Gateways to Commerce:
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' 9-Foot Channel Project on the Upper Mississippi River
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That great poetic promoter of America, Philip Freneau, once stated that the Mississippi was the most impressive of rivers and that others failed to compare with its majesty and breadth. In the years between 1930 and 1940, the United States Army Corps of Engineers caused the upper reaches of this mighty stream to be turned into an intra-continental canal, regulated and controlled for the promotion of commerce. The project changed forever the Upper Mississippi River into a commercial canal, access to which remains in the hands of the American military, specifically the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. As barges pass and seasons change, its impacts, both social and environmental, still vibrate up and down the riverine corridors of the Upper Mississippi Valley.

In 1986, the National Park Service's Rocky Mountain Regional Office entered into an agreement with the St. Paul District Office of the United States Army Corps of Engineers to produce Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) documentation of the locks and dams connected with Upper Mississippi River 9-Foot Channel Project in the St. Paul District. Four years later, 2 additional contracts between the National Park Service and the Corps of Engineers' Rock Island and St. Louis Districts allowed the National Park Service to complete documentation of the original 26-unit system from St. Paul, Minnesota, to St. Louis, Missouri. This HAER recordation project complemented the gigantic nature of the 9-foot channel itself, with hundreds of photographs, pages of history, and inventories. Those records, now stored as part of the Historic American Engineering Record archives in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., will provide future researchers access to the original elements of the 9-Foot Channel Project as built between 1930-1940.

With the 9-Foot Channel Project, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers transformed the free-flowing Upper Mississippi River into a series of "lakes" or slack-water pools. River water backs up behind the project's 29 dams, creating an equal number of pools. These pools ensure a minimum 9-foot navigable depth on the river. Although the dams require all river traffic to pass through locks, the system provides what the river in its natural state could not: dependable navigation on the Mississippi River. Lock and Dam No. SA, 1937 (U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District)

This study relies extensively on materials located in Record Group 77 of the National Archives. Repositories at Kansas City, Missouri; Chicago, Illinois; St. Louis, Missouri; and Washington, D.C., provided thousands of linear feet of records generated as a result of the 10-year undertaking. Researchers also consulted thousands of maps, working drawings, elevations, and similar materials in the St. Paul, Rock Island, and St. Louis Districts. Sixteen-millimeter film footage of construction, and extensive black and white photography also provided valuable period documentation.

Because of the huge nature of both the Upper Mississippi 9-Foot Channel Project and the equally huge amount of documentary material associated with its construction and administration, research was divided into three separate phases. In 1986-1987, I researched and wrote the history of the St. Paul District's section of the 9-Foot Channel Project while working as a historian with the Rocky Mountain Regional Office's division of the Historic Americans Building Survey/Historic American Engineering Record, under the direction of Gregory Kendrick, Chief of the History Unit. Photographed by Clayton Fraser, the St. Paul District study set the tone and structure for the project. After completion of the St. Paul history, I acted as general manager for the remainder of the research in the Rock Island and St. Louis Districts, contracting with Mary and Peter Rathbun of Rathbun and Associates for the Rock Island portion of the work in 1987, and Dr. Patrick O'Bannon of John Milner and Associates of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for the St. Louis portion of the study in 1988. After my transfer to the National Park Service's Denver Service Center in 1989, Christine Whitacre of the Rocky Mountain Regional Office accepted the enormous job of editing the materials from the three studies into the single volume presented here.

The 9-Foot Channel Project involves social, political, economic, military, environmental, and technological histories. It touches labor and ethnic issues, and portrays the end of the American Progressive Era and the beginnings of the New Deal. It involves the economics of the Upper Mississippi Valley, and vividly reflects the role of the military in domestic issues. The 9-Foot Channel Project's impact on the environment was of a magnitude rarely experienced since the famous Hetch Hetchy project of California in the second decade of the twentieth century. It demonstrates the evolution of technology and its impact on man and his environment. Unfortunately, the project's documents also reflect the history of the era selectively; women and minorities only appear as shadows in its saga when they appear at all. The 9-Foot Channel Project as built by the United States Army Corps of Engineers represents not only an astounding engineering feat—it accurately reflects the tenor of a nation and its feelings concerning society, politics, economics, labor, the military, technology, and the environment in those hard years before the Second World War.

The Upper Mississippi River 9-Foot Channel Project represents a subject of inquiry that has been taken for granted for a number of years. It offers exciting prospects for research in a number of historical fields. It is hoped that this general technological survey of the project's construction and its history will inspire others to continue in-depth research regarding the various subjects touched on in this narrative. In building on previous research, questioning each interpretation, and continuing the dialogue so necessary to historical thought, we may all contribute to that phenomenon known as historical research—that continual process of updating and reassessment that Belgian historian and educator Henri Pirenne so rightly called "the very proof of the progress of scholarship."

William Patrick O'Brien

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Last Updated: 01-Feb-2008