The continuous existence of the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) dates from the year 1802, and from its inception, the USACE was asked to contribute to both military construction and works “of a civil nature.” Throughout the nineteeth century, the USACE supervised the construction of coastal fortifications as well as constructed lighthouses, developed jetties and piers for harbors, and carefully mapped navigation channels.
The great flood of 1927 was the deadliest and most destructive of a series of natural disasters that ravaged the lower Mississippi River valley and heightened the Nation’s awareness of the need for a greater understanding of civil engineering problems. Consequently, civil engineer John R. Freeman led a campaign to develop a national hydraulics laboratory at the federal level. The laboratory was envisioned to serve multiple agencies as well as the public. The Flood Control Act of 1928 authorized the Chief of Engineers to establish what became known as the Waterways Experiment Station (WES). The visionary early leaders of the Hydraulics Laboratory (HL) enabled WES to become the first federal facility to apply modern research methods to large, nationally signficant Civil Works projects.
The laboratory quickly became the largest hydraulics research facility in the world due to the continuous need for supporting large-scale Civil Works projects. In 1932, HL expanded into coastal physical modeling by developing the St. Andrews, Florida, Ship Channel Model. Additional coastal physical models followed, and while modeling skill improved with experience, the development of accurate coastal models remained a significant challenge. At the same time, the USACE expanded coastal research into other areas. Coastal research gained national impetus with the formation of the Beach Erosion Board (BEB) in 1930. Both WES and the BEB made significant contributions to military operations during World War II, including the D-Day campaign. The BEB developed a national research facility that included the world’s largest wave tank. In 1962, a commission concluded that a center was needed to conduct research to support congressional imperatives for coastal planning and advancing coastal research, including hurricane impacts, as well as to consult and coordinate with USACE districts on specific coastal engineering projects. In response to this, Congress established the Coastal Engineering Research Center (CERC) in 1963 to focus on coastal engineering research, with oversight provided by the Coastal Engineering Research Board, which was the successor to the BEB. The CERC was originally located on the Dalecarlia Reservation in Washington, DC, but was moved to Ft. Belvoir, Virgina, in 1973. In 1977, CERC established the Field Research Facility in Duck, North Carolina, a coastal observatory that became an early focus of coastal experimentation, funded jointly by the USACE, the Office of Naval Research, and the US Geological Society. In 1983, CERC was moved to WES, and in 1996, the Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory (CHL) was created through the merger of CERC and HL. In 1999, with formation of the US Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC), which encompassed WES, CHL became one of the seven ERDC laboratories. Today, CHL leads coastal, estuarine, and hydraulic water resources research in both Civil Works and military domains.