Gateways to Commerce:
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' 9-Foot Channel Project on the Upper Mississippi River
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The 1920s: Roots of the 9-Foot Channel Project

In the 1920s, farmers were the country's single, largest, social and economic group. The farm lobby constituted the most powerful and consistently successful group in Congress during the entire decade from 1919 to 1929. A significant percentage of America's farmers lived in the Upper Mississippi River drainage. Here, the river drains about 171,500 square miles in the States of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri. The economic condition of this vast domain—a region as large as the Nations of Germany, France, Italy, and Great Britain combined—depended primarily upon the prices obtained for food commodities, and the consequent buying power of its farmers. [1]

Between July 1920 and March 1922, agricultural prices plummeted throughout the Nation. The post-World War I revival of European agriculture and the development of new agricultural exporters such as Argentina and Australia cut domestic and foreign demand for American farm products. Simultaneously, American per-acre yields were increasing. As overproduction caused American farm prices to drop, farm expenses mounted. Although all the Nation's farmers suffered during this crisis, the farmers of the Upper Mississippi Valley fared worse than most.

Under the influence of their Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, both Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge opposed direct aid to farmers. They believed a healthy economy needed free competition, and argued that direct aid to agriculture would eliminate competition among farmers. Instead, Congress attempted to aid farmers indirectly by regulating railroad rates, grain exchanges, commission merchants, and stockyards; exempting farm co-operatives from the anti-trust laws; easing agricultural borrowing; and approaching waterway improvement more systematically. Of these, Hoover most strongly supported waterway improvement. [2]

The Upper Mississippi Valley also looked towards waterway improvement as a remedy for its troubled economy, particularly after the 1914 opening of the Panama Canal. Constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Panama Canal severely impacted commercial freight transportation costs in the Midwest. The Central American project placed the Midwest at a competitive disadvantage to the rest of the country by lowering intercoastal shipping rates below the railroad rates paid by Midwesterners. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) compounded this disadvantage by raising railroad rates between St. Paul and St. Louis 100 percent. In the Indiana Rate Case of 1922, the ICC had stated that the Upper Mississippi River was only a potential waterway competition—not a functioning one—and ordered railroads along the river to raise their rates. [3]

Herbert Hoover summed up the prevailing situation in a 1926 speech when he stated that shipping rates affected by the opening of the canal had brought New York closer to San Francisco, while putting Chicago farther away from the Pacific Coast. "In other words," said Hoover, "Chicago has moved 336 cents away from the Pacific Coast while New York has moved 224 cents closer to the Pacific Coast." Hoover declared that this change in costs affected all of the Midwest. So long as full-season, commercial, through navigation remained impossible on the Upper Mississippi, the valley remained effectively landlocked. [4]

By this time, waterway improvement proponents had been arguing for over 50 years that a viable water route from the upper Midwest to the Gulf would reduce rail rates and provide additional cargo capacity. A navigable channel from St. Paul to St. Louis had long been the dream of Midwestern commercial interests who believed the Upper Mississippi River presented an opportunity to create a modern water link between the upper Midwest and New Orleans, a port offering excellent access to Central and South American export markets. Indeed, many leading 1920s international trade theorists saw the great undeveloped continent to the south much as their 1990s counterparts view the Pacific Rim and Eastern Europe, as the major hope for the future of the American export business. [5]

The first session of the 68th Congress, which convened in 1924, proved particularly momentous for all major waterways in the Midwest. An ad hoc commission headed by Herbert Hoover advocated the creation of a St. Lawrence River-based waterway linking the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. William E. Hull of Illinois introduced a bill to create a 9-foot channel from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico via the Chicago, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers. And, of utmost importance for the Upper Mississippi River Valley, Congressman Cleveland A. Newton of Missouri introduced a bill calling for the completion within 5 years of all the already authorized improvement projects for the Mississippi system's major northern components. [6]

Newton hoped to ensure a dependable channel for navigation north of Cairo, Illinois. Specifically, Newton's bill called for the Corps of Engineers to complete, by 1929, four previously-authorized but still-incompleted projects: (1) a 9-foot channel in the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to Cairo as authorized in 1910; (2) a 6-foot channel in the Missouri River between Kansas City and the Upper Mississippi River as also authorized in 1910; (3) a 9-foot channel in the Upper Mississippi from Cairo to the Illinois River, an amalgamation and updating of an 8-foot project and a 6-foot project both authorized in 1910; and (4) a 6-foot channel in the Upper Mississippi River from Minneapolis to the mouth of the Missouri River, located just above St. Louis, as authorized in 1907. Congress had originally mandated a 1922 deadline for the completion of the 6-foot channel. By the end of that year, however, the 15-year-old project remained less than half complete. [7]

