The Division of Harbors and Rivers was one of four divisions of the Department of Public Works, which was established in 1935 by Public Law 2250 and re-affirmed in the 1938 General Laws. It inherited the functions of the State Harbor Commission as well as those of the Commission on Dams and Reservoirs, and the duties of the Commissioner of Pilots, with authority to enforce applicable laws. The division also took responsibility to cooperate with the federal government in connection with breach ways as well as being directed to establish a bureau of wrecks. The division was also given responsibility for the protection of navigation, including work formerly conducted by the commissioner of the Pawtucket River and certain state piers in Providence and Pawtucket.
Since the early nineteenth century the Rhode Island General Assembly had enacted legislation authorizing specific towns to manage and protect their harbors (for example, Providence in 1815.) When Rhode Island enacted legislation (Chapter 556 of the Public Laws January 1877) creating the Board of Harbor Commissioners, this represented the first state body responsible for the state's harbors and rivers. Under the 1877 Act, the state's Governor, with the consent of the Senate, was directed to appoint three persons to form the Rhode Island Board of Harbor Commissioners. The commission was authorized to mark out or modify harbor lines, where none existed, hold hearings for interested person, and seek the approval of the Governor and the Senate. The board was also entrusted with the general care and supervision of all harbors and tidewaters supervision "with authority to prosecute for and cause to be removed all unauthorized obstructions and encroachments..." The commission also had authority to have surveys made and to establish regulations concerning the deposition of mud and dirt in the state's public tidal waters. In addition, anyone proposing to build a structure (bridge, wharf, or pier) over public tidal waters required the approval of the commission.
During this period, the Congress passed numerous acts that aimed to protect the commercial value of the nation's harbors and waterways. The federal Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, which superseded an 1882 act, is the oldest federal environmental law in the United States. It made it a misdemeanor to discharge refuse matter of any kind into the navigable waters and tributaries of the United States without a permit. The Rivers and Harbors Act also makes it a misdemeanor to excavate, fill, or alter the course, condition, or capacity of any port, harbor channel, or other areas within the reach of the Act without a permit. The Act of 1899 also made it illegal to dam navigable streams without a license (or permit) from Congress; this was included for the purposes of hydroelectric generation, at a time when the electric utility industry was expanding rapidly.
In 1910, the state created a State Harbor Improvement Commission. Its main function was to acquire land, by lease or purchase, for the purpose of developing the state's harbors and piers. In that same year the General Assembly also created a Special Commission on the Improvement of Navigation of the Seekonk River. (Public Laws, 1910, ch. 568, ch. 473.) In 1918 the State Harbor Commissioners, State Harbor Improvement Commission, and the Seekonk River Commission were merged to form the State Harbor Commission, which endured until 1935, when its functions were transferred to a newly created Department of Public Works' Division of Harbors and Rivers under a major state government reorganization.