On-line Book




Chapter 1

Chapter 2
The Biology of Salt Marshes

Chapter 3
Banking/Diking Procedures

Chapter 4
Economics of Land Reclamation

Chapter 5
Salt-Hay Farming

Chapter 6
Meadow Companies

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Sources Consulted

The Landscape Transformation of Coastal New Jersey
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During the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, American farmers relied upon American and English almanacs, agricultural journals, and handbooks to guide their agribusiness. This literature, especially the journals and handbooks, covered topics from animal husbandry to plant physiology to crop harvesting and land reclamation. No matter what the subject, the literature advised them on the outcome of farming experiments conducted by peers throughout the United States. One topic of special concern in such nineteenth-century periodicals as the New England Farmer, the American Farmer, and the Country Gentleman was land reclamation. Many farmers from New England and the mid-Atlantic states relayed their experiences through this medium. In 1826, Robert Gibbons Johnson, a resident of Salem, New Jersey, and a landowner, submitted his ideas on draining and diking the marshes to the American Farmer.

Johnson was not the first to record the procedures involved in reclaiming marshland. As early as 1650, English Captain Walter Bligh, an advocate of drainage trenches, wrote a book on draining the fens in England. A century later, Joseph Elkington of Warwickshire experimented with the tapping of underground springs. In the nineteenth century many more texts were published that discussed how and why marshes were drained. These included W. Marshall's On the Landed Property of England: An Elementary and Practical Treatise (London, 1804); William Smith's Observation on the Utility, Form and Management of Water Meadows and the Draining and Irrigating of Peat Bogs (Norwich, 1806); George Stephens' The Practical Land Drainer (London, 1834); B. Munn's Practical Land Drainer: A Treatise on Draining Land (New York, 1856); Henry F. French's Farm Drainage (New York, 1860); and George Waring's Draining for Profit and Health (New York, 1867). These books stressed that draining the marshes was an economic endeavor that would increase profits and make useless land operational. The main principle behind land reclamation, as described by Marshall, appeared rudimentary.

The theory of this valuable operation is beautifully simple. The outward waters having been resisted by a line of embankment and having receded, those that have collected internally are enabled, by their own weight to open a valve, which is placed in the foot of the bank, and effect their escape: thus securing the embanked lands from inundation; tho beset in every side with water. [1]

The actual work and details for success, however, were not so basic. Building the bank along a river or seacoast was the most expensive and difficult task. The size, materials, and form of construction differed with each individual case, though three guidelines were common wherever the operation was implemented.

First and most important, the placement of the bank in the proper location meant being aware of areas where the bank would receive the least exposure to the immediate action of the waves. The position of the banks also depended upon the topography of the land. Banks constructed near rivers and running through flat land had to be "carried up on one slope, from the level of the surface of the lowest water in the river to such a height as may be found necessary for the protection of the land." Those constructed near rivers that run through hilly land were set away from the river; these waters flowed with a faster current and did more damage to the banks. Setting the bank away from rivers not only protected it from the currents, but also allowed for enough room between the bank and the river to make repairs (Fig. 12). [2]

drawing of river bank construction
Figure 12. Banks were constructed by the New York Iron Dike and Land Reclamation Company on the Newark Meadows between the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers. Pictorial Guide.

Second, the height and strength of the bank needed to be proportional to the depth and weight of the water it was to hold back. Also important to the form of the bank was the outer face, or the facade that received the most exposure to river or sea. Its strength, durability, and firmness all depended upon this section of the bank; therefore, the outer face always sloped with a degree of flatness aimed at preventing resistance and taking off the weight of the water. Moreover, the line of embankment had to be smooth, without acute angles, to ensure the least possible resistance from the current. [3]

In areas not overly exposed to wave and wind action, landowners built their banks at least 18' higher than the highest flood level. In areas near the sea where the banks were subject to these forces, the height depended upon the level of the highest spring tides. If the bank was too low, the ocean spray could erode it and destroy the crops with its salinity (Fig. 13). [4]

drawing of river bank construction
Figure 13. Enough men were hired to ensure the bank was stable before the following high tide. Pictorial Guide.

The bank's sturdiness depended upon the width of its base. The stability of the base, in turn, depended upon the slope of the bank exposed to the river. Builders determined the length of the slope by the speed of the river's current. After constructing the bank, the exposed area was covered with turf or seeded with grass. The roots of the grass helped prevent erosion, especially during floods. Furthermore, the foot of the bank was covered with stones at the low-water mark to prevent minor floods from undermining the base. [5]

The final guideline dealt with the type of materials used to build the bank. Mud and sod from nearby was the cheapest and most available material; however, if the bank was located where strong currents and wind eroded it more readily than usual, the builders reinforced it with pilings, timber, and masonry. Some farmers experimented with other methods of reinforcements such as iron plates. [6]

Farmers worked hard to protect their dikes from the intrusion of marsh animals, especially the muskrats that burrowed into the banks to make their home. The holes not only threatened the stability of the bank, but allowed water to seep into the drained area. George Waring offered the following solution:

It should be a cardinal rule with all who are engaged in the construction of such works, never to allow two bodies of water [i.e. the river and the ditch], one on each side of the bank to be nearer than 25 yards of each other, and 50 yards would be better. Muskrats do not bore through a bank, as is often supposed, to make a passage from one body of water to another but they delight in any elevated mound in which they can make their homes above the water level and have its entrance beneath the surface, so that their land enemies can not invade them. When they enter for this purpose, only from one side of the dyke, they will do no harm, but if another colony is, at the same time boring in from the other side, there is great danger that their burrows will connect, and thus form a channel for the admission of water, and destroy the work. [7]

