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Galveston District celebrates 144 years

Leslie Groves arrived at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Galveston District (SWG) in the mid 1920s as a young lieutenant assigned to Maj. Julian Schley—then district engineer—as an assistant. Groves’ primary duties included supervising dredge operations in the Galveston Bay. Groves would go on to direct construction of the Pentagon in 1941, but his involvement in the Manhattan Project—which would produce the world’s first atomic bomb—would be his defining historical moment.

Posted on March 27, 2024

On February 25, 1880, The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) established its first engineer district in Texas on an island off the Gulf Coast.

One hundred forty-four years, 52 district commanders, and several major hurricanes later, the Galveston District (SWG) continues to play a key role in keeping the country’s vital waterways open and protecting coastal Texas communities.

While taking on a multitude of missions since its inception, the Galveston District has seen its share of personalities and events that have shaped the Corps of Engineers, the country, and even the world.

An official history of the USACE Galveston District already exists in the form of 1977’s Custodians of the Coast, written by Lynn M. Alperin. Today, we take a comprehensive look at its history.

In the beginning
The Galveston District’s story fits into much of the broader picture of the ‘Old West’. As the United States rose from the ashes of the American Revolution, the country found itself growing and in dire need of engineers to help build up and westward, connecting the country from the Atlantic to Pacific oceans. A fledgling country hot off the heels of war recognized the need to defend its growing coastline.

When the U.S. annexed Texas in 1845, USACE—established as it’s known today in 1802—quickly recognized the value of its waterways and natural resources. They also recognized the need to protect said resources.

Several military expeditions, a couple of wars, surveys, and acts of government later—see ‘Army Engineers and Western Expansion’ chapter of Custodians of the Coast—and it was determined that Galveston was the ideal harbor on the Texas coast.

Years of experimental work on Galveston Island’s inner bar—set back by lack of funding, erosion, and waning Congressional interest—fevered the local Galvestonian desire for an Army engineer to assume command of the work being done to develop the Texas coast.

According to a passage from Custodians of the Coast, “On January 9, 1880, the Galveston Daily News reported that steps were being taken to locate a high-ranking engineer in Galveston.” On February 25, 1880, Maj. Samuel M. Mansfield—later brigadier general—arrived at Galveston to assume command over the river and harbor improvements. As part of his marching orders, he established the Galveston Engineer Office which was the predecessor of the modern-day Galveston District.

Mansfield was a battle-hardened Soldier whose experience in fort construction and harbor defense made him the ideal officer to lead the new enterprise. Facing a possible slump in funding for Galveston’s harbor improvements, Mansfield set a precedent that would echo throughout the district’s history. He soon found himself pressed by local government leaders on what would happen if work were to stop, and the amount of money needed to keep improvements going.

Being a career military man, Mansfield kept his response polite and to-the-point: “There is no engineering difficulty in the way. It is a mere question of dollars and cents.”

Galveston VIPs
Since its establishment, a line of noteworthy characters have called SWG home.

Former USACE Chief of Engineers, Brig. Gen. Henry Martyn Robert, is one of them. Robert headed a board of engineers tasked with devising ‘the safest and most efficient way for protecting the city against overflows from the sea’ on the heels of the 1900 Galveston hurricane. *NOTE: The board also included Alfred Noble, the civil engineer responsible for the Panama Canal. Robert and the board’s plan called for a solid concrete wall rising 17 ft. above the average low tide, that would extend for more than three miles. Today, we know this as the Galveston Seawall, still standing today as a sign of SWG’s commitment to protecting the island.

However, Robert is probably most famous for writing what would become the country’s standard for organizing and facilitating discussions and decision making, 1876’s Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Deliberative Assemblies. This collection of rules would become known as “Robert’s Rules of Order.”

Another SWG alumnus who would go on to have national—and eventually global—impact was Leslie Groves. Groves arrived at SWG in the mid 1920s as a young lieutenant assigned to Maj. Julian Schley—then district engineer—as an assistant. Groves’ primary duties included supervising dredge operations in the Galveston Bay. Unlike Robert, however, Groves carried less of a favorable reputation amongst the workers he oversaw.

As Alperin wrote in Custodians of the Coast:

“One day, he was out with a crew working in the bay when the weather became very rough. The captain of the vessel decided it would be wise to return to shore, but Groves disagreed and ordered him to keep on going. As the weather continued to worsen, the captain asserted that as long as they were afloat he was in command and that once they were safely ashore, Groves might exercise his authority. Whether Groves was more influenced by this line of reasoning or by the crew member who stood ready to throw him overboard remains questionable, but he did acquiesce.”

