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Discover The Rivers That Made America Great


“Life in us,” Henry David Thoreau once said, “is like the water in a river.” With respect to the life and times of our republic, Martin Doyle would surely agree.

In Doyle’s illuminating new book, The Source: How Rivers Made America and America Remade its Rivers, the Duke University environmental scientist, invokes the watery heritage of the United States in the name of seminal issues like federalism, sovereignty, property rights, taxation, power, and, of course, conservation

“Tracing the history of America’s rivers,” Doyle submits, “requires disentangling the political, demographic, technological, and economic contexts that predominated in specific eras while simultaneously understanding the hydrological events constantly at work to naturally re-carve rivers.”

In support of his thesis, Doyle himself traverses many of America’s 250,000-plus rivers, which span more than three million miles.

Binding the Nation

Doyle begins by exploring how early colonists settled in cities where the coastal plain and its rivers meet the mountains – known as the Fall Line – including Trenton on the Delaware River, Richmond on the James, and Washington on the Potomac. Back then, merchants had to transfer goods from water to land to negotiate the mountain passes, rendering rivers both the spur and impediment to national economic development.

“A succession of navigable waters,” John Jay wrote in Federalist No. 2, “forms a kind of chain round [America’s] borders, as if to bind it together.” Doyle labels rivers “a starting point for binding separate peoples into an imperfect, yet potentially coherent nation.”

The advent of innovative, man-made waterways, most prominently the Erie Canal, fundamentally changed that equation. They also sparked the controversy that would result in the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Gibbons v. Ogden that conferred exclusive authority to the federal government over “navigable waters” on the reasoning, in Justice Marshall’s famous locution, that “the power over commerce, including navigation, was one of the primary objects for which the people of America adopted their government.”

Thence emerged the Army Corps of Engineers, whose dominant influence over U.S. waterways – including forestalling hydrological disasters – continues undiminished. Yet local levee districts and water authorities at state, county, and municipal levels also exert control over water management in more granular ways.

Using the example of the submerging of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, Doyle posits that while “it seems strange to manage a government function as critical as flood control through a system as complicated, redundant, and seemingly undisciplined as federalism… in the end, how we as a nation have approached managing rivers and floods is a manifestation of our ideology.”

Sovereignty, too, has historically been implicated in the aquatic conflicts that arise between and among states and Native American tribes, each seeking maximum riparian diversion. Doyle traces the evolution of the famous interstate compact between the seven western states through which the critical Colorado River flows, along the way illustrating the origins of the Hoover Dam and related reclamation measures.

In charting the emergence of modern American sewage and water-treatment systems, Doyle unearths numerous unsung heroes, such as Ellis Sylvester Chesbrough, who developed 19th-century Chicago’s putrid “privy vaults” into a systematic network of elevated structures and waterways, and William Sedgwick, who pioneered riverine microbial treatment of wastewater in Massachusetts. Doyle outlines how the federal government’s ballooning role in providing (and financing) water projects during the Great Depression bred increased control over water and wastewater treatment, including through regulatory agencies like the EPA.

Our Riverine Legacy

Conservation, too, both shaped and resulted from the forces of American political and economic history. Teddy Roosevelt and his Forest Service chief Gifford Pinchot receive (and deserve) much of the credit for extending the reach of the conservationist impulses of the 19th-century transcendentalists, but Doyle unearths the equally critical influence of the so-called Michigan School, spearheaded in the 1930s by fisheries expert Carl Hubbs. From these origins, conservationism and restoration would expand to fill their current role in the public policy debate over carbon taxes and swappable pollution credits.

Along the way, Doyle explains the origins of Mark Twain’s name: Samuel Clemens, who famously plied a steamboat on the Mississippi, most likely adopted his pen name from the chants of leadsmen who would probe the river’s depth with long sticks and call out how many “marks” (or fathoms) they measured; if two, they would shout “mark twain!”

Doyle has unquestionably done his hydrological homework, traveling hundreds of miles along America’s riparian wonderlands to encounter wastewater managers, cattle ranchers, fluvial geomorphologists, and riverboat captains, among many others. To be sure, our riverine legacy did not on its own carve every meander and channel of U.S history, but Doyle persuasively shows how deeply it runs through many important passages.

To the seemingly bottomless well of books in the “American-history-can-helpfully-be-viewed-through-the-lens-of-X” genre, we can now add another weighty bucketful.