Gulf Intracoastal Waterway

By: Art Leatherwood

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: January 1, 1995

The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway is a coastal canal from Brownsville, Texas, to the Okeechobee waterway at Fort Myers, Florida. The Texas portion of the canal system extends 426 miles, from Sabine Pass to the mouth of the Brownsville Ship Channel at Port Isabel. The grand concept of a canal system that would eventually connect Boston harbor with Brownsville harbor was introduced by Albert Gallatin, United States secretary of the treasury, in a report on Public Roads and Canals submitted to the United States Senate in 1808. By 1819 Secretary of War John C. Calhoun had published his Report on Roads and Canals, which posits an urgent need for an improved internal transportation system including waterways. In that report Calhoun proposed that the Army Corps of Engineers be used to develop and, if necessary, supervise construction of the internal improvements. He also believed that the individual states would be unable to finance and construct an interconnecting national system of canals and railroads without federal help. A federal policy established by the General Survey Agency of 1824 represented the first step in a prolonged struggle. By 1829 much of the route along the heavily populated eastern portion of the proposed intracoastal waterway had been selected. Congress authorized several surveys for a canal across Florida to connect the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Nevertheless, for most of the nineteenth century, Congress was concerned with pressing domestic and military concerns that delayed actual construction. On March 3, 1873, Congress authorized a survey for a system to connect inland waters from Donaldsonville, Louisiana, to the Rio Grande, and by 1875 the army engineers had submitted the first plan for a waterway east of the Mississippi.

The railroads fiercely resisted development of the waterways and adopted many techniques designed to hamper water-borne competition, even that of hauling materials at a loss and refusing to transship goods that might be carried by both methods. As a result of such hindrances as wars, railroad competition, and the magnitude of the task, progress on the intracoastal waterway was slowed until after the end of World War II.

The state of Texas had already dredged a shallow channel through part of the West Bay inside Galveston Island. In 1892 Congress authorized enlargement and extension of that channel to Christmas Point in Oyster Bay, and in 1897 authorized purchase from the Brazos Navigation Company of an eleven-mile canal that connected Oyster Bay to the Brazos River. The purchase was completed in 1902.

The discovery of oil and the development of the Spindletop oilfield near Beaumont provided a major impetus for further canal development. In 1905 the Rivers and Harbors Act authorized a second major survey of inland waterways. The subsequent growth of the oil and petrochemical industries along the Texas coast produced a great demand for cheap transportation of bulk materials. In 1905 the Interstate Inland Waterway League (now the Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association), a grass-roots organization, was founded by Clarence St. Elmo Holland and others. The league pledged support for a continuous 18,000-mile water transportation system extending from the Great Lakes through the Mississippi River and all its tributary systems and along the Texas and Louisiana coast. By 1905 Congress had provided authorization and money to tie the various existing canal segments into a continuous channel nine feet deep and 100 feet wide from New Orleans to Galveston Bay. By 1941 the canal had been extended to Corpus Christi Bay; by 1949 it had been enlarged to twelve feet deep and 125 feet wide and extended to the Brownsville Ship Channel.

The major function of the waterway is the transportation of goods. This commercial trade link with inland consumers through the Mississippi River system, and with world commerce through the Gulf of Mexico, is of major economic significance to Texas and the United States. The canal is directly linked to ten deep-draft ports (ports with water twenty-five feet or more deep) and twenty-six shallow-draft channels. An average of sixty-five million tons of goods moved along the canal each year between 1968 and 1984. A record seventy-two million tons was carried over the canal in 1986. The principal commodities transported are crude petroleum and petroleum products, iron and steel, building materials, fertilizers, liquid sulfur, and other bulk products. The Texas Department of Transportation estimated that $35.5 billion worth of goods was moved over the waterway in 1986, by a work force of 145,000 people. In 1985 the commercial fishing fleet utilizing the canal for access to the Gulf of Mexico produced a catch of 100.3 million pounds of shrimp, oysters, crabs, and fin fish with a wholesale value of $176 million. All of the work boats supporting the hundreds of off-shore oilrigs gain access to the Gulf through the canal. Additionally, the canal is used extensively for recreation. In 1980 an estimated 2.4 million boat trips originated in Texas waters, and 79 percent of them used the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. Most traversed five to fifty miles of the waterway.

The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway was financed and constructed by the federal government through the United States Army Corps of Engineers. In 1975 the Texas legislature enacted the Texas Coastal Waterway Act, by which the state assumed sponsorship of the main channel of the Texas portion of the waterway. The legislature assigned administration of the act to the Texas State Highway and Public Transportation Commission. The commission is charged with the responsibility to "continually evaluate the GIWW as it relates to Texas." The results of the evaluation are presented to regular sessions of the Texas legislature. The commission is also charged with providing sites for the disposal of waste from the regular dredging required to maintain or enlarge the canal. By 1986 this provision had become a major problem, since environmental concerns had increased in importance and all of the original disposal sites were filled. Several options appeared to be suitable, mostly offered by coastal landowners who wanted to engage in mariculture or to raise the elevation of their properties. Another option, deep-water disposal, seemed to offer no significant threat to the environment.

During the 1980s the canal was used at or near its capacity. Its dimensions limited barge tows to five barges with a total length of 1,180 feet and a maximum width of fifty-five feet. Larger barges or longer tows could not negotiate the curves. Enlarging the canal to sixteen by 150 feet had been proposed.

Some method of cost recovery for the operation of the nation's waterways has been debated since the 1930s. In 1978 Congress enacted the Inland Waterway Revenue Act, which levied a fuel tax on commercial users. The tax began at four cents a gallon on October 1, 1980, and was to increase thereafter. Nevertheless, the ultimate goal of a 100 percent user-supported canal seemed remote.

Lynn M. Alperin, Custodians of the Coast: History of the United States Army Engineers at Galveston (Galveston: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1977). Lynn M. Alperin, History of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (Washington: Institute of Water Resources, 1983). Analysis of the Role of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (College Station: Texas Coastal and Marine Council, Texas A&M University, 1974). Bob Armstrong, The Texas Coastal Management Program (Austin: General Land Office, 1974). Alexander Deussen, Geology of the Coastal Plain of Texas (Washington: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1924). Jamie Frucht, Coastal Zone Management Troupe (Austin: Office of the Governor of Texas, 1974). A. Leland Parker, A Pictorial History of the Coastal Bend (Corpus Christi: South Coast, 1983). John L. Tveten, Coastal Texas (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1982). U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (Galveston District Corps of Engineers, 1954).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Art Leatherwood, “Gulf Intracoastal Waterway,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 19, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 1, 1995