William Howard Taft

Remarks at the Waterways Convention Held at the Atheneum in New Orleans, Louisiana

October 30, 1909

Governor Sanders, Mr. Chairman, Gentlemen of the Waterways Convention, Ladies of New Orleans:

I mention you last because you are the most important. I am delighted to be present (you see we adopt in our administration the Roosevelt policies to the full) and to head the highly honorable delegation that has come from St. Louis to the Gulf. We have passed through all the dangers of the navigation of the river, and they are not confined to the shoals, sand-banks and the bends, and we are here without the loss of a single man. There are some few of us who have braved the whole way, and I hesitate to speak of those who resorted to the humiliating device of taking land transportation to get here. I hope that will be suppressed in the minutes of this meeting. When "Uncle Joe" addresses your honorable body, don't ask him where he left the river and where he got back to it.

We were honored on our flagship by the presence of the Governor of Louisiana and the Governor of Mississippi. We needed them in our business, for we did not know where we might be thrown ashore on those high banks that frowned down upon us as we rode the river, and you can see from the eloquent tribute and words and kindly, affectionate tone of the Governor how we fooled him.

But, jesting aside, my dear friends, we are delighted to be here, first, because we are reasonable men who know a good thing when we see it, and any man who doesn't welcome an opportunity to come to New Orleans is lacking in all that goes to make up a respectable man; and secondly, we are glad to be here because our coming indicates what we hope may be an epoch in the change of the character of transportation in this country. Do not misunderstand me. I do not think that we are going to fill the bosom of the Mississippi with barges and ocean steamers to-morrow morning. The change which is bound to be effected with respect to that stream will come gradually. It will come with the demand that is certainly growing for an improvement in our transportation and the cheapening of that kind of transportation, to wit, bulky merchandise that ought to be carried more cheaply than it is to-day.

This trip has been illuminating to many of us, not so much in offering a solution to the problems presented in trying to develop the Mississippi and other rivers for that kind of transportation which will be most beneficial to the country, but it has been illuminating in showing the difficulties that we have to meet and overcome in order that those rivers shall occupy their proper place in transportation.

Now, there are a good many things that come to you when you sit down and think and devote attention to a problem. If your mind is directed toward railroad transportation and the building up of the country by that means, and if public attention is taken off rivers and they are allowed to become nothing but sewers, it is not in human nature that the problems presented by the rivers shall receive the attention which will insure the solution of those problems.

We have seen human ingenuity turned and developed to the highest degree in the growth of our railroad transportation and the economy in the conduct of railroads. But the condition of our rivers, the apparently hopeless task of making them useful, has turned the public attention from them, and there isn't, in reference to river construction or river navigation, that improvement that we ought to have had in the last forty years. I ask you what progress has been made in the last thirty or forty years in reference to river navigation?

Now, we have reached a point where we are bound to use those because the amount that is required to be carried will necessitate it. In Germany and in foreign countries, to which we are pointed to show what can be done with river navigation, the Government exercises control and says that with respect to the rates certain of them shall be such on the river that bulky merchandise must go that way. What do we do? Why, we say to the railroads, "If you will only arrange your rates so as to compete with the river, we will permit you to make them so as to drive the river out of business." Now, that is what has been done, and while the river has served the purpose of regulating rates to a certain extent in reducing them, it nevertheless has not exercised that power and that influence that it might if it were actually used for the purpose.

The Secretary of War yesterday suggested — although he is as far from a government-ownership man as possible — that perhaps it might be well to let the Government experiment a bit in risking some capital to put a few lines on the river to try and see whether something cannot be done with that business. In Kansas City they are investing money to-day to try it on the Missouri River. And the question whether we can meet the point that you must have some means of gathering the business and getting it on to the boat in order to compete with the railroad, will not give rise to the suggestion that the Government might establish stations along the river for the purpose of housing the merchandise to be sent by the river. All those are suggestions that will have to be worked out before we reach a satisfactory conclusion.

