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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' 9-Foot Channel Project on the Upper Mississippi River
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Opposition to the Channel

With the passage of the Newton Bill in 1925, it was clear that the Federal Government was committed to deepening the channel in the Upper Mississippi River. But the depth of that channel, whether it should be 6 feet or 9 feet, remained controversial. And, surprisingly, much of the controversy came from within the Corps of Engineers itself.

In 1927, when Congress ordered the Corps to study the feasibility of a 9-foot channel on the Upper Mississippi, the job was given to Major Charles L. Hall. At the time, Hall was in the second year of a 3-year tour of duty in the Chief of Engineers' office in Washington, D.C. A 1908 West Point graduate, Hall was just turning 40 and had spent almost half his life serving in the Corps. An experienced officer who understood the political realities of military decision-making, Hall had served with the punitive expedition into Mexico, and the American Expeditionary forces during World War I. In 1920, he was assigned to the Chief of Engineers' office. From 1924 to 1926, he served as a member of the War Department general staff and, in 1926, returned to the Chief of Engineers' office, In 1927, the Corps cut short Hall's tour of duty in Washington and assigned him District Engineer of the Rock Island District, where he was to undertake the 9-foot channel feasibility study. [1]

Charles Hall. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Rock Island District)

To the horror of local politicians and business interests, Major Hall recommended against the 9-foot canalization. In August 1928, Hall submitted a preliminary report to his superiors in which he opposed the project. In a second report dated February 1929, Hall argued that the existing, government-subsidized, limited barge traffic on the Upper Mississippi did not indicate that a viable barge industry would develop even if a 9-foot channel were created. Hall believed the project was economically inadvisable. Moreover, Hall concluded that the project would have disastrous environmental impacts. [2]

Hall knew that the only feasible way to provide a 9-foot depth on the Upper Mississippi was through a series of locks and dams that would transform the river from a free-flowing stream into a series of interconnected lakes. Echoing the concerns of Midwestern conservationists, Hall feared that these slack-water pools would create vast swamps of stagnant and polluted water. He was also concerned about the effect of slack-water navigation on indigenous wildlife. In an address to the School of Wildlife Protection in McGregor, Iowa, Major Hall stated that the project would "radically change" the wildlife of the region. The outcry was immediate and furious. An editorial in the Minneapolis Journal berated Hall, stating that the Major's duties were "neither floral or faunal, but engineering," and suggested that his time might be better spent in areas in which he had been specifically trained. [3]

Hall's comments, though, reflected a growing national environmental awareness. Fostered by the work of Mississippi Valley native Aldo Leopold and other conservationists, several environmental groups were reevaluating lock and dam projects and their effects on river valley environments. Controversy over projects such as the Hetch Hetchy Dam near San Francisco (1907-1913) and the Keokuk Power Plant and Dam (1910-1913) prompted those concerned with the Upper Mississippi Valley environment such as Will Dilg, founder of the Izaak Walton League of America, to actively oppose the canalization project.

Previous environmental concerns on the Upper Mississippi had surfaced in 1923, when a proposal was made to drain approximately 30,000 acres of the Winneshiek Bottoms, a 30-mile area on the Wisconsin side of the river, The ensuing battle between conservationists and developers resulted in a victory for the conservationists, and the establishment of the Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge. Now, 6 years later, questions centered around flooding instead of drainage. The proposed 9-foot channel's lock and dam system would create permanent, large-scale, flooding of formerly non-inundated and seasonally inundated lands along the Upper Mississippi, appreciably affecting the ecology of the area.

Hall's report also drew angry criticism from politicians who saw the project in an entirely different light. They believed that the limited navigation on the Upper Mississippi River was a justification for the 9-Foot Channel Project, not grounds on which to oppose it, The 9-foot channel would increase navigation, the politicians argued, thus providing its own economic justification. Although Congress had directed the Corps of Engineers to evaluate the economic benefits of the 9-Foot Channel Project, some politicians felt that Hall had overstepped his bounds. They believed it was up to the Corps of Engineers to build the 9-foot channel, not justify it on economic and environmental grounds.

