Business and Finance

Coastal Engineering Expert Orville T. Magoon Dies

A life dedicated to the planet and its coastal treasures.

Orville T. Magoon died on March 19 after suffering a massive stroke on the previous day as he and his wife Karen were returning to San Francisco following a cruise to Hawaii.

On May 3 150 people paid their respects to Mr. Magoon’s memory and to Karen at a memo-rial service in California.

“His life was one dedicated to our planet and its coastal treasures and to the people who surrounded him” his family wrote in his obituary. 

“He was a mentor and colleague to many of us and a friend to every coastal engineer that ever met him.  This is very sad indeed” said Billy L. Edge in an email announcing the death to colleagues. Dr. Edge P.E. Ph.D. is a professor of Practice in the Civil Construction and Environmental Engineering Department at North Carolina State University and chair of the UNC Coastal Studies Institute. 


The dolos on one of the Humboldt jetties on a calm day. 

Mr. Magoon was born in Honolulu Hawaii in 1928 and received a BS in Civil Engineering from the University of Hawaii in 1951 and an MS in Civil Engineering from Stanford University in 1952. Following graduation he went to work for the Corps of Engineers retiring in 1985 as chief of the Coastal Engineering Branch of the South Pacific Division.

He spent his career working in coastal planning coastal management design construction rehabilitation of coastal structures inspection of river levees and participation in flood response.  

His expertise in coastal engineering facilitated the design of beach nourishment and other coast-al projects in anticipation of the stability of dunes and other structures to be created by dredging.  

Two highlights of his government career were the survey of the failure of the Sines West Break-water in Portugal the results of which were published by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) where the design construction failure and rehabilitation of the important deepwater breakwater were documented; and the prototype data gathering hydraulic model and design studies of the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the seaward extremities of the Humboldt Jetties near Eureka California which to date have withstood decades of wave activity as severe as any structure on the coasts of the U.S. 


The Humboldt jetties have withstood this type of wave action for 30 years making their design one of Mr. Ma-goon’s greatest achievements.  The engulfed jetty is barely visible on the lower right.

Edge participated in the Sines Breakwater project with Magoon and described it for this article:

“On February 27 1978 a powerful storm moved across the North Atlantic bringing eight-meter waves to the coast of Portugal where the large oil terminal at Sines was not yet complete. The terminal would include a breakwater ex-tending into well over 30 meters of depth one of the deepest breakwaters in the world. It was be-ing constructed with the new 42-tonne (46 US ton) dolos armor units (similar to the armor units Orville was to use at Humboldt Harbor.) The Engineering News Record reported that there was immense damage to this structure from this storm. To expand his knowledge about the success of these large concrete blocks shaped much like a child’s jacks Orville really wanted to visit Sines and observe firsthand how they had per-formed in this storm. He and I worked together to obtain a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to support a team to travel to Sines and inspect the structure. Having secured permission from the Portuguese authorities Orville led a team consisting of Joe Caldwell former Chief Engineer of the Corps; Don Treadwell geotechnical engineer; Bill Baird coastal engineer from Ottawa; Virginia Fairweather editor of ASCE’s Civil Engineer; and myself another coastal engineer.  

“Due to the severity of the storm the structure appeared to be totally destroyed. Much of the dolos armor was destroyed and parts of the concrete superstructure were moved into the water. The entire workforce was nowhere to be seen the smaller dolos near the shore were whole but in deeper water the 42 tonne units were broken or totally missing. In many places the superstructure was broken or totally failed with rebar sticking out like spikes. At the sea-ward end of the structure the head was removed  and could no longer be seen: it looked much like a ghost town that had been destroyed by some unknown forces.   

“Later Orville and I returned to dive and in-spect the structure below water and confirm his suspicion that the structure was indeed in serious trouble. After meetings with the authorities Orville was able to convince the contractor that if they were to rebuild with the same molds they would have to place steel reinforcement into the dolos armor units.  

“During this time Tenneco was preparing a site in Jacksonville Florida to construct nuclear power plants that would be built and floated offshore of the Atlantic coast including New Jersey Florida and other locations. Interestingly the nuclear power plants were to be protected with the same dolos armor units that failed at Sines. Officials representing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission learned of the failure at Sines and requested that Orville and his team make a presentation about the failure. That visit was probably the most convincing if not the single argument that put a stop to offshore nuclear power in the U.S. and several other countries.

 “Orville and team continued to advise and support the subsequent design and development of Sines following the storm of 1978 and another one in 1979 during the reconstruction. Thanks to his advice the Port of Sines is a major import/export terminal on the Atlantic today.  