Now, in St. Louis I said I thought that we ought to satisfy ourselves with respect to a great improvement of the river, that it would be useful before we went ahead and invested all the money necessary, and that then we ought to invest that money quickly and issue bonds for the purpose, because that is the most rapid way. Now I think— at least the great weight of opinion is — that we have solved the question of the navigation of the Ohio River for the purpose of improving the trade of that river; and if you are going to make the Mississippi a valuable stream, you must depend on the feeders to that stream, of which the Ohio to-day is far and away the most important.

Now, you say I come from Ohio, and that that is the reason I think so. Well, perhaps it is, but nevertheless there is a report in which the cost of that improvement has been gone into detail, and the engineers have approved it to the extent of nine feet of water — slack water, throughout the whole year, and it will cost $63,000,000. Now I am in favor of going ahead with that which has been determined to be useful, and issuing bonds and building those improvements, because they have shown by the improvements already erected that the solution there has been reached that it is practical. I am not in favor of delaying the Mississippi River improvement until the Ohio River improvement is completed, but I am in favor of finding out what you ought to do in the Mississippi River succinctly and knowing what it will cost before you go in and spend all your money. The use of a river for navigation is going to determine a good deal of what is needed in it for better navigation. That is the reason why the Kansas City method is a good method and I am hopeful that in some way or other you can increase the amount of business on the Mississippi River.

When I spoke of the Ohio River to a gentleman most interested in the Mississippi, he said, "Oh, well, pshaw; you have got a great coal company up at the top of that river, and it furnishes the business." Well, of course it does, and that is the reason why we are in favor of the improvement. It is demonstrated that the river will carry that coal, and we have the coal to carry. And so it is with respect to the Lakes. They have the iron ore to carry, and its value has been determined time and time again. Now you improve the Ohio River, and we will give you more and more trade for the Mississippi, and in that way you will learn and develop, by investigation and actual experiment, what is needed in the Mississippi.

I have been delighted to read, because I had otherwise a different idea, that the Mississippi has been improved and improved greatly toward the lower end; that the Mississippi River Commission working with Louisiana and Mississippi has developed a system of levees that are wonderful to save a State nearly forty thousand square miles, useful and most productive for agricultural purposes, and that at the same time they have gone on and have discovered means of stopping the sloughing off at the interior of the bends; that by experiment they have found what will stick and what will not stick, and that we are making progress in spite of the fact that the progress is not what it ought to be. The Mississippi River Commission says that in order to carry on even this they ought to have $2,000,000 more a year, and certainly Congress ought to be ashamed not to give it to them.

I am very sure that the Speaker of the House, who although he says he is but one member of the House, nevertheless under the customs which have grown up is more or less a Speaker for the House, is charged with a deep responsibility in regard to this great question; and that he is working as hard as he can to reach a just solution. It is a great deal when your movement has been carried to a point where you command the attention of those in authority to listen to what you have to say in your favor, and that is what you have done. You have brought it to a point where, to use a colloquial expression, we must come down to brass tacks, and where mere general oratory in favor of a waterway does not suffice. It is the question, what can you do, how much will it cost, how long will it take, and what will it result in? Now, when you address yourselves, this body of men, and treat it as a mere question of transportation on a profitable basis, I have not the slightest doubt that you will reach a solution which will appeal to those who have the responsibility of voting the money for the Government, and that you will get what you desire in a measurable time.

I thank you, my friends, from the bottom of my heart for this cordial reception. I thank the Business Men's League of St. Louis for giving me an opportunity to take part in this historical progress down the Father of Waters, and I thank them for delivering us into the hospitable arms and the loving embrace of the Governor of Louisiana and his constituents; and finally I have to advise those who have not experienced the delightful hospitality of New Orleans that they are now sitting in a frame of gems, and that if they will continue here for two or three days in the beauty of the women and their charming qualities, they will almost forget the Mississippi River.

Source: Presidential Addresses and State Papers of William Howard Taft

William Howard Taft, Remarks at the Waterways Convention Held at the Atheneum in New Orleans, Louisiana Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/363251

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