Key members of the Corps were also unhappy with Hall's report. Therefore, it is not surprising that, although not "convinced of the advisability of the improvement," Hall recommended an additional survey to determine the cost of providing a dependable 9-foot-deep channel, 200 feet wide in the straight reaches, and at least 300 feet wide at bends, between the mouth of the Illinois River and Minneapolis. Although Major Hall initially served on the six-member survey team that conducted this "more thorough" survey, he was removed from that position before the final report was submitted.

Hall's role in the 9-foot channel controversy did not help his career. Although at the beginning of the 9-Foot Channel Project, Hall was District Engineer of the Rock Island District, he was replaced by Major Glen E. Edgerton in December 1930. After leaving the Rock Island District, Hall taught at West Point. From 1932 to 1936, he served as the Cincinnati District Engineer. In 1941, Hall returned to Cincinnati where he served as Ohio River Division Engineer, a position he held until 1945 when he retired from the Corps with the rank of Colonel. [4]

Major Hall may have been a victim of political storms beyond his control. What upriver business interests saw as recalcitrance was, in reality, a direct reflection of Corps policy. In his 1926 appearance before the Committee on Rivers and Harbors, Corps Chief of Engineers Taylor had only begrudgingly admitted the technical possibility of a 9-foot channel, but refused to concede its economic advisability. Taylor's successor, Major General Edwin Jadwin, also opposed the project.

Jadwin shared Hall's environmental concerns, and was concerned about the project's flood control problems. In addition, Jadwin, like other Progressive Era thinkers, believed that projects should stand on their own merit and not be the product of special interest politics, no matter how powerful. But such attitudes refused to recognize the political realities attendant in the 9-Foot Channel Project. Many politicians felt the progressive line of thought was arrogant. Jadwin's acknowledgment that movable dam systems constituted the only logical way to assure a 9-foot channel—and his concurrent refusal to endorse the project—looked to some as being not only contradictory, but downright haughty. During the controversy over Hall's report, Jadwin stood on a middle ground. Not surprisingly, the results of the second survey favored the 9-foot canalization. Jadwin's actions reflect a man caught in a political bind. Following the election of Herbert Hoover in November 1928, Chief of Engineers Edwin Jadwin was replaced by Major General Lytle Brown, Ten senior officers were passed over to assure Brown, who supported the 9-foot Channel Project, of his appointment. [5]

On December 29, 1929, Chief of Engineers Brown departed from ordinary practice by releasing an advance report of the still incompleted 9-Foot Channel Project survey. He later claimed that he only did this "on the urgent request of interested parties." The official advance report, published on February 15, 1930, as House Document 290, affirmed that the special Board of Engineers, the Corps Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors (BERH), and the Chief of Engineers all agreed that a 6-foot channel depth on the Upper Mississippi was "self-limiting" and not adequate to build up a commerce that would justify the necessary expenditures. The report recommended that the 6-foot project authorization on the Upper Mississippi be modified at once so all further permanent work be built in such a way that it could be enlarged in accord with a 9-foot channel project. [6]

But project boosters were dismayed to learn that the Corps of Engineers did not support the immediate authorization of the 9-foot channel. Although the Corps' survey favored a 9-foot depth, the Corps recommended that full authorization of such a project be delayed until yet another, more detailed study was completed. Promoters of the 9-foot channel feared that such a delay would effectively kill the project.

Turning to the President for recourse, project supporters were shocked to discover that Hoover, a long-time waterway improvements advocate, also opposed immediate authorization. With the Nation in the throes of a depression, Hoover found it difficult to justify such an expensive navigation improvement project. Hoover supported the project, but wanted to delay its funding until the financial condition of the country improved. [7]

Upper Mississippi River interests were unwilling to wait. On April 25, 1930, the House passed a Rivers and Harbors Act that did not include authorization of the 9-foot channel. As hopes for the project faded, supporters turned to the Senate for help. Senator Henrik Shipstead of Minnesota quickly proposed an amendment that added the 9-Foot Channel Project to the Rivers and Harbors Act. By the end of May 1930, the Senate Commerce Committee had voted in favor of the Shipstead Amendment. On June 16, 1930, the amended Rivers and Harbors Act was passed by the full Senate. By the end of June, the House had also accepted the amended bill. On July 3, 1930, the 9-foot channel legislation was signed into effect by President Herbert Hoover. [8]

