Although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers traces its roots to the American Revolutionary War, the presence of Army Engineer activity in the Baltimore area really started around 1800, just before Congress authorized the Corps of Artillerists and Engineers.
During the first decade of the nineteenth century, Army Corps activities in the region primarily focused on the planning, design, and construction of an extensive network of coastal fortifications. The most notable of these forts was Fort McHenry, a massive star-shaped structure that was instrumental in keeping the Port of Baltimore secure during the War of 1812. After the War of 1812, the country's attention turned to civil works programs. Between 1824 and 1838, the Baltimore District was involved in a number of projects that greatly contributed to the westward expansion and economic development of the young nation, including the repair of the Cumberland Road, the construction of the Chesapeake & Ohio and Chesapeake & Delaware Canals, and the laying of the Baltimore & Ohio and Baltimore & Susquehanna Railroad Lines. But one of Baltimore District's greatest achievements in the area of civil works was the extensive excavation and development of the Baltimore Harbor.
In 1830, the Baltimore Harbor was surveyed and it was determined that the controlling depth was 17 ft from the Chesapeake Bay to Fort McHenry. By 1836, Congress appropriated funds to dredge the entrance channels, although no channel dimensions were specified in the law. Dredging was completed in 1838.
It wasn't until 1852 that Baltimore Harbor received Federal funds again. The River & Harbor Act of 1852 authorized a channel 22 ft deep by 150 ft wide from Fort McHenry to the Chesapeake Bay off Swan Point. As railroad service expanded into the harbor, the city was keenly interested in deepening the channel to encourage development and attract the deeper-draft vessels of the day. The dredging began in 1853 and continued until the Civil War, culminating with a channel 6 miles long with an average depth of 23½ ft.
On November 10, 1865, Maj. William P. Craighill became the Baltimore District Engineer. Maj. Craighill had more influence than any other person in shaping the city's harbor. He was the District Engineer for 30 years before becoming a brigadier general and the Army's Chief of Engineers in 1895. Craighill's first order of business was to survey the Brewerton Channel to determine the presence of any shoaling. He was alarmed to find that the lower portion of the channel had become very shallow due to the conflicting currents from the Susquehanna and Patapsco Rivers. To prevent this from happening in the future, Craighill proposed a new cut that would alter the existing channel. The new channel would no longer go straight out into the Bay but would run due south for 3 miles and then turn to the southeast. The plan was approved and the new 200-ft-wide by 22-ft-deep channel was dredged and ready for navigation by late 1869.
In 1872, both Congress and Baltimore City provided more funds for waterway improvements and by 1874, a 24-ft-deep and 250 to 400-ft-wide Federal channel to Baltimore Harbor was completed. The channel continued to be improved; between 1881 and 1884, the Federal channel to Baltimore Harbor was authorized and deepened and widened to 27 ft deep and 600 ft wide.
By the year 1892, Baltimore's main harbor was extremely congested. Rapid industrial development in the area necessitated a need to connect Curtis Bay, a tributary of the Patapsco River, to the main channel. A sugar refinery had recently been built at Curtis Bay and it was thought that excavation of a connecting channel would stimulate further growth. Between 1892 and 1894, a 27-ft-deep Federal channel to Curtis Bay was authorized and completed.
In 1896, the main channels were authorized to be deepened to 30 ft. When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, the Port of Baltimore was already one of the world's largest harbors. The main channel was deepened and by 1903, it had a 30-ft depth.
The early part of the 20th century saw a continued focus on river and harbor navigation projects. The Baltimore District initiated numerous dredging projects on Maryland's Eastern Shore that are still maintained today.
Improvements also continued in Baltimore Harbor and by 1915, the Federal channel had a depth of 35 ft and a 35-ft-deep anchorage was provided in the Harbor. Although navigation projects were not as frequent after the outbreak of World War I, in 1917 the River & Harbor Act authorized the branch channels to 35 ft deep and 250 ft wide to the head of Curtis Bay, 35 ft deep by 400 ft wide from Fort McHenry to Ferry Bar, then 27 ft deep by 50 ft wide to the Western Maryland Railway Bridge. The Act also authorized Federal maintenance of a 35-ft channel in the Northwest Branch following construction by the City of Baltimore.
