Also known as “topogs,” the Corps of Topographical Engineers was a division of the U.S. Army during the nineteenth century. The Corps of Topographic Engineers was created as an offshoot of the Corps of Engineers, which was founded in 1775 to build fortifications for the army. Established in 1838, the purpose of the topographical engineering division was to make the American West accessible by exploration. One of the first projects of the Corps of Topographical Engineers was to improve the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers for navigational purposes. This project actually began in 1824, more than a decade before the Corps was officially established.
The Corps also began long-running projects to address flood issues in the mid-1800s. The Corps of Topographical Engineers was also tasked with mapping and the design of lighthouses, navigational routes, and other federal civil projects, including the Lakes Survey District for surveying and mapping the Great Lakes area. The General Survey Act authorized the Corps of Topographical Engineers to survey roads and canals throughout the nation. One of the first road surveying projects conducted by the topogs was the survey and construction of the National Road, which continued until Federal funds dried up a few years later. This division was also constantly involved in boundary surveys throughout the country, most notably in Texas and in the West.
In addition to roadway, waterway, and boundary projects, the Corps of Topographical Engineers was involved in surveying projects for the Mexican-American War in the 1840s and the U.S. Civil War in the 1960s. During the Civil War, the Corps of Engineers was responsible for surveying and constructing railroad bridges, forts, and roads. This division served a major function in making the war logistically feasible, particularly for the Union forces.
In 1866, the Corps of Topographical Engineers was merged with the Army Corps of Engineers, which remains a federal agency to this day. It is the world’s largest public engineering, surveying, and construction design agency in the world. Today the Corps of Engineers has projects in all fifty states and ninety countries around the world. The Corps owns and operates over 600 dams, and each year dredges more than 255,000,000 cubic yards during construction or maintenance projects. Nearly all of the Corps of Engineer’s projects involve substantial surveying efforts, prior to groundbreaking, during the construction process, and as part of maintenance and repair work.
The Corps of Engineers has undertaken several massive and notable surveying and construction projects, including the Washington Monument, completed in 1884, the Panama Canal, completed in 1914, and Bonneville Dam, completed in 1937. The Corps of Engineers was also involved in the surveying, planning, and construction of the Pentagon in 1942 and 1943. Another major project of the Corps of Engineers, the 17 mile-long Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, is known for its immense construction challenges. Though usually associated with dams, canals, and flood protection, the Corps of Engineers is actually involved in a wide range of construction projects. In addition to these projects, the Corps of Engineers also conducts research related to mapping and topographical terrain analysis and geospatial surveying.
For more information visit the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers website.