First publicly conceived in 1808 by the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, the concept of a national, protected, north-south waterway was introduced in his report to President Thomas Jefferson that year. Gallatin noted that the United States possessed an inland navigation solution from Massachusetts to Georgia (then the southernmost Atlantic state) that was "principally, if not solely" interrupted by a mere four stretches of land - Cape Cod, a section of New Jersey between the Raritan and Delaware rivers, the peninsula between the Delaware River and the Chesapeake Bay, and the marshy tract between the Chesapeake Bay and the Albemarle Sound.
By 1808, there were but a handful of fairly successful manmade canals in the country, and many more were either already under construction or soon would be. Gallatin explained in his report that if the federal government would appropriate the necessary funds then these mere four stretches of land could be dredged with new canals, therefore a sea vessel could travel by rivers, bays, sounds, and a handful of canals from Boston to Beaufort, North Carolina, on down to the Cape Fear River, then broken by a short ocean run the inland navigation could continue again inside the chain of barrier islands skirting the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia.
Secretary Gallatin estimated that the cost of the four canals would be $3 million. His entire scheme for roads and canals would cost an expected $20 million. By setting aside $2 million per year from the annual Treasury surplus (then in excess of $5 million), the whole project envisioned could be accomplished within ten (10) years.
Delayed by foreign problems (the War of 1812 comes to mind) and further frustrated by domestic obstructions (President Jefferson was not entirely sold on the idea), Gallatin's plan was never fully implemented. His concept of an Intracoastal Waterway never died, but the waterway ultimately came into being mostly due to local projects rather than centralized planning during the nineteenth century. And instead of taking ten years, its construction spanned more than a century.
The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, conceived by Secretary Albert Gallatin in 1808, was not essentially completed until the 1930s - in the midst of the Great Depression. It is a hybrid creation of man comprised of many existing (although upgraded) riverways, man-made canals, and existing sounds and bays. The waterway came into being through a series of local projects developed in expectation of local benefits. Today, commerce south of Norfolk is almost entirely domestic and mostly short haul. It is now used more for recreation than for commerce. And, it is no longer maintained to the width and depth as it was during the peak of its usage.