly 2,000′ to a point 8,500 feet from the shore with a full height for the shoreward 4,400′.

By June 1892, definite results were noted for the work. About 4,500,000 cubic feet of soft material had scoured out of the channel. The jetties were even then an unqualified success and engineering feat, considering it was one of the very earliest attempts to conquer the bar of a tidal river.

On July 13, 1892 and March 3, 1893, Congress appropriated $397,000 to complete the final product. The south jetty was completed to project dimensions during 1894-1895. During 1894, the bar channel deepened itself to 15 feet, where they had been only 10.7 feet the year before. At the completion of the project in 1895 therein was 15 feet of navigable water over the bar and 18 feet in the channel up to Jacksonville. The 18′ depth was a result of a bond issue by Duval County, which furnished $300,000 for the work that included channel dredging and construction of “training walls” along the river to keep the flow down the permanent navigation channel. At the completion of the original work, $1,785,000 had been spent.

The jetties then stood complete to project dimensions, the foundations permanently settled “welded” together by oysters and other sea growth. The south Jetty was about 2-1/2 miles long and the north jetty about 3 miles long. They were about 1,600 feet apart at the outer ends. The final cap was made from South Carolina granite (See F. W.’s letter dated Nov. 3, 1900 and photographs), which is about all that is visible today. This represents 10-15% of the project. Stones are added from time to time. The jetty topping has been replaced.

The project was barely complete when it became evident that there was a need for deeper water. After several reports by the Corps of Engineers with backing by the Jacksonville Board of Trade, Congress appropriated $300,000 in 1902 to start a 24′ channel, 300 feet wide from Jacksonville to the ocean. Two powerful dredges were built locally – the Jacksonville, a stationary hydraulic unit, and the SaintXJohns, an ocean going hydraulic dredge completed in March 1905. Within 4 years, the 24-foot channel became a reality.

Around 1906, effects the jetties had upstream soon demanded notice. The current flow had increased due to the bar project and river deepening. The riverbanks fell-in in some places and went into the riverbed. SaintXJohns Bluff and Dames Point were especially hard hit. This required the addition of retaining walls and throwing up riprap (a wall of stones without formal order). Chaining the SaintXJohns bar spread construction upstream.

In 1910, work began on a 30′ deep channel to accommodate foreign ships that load to a 27-foot depth. They would anchor offshore and unload part of their cargo to lighten the ship for a visit to Jacksonville. Several dredges were put into action. The SaintXJohns was destroyed in an accident on the jetties August 12, 1912 and the Jacksonville proved inadequate. The Key West was brought in, and the work was finished in 1918.

F. W. Bruce retired from the Corps of Engineers in 1913 and his son-in-law Cleveland Johnson who also worked for the Corps resigned. They went to work for the City of Jacksonville, building municipal docks to accommodate the ships that the new channel would bring in. Through the years since the early days, many of Arlington’s seafaring folks have worked for the Corps and also for contractors such as Seaboard Dredging Company, which became Parkhill and Goodlow. Other contractors and Shipyards such as Olson, Morrell, and Coppedge were all involved. The River has gone through many changes since the early days including the Dames Point cut-off that created Blount Island and the extension of Quarantine Island, which partially blocked Mill Coves circulation. Exchange Island under the Matthews Bridge was recently discussed at our meeting. How all this took place is too much information for this article but now you know a little history of the early days.