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

The 9-Foot Channel Project was the culmination of a 100-year effort to improve the navigability of one of the Nation's most important waterways, the Upper Mississippi River. Its navigational goal was straightforward: to provide a dependable channel depth on the river between St. Paul and St. Louis. Indeed, dependable, year-round, navigation on the Upper Mississippi had been a long-held dream of regional commercial interests. A major transportation route in the Upper Midwest, the river's navigational obstacles were, nevertheless, numerous.

The Government began assuming responsibility for Upper Mississippi River navigation in the early nineteenth century. This illustration appeared in Harper's Weekly in 1884. Although materials and techniques became more advanced, the technology pictured here was still in use during the 9-foot canalization. During the 9-Foot Channel Project, woven timber mattresses, similar to those above, were placed around structure foundations to prevent scour. (State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia)

The Upper Mississippi River begins as a stream near Lake Itasca in north-central Minnesota. From there, the Mississippi flows through the Upper Midwest for over 500 miles until reaching the St. Paul/Minneapolis area, where the stream becomes a navigable river. As the Upper Mississippi flows south from St. Paul to St. Louis, approximately 670 miles downstream, its banks help form the boundaries of five states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri. Along the way, the Upper Mississippi is fed by several streams including the Minnesota, St. Croix, Chippewa, Wisconsin, Rock, Des Moines, and Illinois Rivers. Just above St. Louis, the river joins with the Missouri River, gaining in strength and volume. Finally, approximately 170 miles south of St. Louis at Cairo, Illinois, the Mississippi River meets with the Ohio River, which more than doubles its volume. At this point, the Upper Mississippi becomes the Lower Mississippi, that "mile-wide tide, shining in the sun" made famous by Mark Twain. [1]

Prior to efforts to improve its navigability, the Upper Mississippi was a crooked and shallow river filled with shifting sand bars and shoals. The river's current could become dangerously swift and treacherous, particularly at places such as the Des Moines and Rock Island Rapids. The depth of the Upper Mississippi averaged approximately 3 feet and, at certain seasons, amounted to as little as 1 foot in the 200 miles below St. Paul.

Wing dams, the fingerlike extensions seen on both sides of the river in this historic photograph, constricted the river's flow, thereby speeding the current and providing a clear channel. From "Wingdams Below Ninninger, Minn., 1891," one of a series of photographs of the Mississippi River taken by H. Bosse, draughtsman with the Corps of Engineers, 1883-1891. (U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District)

Small, light, draft craft plied the Upper Mississippi for hundreds of years prior to the arrival of steamboating in the early nineteenth century. Native American cultures who had settled along the Mississippi as early as 900 A.D. utilized boats that were adaptable to the river's shallow depth and variable conditions. Canoes and pirogues, which were hollowed-out logs, could be either paddled or poled, depending on the depth of the water. Maneuverable and easy to portage, these boats were quickly adapted by the French for use in their explorations and fur trade.

The most sophisticated craft on the Upper Mississippi prior to the arrival of the steamboat was the keelboat, which began to be used sometime prior to 1800. These shallow-draft, flat-bottom vessels typically featured a covered cabin and, since they were pointed at both ends, had the advantage of being able to be poled or pulled upstream. Lieutenant Zebulon M. Pike and his men used a 70-foot keelboat during their exploration of the Upper Mississippi River Valley in 1805.

The first steamboat plied the Mississippi River below Cairo, Illinois, in 1811, but it was not until 1820 that Major Stephen H. Long in his Western Engineer—a specially-built, light draft, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' survey and exploration boat—brought steamboating to the Upper Mississippi. Powered commerce came to the Upper Mississippi in 1823 with the arrival of the Virginia, a passenger and supply steamboat. With portages and canals to the Great Lakes, the Mississippi and its tributaries were the major transportation waterways by which the Upper Midwest was settled. Early railroad connections along the Upper Mississippi River enhanced its importance. [2]

Steamboat navigation on the Upper Mississippi, however, was impeded by the river's treacherous rapids. The Des Moines Rapids extended 11.25 miles upstream from the Des Moines River at Keokuk, Iowa, and consisted of a strata of hard rock. During low water stages, it was extremely difficult if not impossible to navigate this long stretch of shoal. The Rock Island Rapids extended 13.75 miles from the foot of Arsenal Island at Rock Island, Illinois, to Le Claire, Iowa. Here, chains of rock stretched out from each bank, and deep pools and channels of water twisted from shore to shore. Strong currents flowed around the chains and across the channels and pools.