In 1930, the River & Harbor Act authorized the deepening of the Baltimore Harbor channel depth to 37 ft for the York Spit Channel in Virginia and channels from the Baltimore Light to the Sparrows Point entrance. The Act also authorized widening the channel angles between Fort McHenry and the Ferry Bar Section and increasing the channel width to 400 ft for the Curtis Bay Section.
After World War II, the River & Harbor Act of 1945 authorized increasing the channel depth to 39 ft deep and 1,000 ft wide in the Cape Henry and York Spit Channels in Virginia, and to 39 ft deep and 600 ft wide from the Craighill Entrance to Fort McHenry. The 1945 Act also authorized a connecting channel 27 ft deep and 400 ft wide from the main channel to deep water in the Chesapeake Bay leading to the Chesapeake and Delaware (C&D) Canal approach channel, a 30-ft-deep anchorage area, and the dredging of Curtis Creek to 35 ft deep and 200 ft wide from the head of Curtis Bay to the Pennington Avenue Bridge. In 1954, dredging of the 39-ft Federal channel was completed.
In 1956, Congress adopted the Corp's proposal to deepen the main channel to 42 ft and widen the channels from the Craighill Entrance to Fort McHenry from 600 to 800 ft, but President Eisenhower vetoed it in an effort to cut the public works budget. The project finally became law in 1958. The Act also authorized the deepening and widening of the Curtis Bay and Ferry Bar Channels of the Harbor to 42 ft deep and 600 ft wide, dredging the connecting channel to 35 ft deep by 600 ft wide from the Main Channel to the C&D Canal southern approach channel and Federal maintenance to 39 ft in the Northwest Branch, upon dredging to that depth by non-Federal interests. The work was completed in 1968, except for deepening and widening the Brewerton Channel Eastern Extension from 27 ft deep and 400 ft wide to 35 ft deep and 600 ft wide, and widening the Swan Point and Tolchester Channels from 450 to 600 ft wide. The Swan Point and Tolchester Channels were widened from 450 to 600 ft wide in 1981. The Brewerton Channel Eastern Extension was deepened and widened from 27 ft deep and 400 ft wide to 35 ft deep and 450 ft wide in 1986, and widened to 600 ft wide in 2001.
The River & Harbor Act of 1970 authorized deepening the main channel from Cape Henry to Fort McHenry, and the Curtis Bay Channel to 50 ft, and deepening the Northwest Branch East and West Channels to 49 and 40 ft, respectively. Dredging of the initial phase, which reduced the channel widths in the York Spit and Rappahannock Shoal Channels, from 1,000 to 800 ft wide, the Craighill Entrance to Fort McHenry Channel from 800 to 700 ft wide, and the Curtis Bay Channel from 600 to 400 ft wide, commenced in 1987 and was completed by 1990. Recent navigation improvements include straightening of the Tolchester S-Turn, which was completed in January 2002. Improvements authorized for the Baltimore Harbor Anchorages and Channels project in 1999 include dredging a turning basin 50 ft deep at the head of the Fort McHenry Channel; deepening and widening Anchorage No. 3 from 35 ft deep, 4,500 ft long, and 1,500 ft wide to provide two areas that are 42 ft deep, one that's 2,200 ft long and 2,200 ft wide, and one that is 1,800 ft long and 1,800 ft wide; deepening and widening Anchorage No. 4 from 30 ft deep, 2,400 ft long and 1,200 ft wide to 35 ft deep, 1,800 ft long, and 1,800 ft wide; widening the Dundalk Marine Terminal East Channel from 42 ft deep and 300 ft wide to 400 ft wide; widening the Dundalk Marine Terminal West Channel and the Dundalk-Seagirt Marine Terminal Connecting Channel from 42 ft deep and 350 ft wide to 500 ft wide; and dredging a new entrance channel to create a loop channel 36 ft deep and 400 ft wide into the South Locust Point Marine Terminal. Dredging commenced in March 2002 and was completed in August 2003.
Through its civil works mission, the Baltimore District continues to be an important influence in the economic development of the region. The Federal enlargements and continued maintenance of the Baltimore Harbor channels, combined with efforts by the City and State, have transformed the Port of Baltimore into one of the world's leading commercial ports. The Port is considered a significant economic engine for the entire region, generating $1.4 billion in revenue annually and providing approximately 115,400 direct and Port-related jobs in Maryland. These jobs include 35,900 jobs generated by Port activities and 79,500 related jobs by shippers and consigners.