Although Congressman Newton failed to raise the issue of increasing the Upper Mississippi River channel to a 9-foot depth, that concept was introduced into the hearings on the Newton bill by Halleck W. Seaman. Seaman, a railroad magnate from Clinton, Iowa, testified that he "did not know what is the matter with my friend Cleveland Newton that he did not make it 9 feet, as it is down below." Like other Upper Mississippi River boosters, Seaman wanted the Upper Mississippi to be the same depth as the river's main trunk. When the Chairman of the House Rivers and Harbors Committee, S. Wallace Dempsey of New York, pointed out that a 9-foot depth would require a study, which would delay rather than accelerate progress, Seaman withdrew his suggestion. He was confident that the impracticality of a 6-foot channel would eventually force the Corps of Engineers to build a 9-foot channel, whether it wanted to or not. Seaman would soon be proved correct. In 1926, the government-owned Inland Waterways Corporation began operating barges on the Upper Mississippi. The government's experiences, together with those of other barge operators, reinforced impressions concerning the inadequacy of a 6-foot channel on the Upper Mississippi. [8]

Meanwhile, other developments were leading towards the construction of a 9-foot-deep channel on the Upper Mississippi. In February 1925, the new U.S. Army Corps Chief of Engineers, Major General Harry Taylor, questioned how best to secure a 6-foot channel on a stretch of the Upper Mississippi River between St. Paul and the Chippewa River. Taylor believed that blasting and dredging the channel was improbable, so he asked the Rivers and Harbors Committee to authorize a re-examination and survey of this section of the river with a view towards the construction of a slack-water navigation system. The 1925 Rivers and Harbors Act, which authorized the Newton Bill, also authorized this survey. In December 1926, the Corps recommended that the best way to secure a 6-foot channel in that section of the river would be through the construction of a lock and dam at Hastings, Minnesota. [9]

Once the Corps admitted the need for a lock and dam to achieve a 6-foot channel at Hastings, it appeared the engineers had to admit the necessity of slack-water navigation elsewhere on the Upper Mississippi. At times, there was as little as 4.3 feet of water in the 2.5 mile stretch of river above the Rock Island Rapids. To solve this problem, the Corps either had to build a lock and dam at that site or blast a very deep, wide, and expensive channel through 2.5 miles of rock. The prospect of several new lock and dam complexes at various intervals along the river encouraged consideration of a 9-foot channel. If a series of locks and dams were to be constructed, why not make them a little bigger in order to create a significantly more useful waterway?

On April 26, 1926, in a hearing before the House Committee on Rivers and Harbors, Chairman S. Wallace Dempsey, together with Congressmen William W. Chalmers of Ohio, pressed Chief of Engineers Taylor hard on the implications of a lock and dam at Hastings, Minnesota. They forced the General to admit that it would be possible to build enough locks and dams to give the Upper Mississippi a 9-foot-deep channel. General Taylor refused, however, to say if this could be done at a cost commensurate with the resultant increase in freight. Nevertheless, in January 1927, Congress authorized the Corps to build a lock and dam at Hastings and to "examine the Upper Mississippi River with a view to securing a channel depth of 9 feet at low water with suitable widths." [10]


1. Arthur S. Link, "What Happened to the Progressive Movement in the 1920s?," American Historical Review 64 (1959), as reprinted in David M. Kennedy, ed., Progressivism: The Critical Issues (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1971), 158-159; U.S. Congress, House, Mississippi River. Between Mouth of Missouri River and Minneapolis, Minnesota (Interim Report), H. Doc. 290, 71st Cong., 2nd sess., 1930 (hereafter referred to as H. Doc 290); U.S. Congress, House, Hearings before the Committee on Rivers and Harbors, House of Representatives, 73rd Congress, 1st Session, on the Subject of Continuing the Improvement of the Upper Mississippi River, and Proposals of the American Railways in Connection with the Improvement of Inland Waterways, Distribution of Expenses for Reconstruction of Bridges and Other Structures, Proposed Tonnage Tax or Toll Charge, May 2-5, 1933 (hereafter referred to as Hearings, May 1933), 59; Theodore Saloutos and John D. Hicks, Agricultural Discontent in the Middle West, 1900-1939 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1951); and Russell B. Nye, Midwestern Progressive Politics (New York: Harper and Row, 1959).

2. The fact that these administrations were opposed to direct farm aid does not mean that the idea did not have strong adherents. It was a resident of the Upper Mississippi Valley, George N. Peek, a plow manufacturer from Moline, IL, who in 1921 advanced the most famous scheme for direct Federal aid to farmers. Peek proposed that the Federal government buy up surplus American agricultural products. In "Equity for Agriculture," Peek suggested that the Federal government buy American farmers' surplus wheat. The 1927 McNary-Haugen Bill, which Coolidge vetoed only to have Congress pass again in 1928 and Coolidge veto again, was a variant of Peek's plan. See Gilbert C. Fite, George N. Peek and the Fight for Farm Parity (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1954), passim.

3. John O. Anfinson, "Upper Mississippi River, Nine-Foot Channel History, Part 1: Why Congress Authorized the Project" (St. Paul: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District, draft copy, October 1990), Chapter 3: 12.