The Federal Government began assuming responsibility for the elimination of troublesome spots in the river in the early nineteenth century. The Corps conducted a study of the Upper Mississippi in 1829, and concluded that it would be useable by steamboats 8 months a year if channels were blasted through the Des Moines and Rock Island Rapids. In 1837, Congress authorized the Corps to develop plans to improve Upper Mississippi River navigation. Lieutenant Robert E. Lee and Second Lieutenant Montgomery Meigs, acting as Lee's assistant, carried out this charge. In 1838 and 1839, Lee and a new assistant, Horace Bliss, supervised underwater blasting to create a 200-foot-wide and 5-foot-deep channel through the Des Moines Rapids. In 1854, the Corps also began deepening, widening, and straightening the main channel of the Rock Island Rapids. The Corps also dredged the river, removing snags and other hazards. Although neither the Des Moines nor Rock Island Rapids project were completed, the Corps ceased working on the river in 1856 and did not resume until after the Civil War. [3]

After the war, renewed Federal attention to waterway improvements initiated what would become a long series of attempts to channelize the Upper Mississippi. In 1866, the Federal Government appropriated $400,000 for a 4-foot-deep channel between Minneapolis and St. Louis. In June 1878, before the 4-foot channel project was complete, Congress authorized the Corps of Engineers to work towards the provision of a 4.5-foot depth. In 1907, Congress, under pressure from river improvement organizations who believed the 4.5-foot depth was inadequate, authorized the Corps to construct a 6-foot-deep channel from the mouth of the Missouri River to Minneapolis. [4]

Both the 4.5-foot channel and the 6-foot channel were to be achieved by a system of wing and closing dams, augmented by almost continual dredging. Wing dams constricted the flow of the river, speeding the current and providing a clear channel. Closing dams prevented the river from leaving the main channel and entering sloughs and side-channels. Both closing dams and wing dams were relatively simple structures, generally of brush or timber construction. [5]

But the 6-foot channel project, which was never fully completed, was outmoded almost from the moment of its authorization. A 9-foot channel was maintained on the Mississippi River below St. Louis. The discrepancy in channel depths meant that barge fleet operators ascending the Mississippi River either had to use smaller boats for the length of the Mississippi, or had to transfer cargo from larger to smaller boats in the Cairo/St. Louis vicinity before proceeding upstream. Either action cost time and money. Rather than reloading onto smaller craft at St. Louis, many barge fleet operators chose to ship their cargo by trains that could go to any location, landlocked or not. By the 1920s, other events—including a national farm crisis and the 1914 opening of the Panama Canal—had convinced many that a 6-foot-deep channel was inadequate.


1. Roald D. Tweet, History of Transportation on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Rivers (National Waterways Study, U.S. Army Water Resources Support Center, Institute for Water Resources, January 1983), 1.

2. Ibid., 3, 6, 9-10.

3. Hibbert M. Hill, "Developing the Upper Mississippi: Plans for Deepening Existing Channel," Civil Engineering, 1 (1931): 1352; Charles P. Gross and H. G. McCormick, "The Upper Mississippi River Project," The Military Engineer, 33 (July-August 1941): 313; U.S. Congress, House, Message from the President of the United States, Transmitting Copies of Surveys Made in Pursuance of Acts of Congress, of 30 April. 1824. and 2nd March. 1829, E. Doc. 7, 21st Cong., 1st sess., 1829, 1-25; Roald D. Tweet A History of the Rock Island District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 1866-1983 (Rock Island: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Rock Island District, 1984), 38-40, 42-48, 57-61; Tweet, A History of Navigation Improvements on the Rock Island Rapids (The Background of Lock and Dam 15) (Rock Island: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Rock Island District, 1980), 3-4.; Tweet, Taming the Des Moines Rapids: The Background of Lock 19 (Rock Island: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Rock Island District, 1978), 2; U.S. Congress, Senate, Report from the Secretary of War, in Compliance with a Resolution of the Senate, in Relation to the Rock River and Des Moines Rapids of the Mississippi River, S. Doc. 139, 25th Cong., 2nd sess., 1837; Robert E. Lee, "Survey Report to Colonel J.G. Totten, Chief of Engineers," October 21, 1839, Record Group 77 (hereafter referred to as RG77), National Archives, Washington D.C. (hereafter referred to as NA); U.S. Congress, Senate, Report of the Secretary of War in Answer to a Resolution of the Senate Relative to the Improvement of the Des Moines and Rock River Rapids, E. Doc. 12, 33rd Cong., 2nd sess., 1854; U.S. Congress, Senate, Report of the Secretary of War, Communicating in Compliance with a Resolution of the Senate of December 26, 1856, Information Relative to the Des Moines and Rock River Rapids. and the Harbor at Dubuque, Iowa, E. Doc. 45, 34th Cong., 3rd sess., 1857; and U.S. Congress, House, Letter from the Secretary of War, Transmitting a Report Furnishing Information in Relation to the Improvement of the Des Moines Rapids, E. Doc. 83, 35th Cong., 1st sess., 1858.

4. Hill, "Developing Upper Mississippi," 1352; Gross and McCormick, "Upper Mississippi River Project," 311; and Philip V. Scarpino, Great River: An Environmental History of the Upper Mississippi, 1890-1950 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1985), 166-167.

5. P.S. Reinecke, "The Rhine and the Upper Mississippi," The Military Engineer 30 (May-June 1938): 168; and Philip V. Scarpino, Great River. the Upper Mississippi River Basin (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1984), 35.

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Last Updated: 01-Feb-2008