History Overview

The USACE Philadelphia District traces its origins to July 21, 1866, when Lt. Col. Charles Seaforth Stewart, already serving as Superintending Engineer of the defenses of Delaware River and Bay, was assigned similar responsibilities for harbor improvements of the Delaware at Marcus Hook and Chester, Pa., and Lewes, Del. 

But the Corps’ local legacy dates back almost a century earlier, to Army Engineers planning the encampment and defense of Washington’s colonial Army at Valley Forge. And it was 1829 when the Corps began its first civil works project in this region: a quarter-mile stone breakwater near Cape Henlopen that provided refuge from storms to numerous ships transiting the Delaware Bay.

Since the District’s inception, its foremost mission has been navigation. In 1919 the federal government purchased the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal to be operated, and later expanded, by the Philadelphia District. Today’s C&D is a vital artery for the Port of Baltimore and is spanned by the District’s five highway bridges, the largest such inventory in the Corps.

During World War II, the Delaware River federal channel was deepened to 40 feet along more than 100 miles from Philadelphia to the sea; a multi-year project further deepening it to 45 feet is on track for 2018 completion. In total, the District is responsible for some 500 miles of navigable waterways.

As a result, the District has always been closely linked to dredging. Once part of the District and still co-located with the Philadelphia District, the Marine Design Center designs and delivers dredges, survey boats, work boats, barges and other floating plant for the Corps, Army, and other federal agencies. Philadelphia is home port to the McFarland, which covers the East Coast as one of the Corps’ four “minimum fleet” hopper dredges.

Since the 1990s, dredging has gained in prominence with the replenishing of beaches and dunes with sand to help protect New Jersey and Delaware coastal communities from storms. After Superstorm Sandy in October 2012, the Philadelphia District first responded to more than 60 FEMA missions that included de-watering a major municipal waste treatment plant, converting former Army barracks to temporary housing, and filling a breach that had cut off the barrier island town of Mantoloking. The District then proceeded to fully restore all 12 of its existing beachfill projects and completed four projects not yet constructed before Sandy. 

Long before dunes there were dams. After the back-to-back 1955 floods that claimed almost 100 lives, the Philadelphia District performed the nation’s first-ever comprehensive river basin study, followed by construction of five earthfill dams in eastern Pennsylvania that the District operates for flood risk reduction. These include Blue Marsh Lake, staffed by Corps park rangers for recreation and natural resource management, and Francis E. Walter Dam, with its summer water release program enhancing both rafting and fishing along the Lehigh River.

Since the early 1970s the District, like the Corps as a whole, has seen its workload grow steadily greener. Its regulatory jurisdiction came to include wetlands as well as waterways; its longstanding interagency support to EPA has made Philadelphia the Corps’ leader in Superfund remediation; and the added mission of aquatic ecosystem restoration has led to projects from dam removal to fish ladders to a dune-and-berm system west of Cape May that safeguards a key freshwater stopover for birds along the North Atlantic Flyway.

Finally, the District has a proud history of support to local military installations: Dover Air Force Base, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, and more recently, Aberdeen Proving Ground and Tobyhanna Army Depot. Since 9/11, Philadelphia has become the Corps’ preferred provider of global power contracting, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the Corps’ microgrid center of expertise. The District holds similar designations for its expertise in coastal planning, groundwater modeling, and bridge inspection.

Today, as always, the Soldiers and Civilians of the Philadelphia District proudly serve this region and the Nation with the responsiveness and reliability for which they have long been known.