The Pittsburgh Engineer District is merely one of many Districts of the Corps of Engineers, United States Army, that direct water resource development and performed other assigned missions throughout the world; yet, it is proper for many reasons to refer to the installation at Pittsburgh as the “headwaters district.” At Pittsburgh, British and French Army Engineers first met in combat, launching the French and Indian War; and from Pittsburgh, American frontier engineers staged their campaigns during the Revolution to secure the Ohio and Mississippi basins for the United States. Here, Army Engineers began their explorations of the American West, and here, the pioneers boarded their frail craft to begin their voyages to new homes on the frontiers. A reminder of those events is the fact that distances along the Ohio River are measured not in miles above the mouth of the stream, as on other rivers, but in miles below Pittsburgh…
The Pittsburgh engineer District was the home of the pioneer marine engineers and waterways shippers. Here were built the first flatboats, keelboats, and steamboats; here the first barges and towboats were built. The District was the cradle of American inland river commerce.
It was natural therefore that the improvement of inland river navigation should begin at Pittsburgh. Here, the Army Engineers undertook their first experiments with waterways improvement engineering, clearing snags and constructing dams in 1824 to open river channels for reliable commerce. So many innovative waterways engineering methods were tried and tested in the Pittsburgh Engineer District that it became the empirical “experiment station” for the entire inland rivers system. Pittsburgh was the “headwaters district” for waterways navigation engineering.
It was at Pittsburgh that the great political and engineering controversies over flood control methods began and were fought out during the twentieth century. To find the origins of the modern multipurpose water resource development mission of the Corps of Engineers, one must look to the history of the Pittsburgh Engineer District.
In the history of the Pittsburgh Engineer District, one also finds many firsts in military construction engineering, - in the engineering of aerospace facilities ranging from biplane aerodromes to moon rockets, and in the multitude of other missions assigned to the Corps of Engineers during the past two centuries. In sum, the District has been the site of so many “firsts” that it clearly is the “headwaters district.”
-- Dr. Leland R. Johnson, Historian
(Excerpted from Author’s Preface, “The Headwaters District, A History of the Pittsburgh District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” 1978)