Another means of assailing the muskrat population was to install a wall of cast-iron plates riveted together to create a barrier that ran from the top of the bank to the low-water mark, which the muskrats and other burrowing animals could not penetrate. These plates, however, had three drawbacks. If not driven past the permeable soil and into the clay strata below, the plates allowed the infiltration of water. Second, the iron was easily corroded by the action of the salt water, and once weakened the muskrats could bore through the plates. Finally, the plates were expensive. [8]

The New York Iron Dike and Land Reclamation Company, promoters of the iron-plate method, discussed the need to protect banks from anything that burrowed such as muskrats, crabs, and crawfish (Fig. 14). The company claimed that all dikes/banks needed a core, or spinal column, that would protect the structure from invasion. The lack of such a feature led to the demise of the reclaimed Newark Meadows in northern New Jersey. The company promoted a series of cast-iron plates riveted together and driven into the bank, which it insisted was the most economical and least labor-intensive means of protection. Other cores—which were built out of dry sand, puddled clay, and masonry—needed a foundation as well as heavy construction to be effective. With the plates, all the laborer had to do was drive them into the bank, without prior excavation or other forms of preparation. Moreover, once in place, the plates would not sink or settle unequally. The company also claimed the plates could last as long as 100 years before oxidation destroyed them, and up to 500 years if they were made of ore rather than iron. Unfortunately, the claims were false. [9]

drawing of workers
Figure 14. Workers of the New York Iron Dike and Land Reclamation Company drove iron plates into the bank to protect them from muskrats. Pictorial Guide.

Successful completion of the banks depended upon hiring enough men to finish the job between low and high tides; if the tide rose before the workers had stabilized the banks, it could destroy what work had been done. The best time of the year to build the bank was prior to spring, when tides rose to the highest level with heavy seasonal rains. [10]

Upon completion of the embankments, workers dug drains to allow the water in the marsh to escape (Fig. 15). Planning the location of the drains, especially the discharge on the outside of the embankment, was the most important step. The mouth of the drain on the outside of the embankment had to be as low as possible so it would not become obstructed with debris from the current. When reclaiming an area near the sea or a wide estuary, drainage advocates recommended installing two floodgates in case the action of the waves opened the outer one. The second, or inner, floodgate should be inside the bank in calmer water to arrest persistent flood waters (Fig. 16). [11]

drawing of workers
Figure 15. Ditches were also dug to allow water to drain off of the reclaimed land. Pictorial Guide.

drainage ditch
Figure 16. Drainage ditches such as this one take the water off of Edward and Lehma Gibson's salt-hay meadows. Sebold.

The construction of floodgates, or sluice gates, varied according to the land owners' preference. The most widely used was the common, or clapper, valve; hinging at the top, it swings outward, and falls into a rabbetted frame. Some builders made the floodgate from seasoned wood, which fell neatly into the frame with enough room to swell (Figs. 17-19). [12]

diagram of sluice gate
Figure 17. Details of a concrete automatic sluice gate taken from a 1907 USDA Bulletin. Reclamation of Tide Lands.

clapper valve sluice gate
Figure 18. Modern example of a clapper valve sluice gate. Sebold.

Figure 19. Example of the supports that surround a modern clapper valve sluice gate. Sebold.

In tidal areas where the water level between tides was relatively uniform, landowners relied upon machinery to drain the land. In some areas, large wheels furnished with scoops and powered by sails like a windmill, discharged water from the ditches. In other areas, steam powered the drainage operation; however, this latter type of power was more costly. [13]

New Jersey farmers such as Robert Gibbons Johnson used many of the principles found in agricultural handbooks and journals. In Johnson's American Farmer article, he explained that the first steps toward reclaiming a wild marsh was to stake out the site for the bank, yielding space for a buffer zone between the bank and the waterway to guard against stormy waters and to allow for the gathering of mud to repair the banks. He also emphasized that sod cut from the ditches should be placed on top of the bank; once in place, the sod rooted and helped hold the bank together. [14]

Johnson's suggestions for the dimensions of the banks varied according to circumstances. Where the marsh was high and had a firm mud bottom, Johnson recommended banks have a 12' base and be 6' high. If these measurements did not please readers, he suggested that the base should always be double the width to the height; the side slopes should be at or near a 50-degree angle; the width of the top of the bank should be about one-sixth that of the base. In places where rising tides, caused by spring freshets and storms or where the bottom of the marsh was spongy, the banks had to be built in a more substantial manner. [15]

Throughout his article, Johnson reiterated many of the same ideas that were expressed in popular agricultural handbooks and journals. Moreover, he consistently stressed that all suggestions or plans had to be altered somewhat to fit different environments. Yet, like French, Waring, Stephens, and the others, he understood that the basic premise was the same, as well as the troubles caused by storms, freshets, muskrats, and other vermin. [16]

Johnson and other agriculturalists knew that building and maintaining a diking or banking system took time, patience, money, and intelligence. Farmers and others who ventured into reclamation had to be familiar with engineering methods as well as cycles of nature to have a successful project. They needed to know how deep to dig the ditches and how high to build the banks, according to area needs, along with an understanding for low tides and other natural phenomena. To many farmers along the coast, this knowledge appears to have been second nature. Although somewhat altered due to new technology, the few farmers who still drain the marshes along New Jersey's Delaware Bay know the environment and how to manipulate it.

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Last Modified: Mon, Jan 31 2005 10:00:00 pm PDT

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