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 Commisioners, this represented the first state body responsible for the state's harbors and rivers. 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 The federal Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 , which superseded an 1882 act, is the oldest federal environmental law in the United States.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, harboror 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 included for the purposes of hydroelectric generation, at a time when the electric utility industry was expanding rapidly.
Under the state's 1877 Act, the 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 tey existed, hold hearings for interested person, and seek the approval of the Governor and the Senate. T he 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.
Then, 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.)
These three bodies were merged in 1918 to form the State Harbor Commission, which endured until 1935. It inherited the functions of the three bodies, including pier construction, the acquisition of waterfront property, requests for blueprunts and plans from entities entending to undertake construction, and condemnation proceedings and negotioations. when its functions were transferred to a newly created Department of Public Works' Division of Harbors and Rivers as part of a major state government reorganization.