Groves would go on to direct construction of the Pentagon in 1941, but his involvement in the Manhattan Project—which would produce the world’s first atomic bomb—would be his defining historical moment.

Another standout figure in the story of the Galveston District is none other than Lt. Gen. Edgar Jadwin, namesake of the district’s current headquarters building. Jadwin arrived at SWG in May 1903 as a captain, already carrying a sterling reputation within the Corps. A high honors West Point graduate, Jadwin distinguished himself in the Spanish-American War commanding a battalion with the 3rd U.S. Volunteer Engineers in Cuba. During World War I, he earned a Distinguished Service Medal, among other decorations, from the British and French governments.

Jadwin would then be selected to assist in the construction of the Panama Canal, where he would construct a breakwater at the canal’s Atlantic side. He also served as USACE chief of engineers from 1926 to 1929.

Missions and accolades
SWG was established primarily to oversee navigation and harbor developments on the Texas Coast. Almost 150 years later and its still playing a key role in keeping Texas’ waterways, ports, and harbors open for navigation and commerce.

Responsible for monitoring more than 1,000 miles of channel, the Galveston District also builds jetties and/or breakwaters to protect harbors and inlets while managing locks along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW).

The Galveston District is responsible for the longest stretch—423 miles, from the Sabine River to Port Isabel—of the GIWW, which provides protected inland transportation of goods and handles approximately 73 million tons of freight yearly along the Texas portion alone.

A major part of keeping waterways open and improving harbors is dredging—SWG’s bread and butter.

The Galveston District dredges anywhere between 30 to 40 million cubic yards of material annually via harbor and channel improvements for Texas’ ports, including Houston, Beaumont, Corpus Christi, and Matagorda. While most of the dredged material is placed in open water or placement areas, SWG reallocates the material whenever possible via its Beneficial Use of Dredge Material (BUDM) program.

SWG’s BUDM program has helped replenish Babe’s Beach on Galveston Island. Since 2015, the Galveston District has partnered with the Galveston Park Board of Trustees, the City of Galveston, and the Texas General Land Office in getting fresh sand to replenish Babe’s Beach. The partnership was part of an ongoing effort to maintain and protect Galveston’s beaches at no additional cost to local residents.

SWG has replenished the beach four times: first in 2015; 2019; the summer of 2021; and April of 2023.

Environmental conservation and natural resource management are also key components of the Galveston District’s mission. These are exemplified in SWG’s Wallisville Lake Project. The project serves a variety of purposes, including: fish and wildlife preservation; salinity control, via saltwater barriers; fresh water supply for the Houston area; and navigation for commercial and recreational boating.

USACE natural resource specialists at Wallisville—a.k.a. park rangers—also do interpretive programs for schools, civic groups, and other organizations on a variety of topics, such as water safety, life jacket usage, boating safety, and general information about the Wallisville Lake Project.

The project is also the site of SWG’s annual Lone Star Warriors Outdoors Gator Hunt, where park rangers escort wounded veterans on a weekend hunt throughout the grounds as part of their efforts to control local gator populations.

Lasting legacy
The Galveston Seawall—as mentioned above—is quite possibly the most famous and enduring of SWG’s accomplishments on the Texas coast.

The Galveston hurricane of 1900 pummeled a defenseless island coastline with a 15 ft. tide and winds that reached an estimated 120 mph. In the aftermath, roughly 8,000 lives were lost and the remains of more than 3,600 homes lay scattered along the city. To date, it is the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Property damage was estimated at $25 million. Nearly 300 ft. of beach was claimed by erosion. Galvestonians faced the daunting task of rebuilding their city.

Once plans were approved, SWG got to work on constructing the seawall in September 1902. Though the initial segment was finished on July 29, 1904, the seawall would be extended several times up through 1963, extending to more than 10 miles long.

Running alongside Texas Farm to Market (FM) Road 3005—or Seawall Boulevard—the Galveston Seawall now serves as a popular attraction and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Looking toward the future
In a recent message to the Galveston District workforce, Blackmon praised SWG employees past and present for their commitment to the district’s mission and their contributions toward protecting the Texas coast.

“As we march into year 145, the spirit of resolve, fortitude, and dedication that earned us the title ‘Champions of the Texas Coast’ will continue to propel us forward,” Blackmon said. “Each step you take continues to shape a legacy of excellence, resilience, and service to the communities we proudly protect.”

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