The Delaware Breakwater, constructed between 1829 and about 1835, was one of the first national undertakings of public works projects, costing over $2 million at the time. “The expense and difficulty of constructing a breakwater will be very great,” acknowledged the Wilmingtonian and Delaware Advertiser in early 1827, “but will not exceed the benefits, given the appalling sufferings of seamen, and the loss of property to individuals and the public, which are annually experienced on the coast in the vicinity of the Delaware Bay for want of a proper place of shelter.
“Between the years 1810 and 1826 no less than 191 cases of shipwreck, loss and disaster were occasioned by vessels being driven out of the Bay by storms and ice.”
Congress was noticing these numbers too, and weighing solutions. NH Senator Levi Woodbury became Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee in 1827. He led the charge, as his first project in that role, for a breakwater to be built off the shore of Lewes. He reasoned that neither Delaware, New Jersey nor Pennsylvania could shoulder the burden of cost alone, and that the lift to regional commerce from the new shelter would be well worth the investment.
Not every American applauded this plan. South Carolina noted that the committee head was a northerner. “In this profuse liberality and paternal care towards certain quarters of the union, has Congress ever looked to the interests of South Carolina,” griped The Charleston Mercury, “or paid any attention to her complaints when uttered?”
Natchez, MS wanted its share of the pie. “We have, in the valley of the Mississippi, an interior coasting navigation,” The Statesman & Journal pointed out. “About one hundred and thirty steamboats now navigate the Mississippi and its tributary systems. Are not these rivers, which have become the theatre of so large a costing navigation interest, entitled to the same consideration from the government as the breakwater in the Delaware?”
Nor were southerners the only ones put out by the Federal government shouldering this project.
“We ask the boldest of these Philadelphia merchants to tell us why their property, 10,000 miles off, shall be protected,” demanded the Niles National Register [St Louis, MO], “and other persons’ property be let alone to protect itself? The merchants will recant their opinions when the people resolve that commerce and navigation shall really be left to themselves; when the grower of grain and the carrier of flour shall be equally respected by the laws of the land, in being equally supported by the national legislature.”
President Andrew Jackson and his supporters generally favored a hands-off approach to the economy, as opposed to the Whig program of sponsoring modernization and economic growth. And so when the breakwater bill was brought up for the vote, the Jacksonian Democrats said ‘Nay.’
But the Whigs had the majority, despite all the backbiting, and Congress appropriated $250,000 to build the new breakwater on May 23, 1828.
The Department of the Treasury went back and forth with stone contractor bids for more than a year, first with a Delaware County, PA firm, then a New York City firm, before settling on Bellevue Quarry in New Castle County. In late 1829 they began supplying Brandywine granite –the ‘blue rock’—for the mile long seawall. Bellevue Quarry provided roughly 130,000 tons of stone for each year of construction, through to the 1835 completion.
Between 1839-1843 an average of 22 vessels per year took shelter behind the new Delaware Breakwater. The seawall was clearly doing its job.
But the states’ rights vs. Federal control issue kept on spiraling.
“It is a mistake to regard expenditures judiciously made for public works as expenditures for local use,” Millard Fillmore was still having to say in 1849, while campaigning for president. “The breakwater at the mouth of the Delaware is erected not only for the exclusive benefit of the states on the bay and river of that name, but for that of the whole coastwise navigation of the United States, and to a considerable extent also, of foreign commerce.”
The fuse continued to burn towards 1861.