Col. Gilbert A. Youngberg — Florida Chief of Army Corps of Engineers, in 1922

The nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, constantly fought Alexander Hamilton, first Treasury Secretary under President George Washington, over Hamilton’s liberal views of the Constitution. Jefferson believed in a strict construction of the Constitution. Adamantly opposed to Hamilton’s support of a standing (permanent) army, Jefferson supported the Military Peace Establishment Act, which founded the U. S. Military Academy at West Point.

Col. Gilbert A. Youngberg, Florida Chief of the Army Engineers (1922). Courtesy, Rollins College, Winter Park, Fla.
Col. Gilbert A. Youngberg, Florida Chief of the Army Engineers (1922). Courtesy, Rollins College, Winter Park, Fla.

Jefferson believed the federal government should train its best soldiers to survey but not build inland waterways, roads, and bridges as army engineers. In fact, because the Academy believed that French engineering produced better infrastructure based on more solid concepts over British engineering, West Point cadets read their engineering textbooks in French in the early years. Moreover, cadets who graduated in the top ten percent of their class were able to choose their areas of military service after graduation.

A crucial appointment by the Chief of Engineers in Washington, D.C., in 1922 led to the appointment of Col. Gilbert Albin Youngberg as Florida Chief of Engineers.  Youngberg emphasized the importance of assembling economic data to support Florida’s case for the federalizing of the privately owned old Florida East Coast Canal and its conversion into the toll-free, federally controlled, Intracoastal Waterway.

Five years later, in 1927, Youngberg put together a strong brief in support of a federal takeover of the East Coast Canal, later incorporated in House Document 586.  Acting on Youngberg’s support, Congress approved federalization as long as the State of Florida turned over to the federal government free and clear the old canal, the necessary right-of-way for enlargement to a depth of eight feet and a width of seventy-five feet, and provide the land for the deposit of spoil.  In exchange, the government would enlarge and maintain the waterway in perpetuity.

Col. Gilbert A. Youngberg, Florida chief of the Corps of Engineers

Col. Gilbert A. Youngberg, Florida Chief of the Army Engineers (1922). Courtesy, Rollins College, Winter Park, Fla.
Col. Gilbert A. Youngberg, Florida Chief of the Army Engineers (1922). Courtesy, Rollins College, Winter Park, uFla.

1922 became a key turning point in the history of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway in Florida. First, Charles F. Burgman became the president of the Association of East Coast Chambers of Commerce. By 1922, nearly every local chamber of commerce or board of trade had launched a campaign calling upon the Federal Government to take over the Florida East Coast Canal because of the failure of the Florida canal company to maintain the Canal.

The Florida canal company had collected thousands of dollars in tolls from vessels transiting the Canal, which at many points had become impassable because of poor maintenance.  When the Florida Legislature agreed to allow the canal company to collect tolls, the tolls were to be used to maintain the Canal once it was completed.  Burgman’s organization met as many as four times a year to launch public awareness campaigns and to push for a federalized waterway.

In August 1922, the Chief of Engineers in Washington, D.C.., appointed Col. Gilbert Youngberg to replace Col. William Lemen as Florida chief of the Army Corps of Engineers. Lemen’s work had been lackluster at best. Youngberg emphasized to Burgman’s group the necessity of making Congress aware of the facts and figures supporting the economic impact of a continuous inland waterway. This was especially important given the sparse populations in most settlements and villages along the east coast except for Miami.

Youngberg’s predecessor, Col. William Lemen, had been directed to determine whether the Corps should assume control of the old Florida East Coast Canal in its entirety or assume control of the St. Johns River in Jacksonville south to a more centrally located Sanford, Florida, on Lake Monroe, continuing southeast to a point near Titusville where an artificial canal could be constructed to the southern reaches of the old Florida East Coast Canal to Miami. The principal advantage of the St. Johns River route was the river’s natural depth and width. Nature had already provided Sanford with a waterway deep enough and wide enough for any steamship available, as steamships had already been in operation for decades between Sanford and Jacksonville, Fla.

In June 1922, Youngberg’s predecessor, Lt. William Lemen held four hearings at Titusville, West Palm Beach, Daytona, and Sanford. At Daytona, nearly ever individual interested in the waterway was present to support the old Florida East Coast Canal. If the Army chose the St. Johns River-Sanford route, Daytona would be cut out completely from an Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway project. Similarly, nearly every person in Sanford turned out for the hearing held there. Selection of the old East Coast Canal route would mean economic death for Sanford. The result was a preliminary selection by Lemen and a special board of Army engineers of the St. Johns River route, thus cutting out Daytona because an insufficient case had been made for a takeover of the East Coast Canal in its entirety.

Burgman and his Association of Chambers of Commerce of the East Coast of Florida went to work with Youngberg’s help to reverse Washington’s preliminary decision favoring the St. Johns River route. The final  result was a recommendation by the Chief of Engineers to the Speaker of the House of Representatives favoring the old Florida East Coast Canal as the Florida route for the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.