Despite all setbacks, the 9-Foot Channel Project's authorization had preceded its final survey report and project plan by over a year and a half, a phenomenon virtually unheard of for Corps waterway projects. The 1930 Rivers and Harbors Act ordered the existing Upper Mississippi River 6-foot channelization be "modified so as to provide a channel depth of 9 feet at low water with widths suitable for long-haul common-carrier service." It also appropriated an initial expenditure of $7,500,000 for the 9-foot canalization. [9]

In December 1930, the special Board of Engineers delivered its final survey report to the Chief of Engineers. Submitted to Congress in December 1931, the report was published in January 1932 as House Document 137. Concluding that slack-water navigation provided the most economical and dependable means for securing a 9-foot channel, the report called for the construction of 24 new locks and dams below Hastings, Minnesota, and the incorporation of 3 existing structures into the project. (Only 23 lock and dam installations were built; Lock and Dam No. 23 was later eliminated from the plan. The existing locks and dams were Nos. 1, 2, and 19.) The estimated cost of channelizing the Upper Mississippi was $124,006,139. Annual maintenance and operating costs were estimated to be $1,750,000. [10]

Estimated Cost of the 9-Foot Channel Project

The final survey report of the 9-Foot Channel Project, published in January 1932 as House Document 137, included the following cost estimates:

Purchase of three large modern dredges$1,500,000
Additional survey and studies600,000
Dredging, Washington Avenue Bridge to Northern Pacific Bridge356,000
Dredging, pool 1, below Washington Avenue Bridge94,000
Second lock, Twin Cities Lock and Dam1,300,000
Dredging, head of Hastings pool290,000
Second lock at Hastings1,500,000
Lock and Dam No.—33,502,487













15 (Rock Island——including flowage damage and removal of old lock)6,416,000




Dredging at head of pool 19, including removal of standing timber33,000

Second lock at No. 19, Keokuk1,500,000







Removal of Wing Dams228,700
Flowage Damages12,395,092
Total Estimated Cost$124,006,139

Estimated annual operating and maintenance costs:
Operation and care of locks and dams$750,000
Channel stabilization and maintenance$1,000,000
Total Annual Cost$1,750,000


1. Tweet, Rock Island District, 378.

2. Major Robert C. Williams, St. Paul District Engineer, to C.C. Webber, August 16, 1928, as cited in Anfinson, Chapter 5: 13; and Raymond H. Merritt, Creativity, Conflict and Controversy: A History of the St. Paul District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (St. Paul: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District, 1980), 187-214.

3. Ibid.; and Burnet, "Navigation Improvement to 1939," 96-97.

4. The special Board of Engineers that conducted this survey beginning on May 29, 1929, was comprised of Major Hall; Lieutenant Colonel George R. Spalding, Louisville District Engineer; Lieutenant Colonel Wildurr Willing, St. Paul District Engineer; Major John Gotwals, St. Louis District Engineer; and Brigadier General Thomas H. Jackson, Western Division Engineer. H. Doc. 290, 7; Hearings, January 1932, 4; Tweet, Rock Island District, 378: and Leland Johnson to Christine Whitacre, April 19, 1991, files of the National Park Service, Rocky Mountain Regional Office, Lakewood, Colorado.

5. Burnet, "Navigation Improvement to 1939," 96-97; Mary Yeater Rathbun, "The United States Army Corps of Engineers in the Little Rock District," Rock Island: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Rock Island District, 1987 (draft), Chapter IV, "A New Attitude Towards Water Resources 1898-1921," 121, and Chapter V, "Origins of the Reactivated District 1921-1937," 170.

6. H. Doc. 290, 1-8, 37, 49; Hearings, January 1932, 36; and H. Doc. 137. Congress created the Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors (BERH) within the Corps in 1902 to review all prospective Corps projects independent of any local political influence. In theory, BERH only recommends projects which the standing board members from throughout the country, acting as professional engineers and not administrators, judge meritorious for construction.

7. Anfinson, Chapter 5: 29-30.

8. Ibid., 37.

9. July 3, 1930, Rivers and Harbors Act, 71st Congress, 2nd sess., Chapter 847.

10. H. Doc. 137, 1-10.

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Last Updated: 01-Feb-2008