“In 1978 Orville Magoon and his team received the Arthur M. Wellington Prize for publication of his report on the Sines breakwater failure published by the Rubble Mound Structures Committee of the Waterway Port Coastal and Ocean Division of ASCE Orville Magoon chairman entitled: Reconstruction of the West Breakwater at Port Sines Portugal September 16-17 1993 New York: ASCE 1994 443 pp.”

Edge also described Magoon’s expertise in fixing the jetties at Humboldt Bay: “Before the Sines disaster Orville was working with some of the coastal jetties and breakwaters in California and Hawaii – mostly maintenance and new construction. One day the Division Commander of the South Pacific Division brought Orville into his office and said ‘I am tired of continuous maintenance and rebuilding the Humboldt jet-ties. You are going to find a way to build it and make it permanent. Orville the sky’s the limit just get the damn job done once and forever.’  

“So after Sines Orville was determined that reinforcement by steel or fibers would be important to keep the concrete from breaking due to the wave forces. He started research then design and finally construction in 1986 of the new larger and reinforced dolos concrete armor units that finally stabilized the Humboldt jetties. Clearly his assumption that concrete dolos armor units greater than 20 tonnes (22 US tons) would need reinforcement was demonstrated at Humboldt and now at many other places.

“I guess we could fill a book with Orville T. Magoon knowledge and stories” Edge said.   

After his retirement from the Corps Magoon continued to be active in Coastal Zone Management Coastal Planning and Coastal Engineering through the Coastal Zone Foundation which he founded and also remained active in many professional organizations.

The purpose of the Coastal Zone Foundation is the advancement and application of scientific and related technical and professional knowledge necessary for management protection and use of coastal and ocean re-sources. These are accomplished by conceiving and carrying out coastal-oriented conferences and meetings such as the Coastal Zone symposium series. Magoon’s contributions to the coastal zone are evident in the depth and strength of the coastal zone management programs in most coastal states and in many foreign national programs. His expertise was requested by the Japanese Ministry of Ports and Harbors in developing the country’s national coastal zone management program.

Magoon remained active in organizing and chairing important symposia on coastal zone management carbonate beaches sand rights and coastal engineering practice. He was vice chair of the ASCE Coastal Engineering Research Council (CERC) for 40 years starting in 1963. CERC is responsible for organizing the biennial International Conference on Coastal Engineering first held in 1950 and recognized as the world’s principal conference on coastal engineering. Magoon was elected a CERC Distinguished Member in 2003. From 1996 to 1998 Magoon served on the National Research Council Marine Board Committee on Coastal Engineering Research and Education Needs and on other civil engineering committees and panels including the PIANC Committee on Waves and a number of National Aeronautics and Space Administration panels involved with remote sensing and satellite imagery of coastlines. He conceived and chaired a number of international specialty conferences on coastal zone management and coastal processes. 

He was honored with a full range of engineering awards and honoraria in the course of his life a sampling of which include ASCE’s William H. Wisely Award in 1992 the International Coastal Engineering Award in 1998 and the John G. Moffatt–Frank E. Nichol Harbor and Coastal Engineering Award in 1990 as well as the Chief of Engineers Award the Department of the Army Commander’s Award for Public Service and the Purpura National Coastal Engineering Award from the Florida Shore and Beach Preservation Association. In 1995 he was made an Honorary Member of ASCE the highest honor presented by that organization. In 2000 he was made an honorary member of the Japan Society of Civil Engineers

In addition to his work for ASCE he served as president of the Coastal Zone Foundation as well as president of the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association. 

He lectured and gave seminars at Texas A&M University the University of California Berkeley the University of Delaware the University of Florida the U.S. Naval Academy and the US Army Corps of Engineers.  His Curriculum Vitae lists 121 publications and technical papers.

In 2003 Texas A&M University established the Orville T. Magoon Scholarship given annually to one or more students who exhibit a strong interest in the field of coastal engineering and sustainability 

In October 2013 ASCE established the annual Orville T. Magoon Sustainable Coasts Award which honors a professional for outstanding contributions to sustainable engineering practices in managing shorelines and coastal infrastructure. 

His personal interests included SCUBA diving amateur radio E-Type Jaguar automobiles and a love of wine. He managed Guenoc Winery and Guenoc Ranch in California where he produced award-winning wines including the Genevieve Chardonnay named for his mother.

Mr. Magoon’s survivors include his brother Eaton Harry Huha “Bob” Magoon children Melissa Marshall Mary and Matthew grandson Spencer and great-grandson Bradley his wife Karen her children Aaron and Bridget and grandchildren Uli Matti and Mori. 

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