4. Patrick James Burnet, "The Corps of Engineers and Navigation Improvements on the Channel of Upper Mississippi River to 1939" (Master's Thesis, University of Texas at Austin, 1977), 88.

5. U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Rivers and Harbors, Hearings on H.R. 3921 providing for the Improvement and Completion of Prescribed Sections of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio Rivers held before the Committee on Rivers and Harbors, 68th Congress, 1st session, March 20-24 and April 4, 1924 (hereafter referred to as Hearings 3921), 101-102; U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Rivers and Harbors, Statement of Hon. Herbert Hoover, Secretary of Commerce, before the Committee on Rivers and Harbors, House of Representatives, 69th Congress, 1st session, on the subject of the Development of Inland Waterway Systems in the United States, January 30, 1926, 15; U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Rivers and Harbors, Hearings before the Committee on Rivers and Harbors, House of Representatives, 72nd Congress, 1st session, on the subject of "The Improvement of the Mississippi River between the mouth of the Missouri River and Minneapolis," January 25-27, 1932 (hereafter cited as Hearings, January 1932) 40-41; and William J. Hull and Robert W. Hull, The Origin of the Waterways Policy of the United States (Washington D.C.: National Waterways Conference, 1967), 31-37.

6. U.S. Congress, House, A Bill Providing for the Improvement and Completion of Prescribed Sections of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio Rivers, H.R. 3921, 68th Cong., 1st sess., 1924.

7. Hearings 3921, 1-3, 24.

8. Ibid., 90-94. An influential force in the American transportation industry, Halleck W. Seaman was so well known that he required no introduction to the members of the House Rivers and Harbors Committee. By 1911, Seaman, a lawyer and a civil engineer, was simultaneously president of six railroad companies and director and syndicate manager for another. He was also a member of the executive committee of the Mississippi Valley Association, the Upper Mississippi Waterways Association of Minneapolis, and the Inland Waterways Corporation. P.B. Wolfe, Wolfe's History of Clinton County Iowa (Indianapolis: B.F. Bowen & Co., 1911), 2:1092-1094; Citizens Historical Association, "H.W. Seaman, Attorney, Clinton Wire Cloth Company, 509 Weston Building, Clinton, Iowa," entry no. 2D13E23F1JHA/CFD, November 11, 1939, copy in Clinton Public Library; "Halleck Seaman, Man of Vision," Clinton Herald, Centennial Edition, June 18, 1955; and History of Clinton County Iowa (Clinton: Clinton County Historical Society, 1976), 173-174.

During World War I, the railroads' inability to handle intra-continental freight was so great that the Federal government began operating barge and towboat fleets in order to re-establish waterway commerce. After the war, much of this fleet was transferred to the War Department which continued to offer barge service through its Inland and Coastwise Waterways Service which, in 1924, became the Inland Waterways Corporation. Hill, "Developing Upper Mississippi," 1352; Raymond H. Merritt, The Corps, the Environment and the Upper Mississippi Basin (Washington D.C.: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Historical Division, Office of Administrative Services, Government Printing Office, 1984), 53; Jon Gjerde, "Historical Resources Evaluation: St. Paul District Locks and Dams on the Mississippi River and Two Structures at St. Anthony's Falls" (St. Paul: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District, 1983), 89-92; Proceedings of the Twenty-Second Convention National Rivers and Harbors Congress, Washington, D.C., December 8 and 9, 1926 (Washington D.C.: Press of Randall Inc, 1927), 31-33; Marshall E. Dimock, Developing America's Waterways: Administration of the Inland Waterways Corporation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1935), passim; and Michael C. Robinson, "The Federal Barge Fleet: An Analysis of the Inland Waterways Corporation, 1924-1939," National Waterways Roundtable Proceedings (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1980), 107-125,

9. U.S. Congress, Senate, Report on the Proposed River and Harbor Bill (H.R. 11472) S. Rpt. 1143, 68th Cong., 2nd sess., February 17, 1925, 15; and Rivers and Harbors Act of March 3, 1925, 1195.

10. U.S. Congress, House, Survey of Mississippi River Between the Mouth of the Missouri River and Minneapolis, H. Doc. 137, 72nd Cong., 1st sess., 1932 (Hereafter referred to as H. Doc 137, this report is a seminal document in the study of the Nine-Foot Channel); Mississippi River Lock and Dam No. 15: Final Report Construction, Vol. I: Text (Rock Island: U.S. Engineer Office, Feb. 1935), 48, RG77, entry 81, box 668, National Archives and Records Center, Chicago (hereafter referred to as NACB); U.S. Congress, House, Hearings Before the Committee on Rivers and Harbors, House of Representatives, 69th Congress, 1st session, April 26, 1926, 188; and Rivers and Harbors Act of January 21, 1927, 69th Cong., 2nd sess., chapter 47.

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Last Updated: 01-Feb-2008