By Luke Carothers
“The Dry Salvages” by T.S. Eliot:
I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river Is a strong brown god–sullen, untamed and intractable, Patient to some degree, at first recognized as a frontier; Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce; Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges. The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten By the dwellers in cities–ever, however, implacable. Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder Of what men choose to forget. (1941)
As humans, our relationship with water is biologically etched into the very structures of our most fundamental building blocks. More than half of our bodies are made of water, and we must consume it to survive; water is also essential to the growth of our crops and the health of our livestock. At the same time, water shares an equally important role within the social development of humanity–from the most ancient of our predecessors to this very moment, the presence of fresh water has dictated where and how humans choose to build their communities.
In the context of the history of water-based engineering, T.S. Eliot’s musings on our collective relationship with water seem resoundingly astute. The progress of civilization is often marked by its ability to control water and use its power to drive growth in population, industry, and agriculture. Likewise, water systems are often the branches from which the fruits of growth ripen into towns, villages, and cities. The Indus River Valley fostered some of the earliest examples of civilization in known history with settlements such as Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. By taking advantage of annual flooding through irrigation, the Indus Valley Civilization advanced human civilization by domesticating several plants and animals for the first time. However, as the monsoon-fed rivers of the valley began to dry up, so too did the population of Indus Valley Civilization.
This is not dissimilar to the growth of towns and cities along the Ohio river in the 19th century. During the years after America’s founding, many Americans began to move to what was then considered the West, settling in the Appalachian mountains. For these early Americans, the Ohio river was a vital trade link, flowing west into the Mississippi then journeying south to New Orleans. This meant that crops and manufactured goods from Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky could be relatively easily transported to ports on the East Coast via New Orleans. With this transportation network established, the Ohio River valley and the Appalachian mountains became integral engines of the American Industrial Revolution.
Cities like Cincinnati exploded in population as new industries sprang up to support vital trade along the river. In addition to an already-thriving meat packing industry, new infrastructure was built along the river’s banks to repair steamboats as they moved West, and soon the Miami and Erie Canal flowed into it, bringing even more trade to the city. By the late 19th century, dams were being constructed for the first time on the Ohio River. However, this growth wasn’t to last, and the population remained roughly the same since this time. The same cannot be said for other towns and cities along the Ohio River. Towns like Stubenville, which grew to nearly 40,000 people in the early 20th century, faded as coal fell out of favor and more of the transportation network relied upon rail transportation. This is true of many other cities on the Ohio river who, at the river’s economic peak, were capable of supporting large populations, only to dwindle as the river’s economic reach lessened, echoing Eliot’s sentiment of river’s as “useful” but “untrustworthy” as a “conveyor of commerce.”
Eliot’s words ring especially true in the state in which the AEC industry currently finds itself. Rivers no longer belong to those journeying to find new frontiers, they belong to us, the builders of bridges. However, we must journey a different course than that of Eliot’s imagination. Although our understanding of water and how it can be engineered to improve our lives and support growing populations has advanced significantly since the time of the poem’s writing, we cannot see our problems as solved. With increasing threats from climate-related events such as hurricanes and flooding, we are reminded of the power that drew us to settle near water in the first place. As the designers of the world around us, it is the responsibility of the AEC industry to not “choose to forget” but to approach these waterways with the same awe and respect that drew the first settlers there.
Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at email@example.com.