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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' 9-Foot Channel Project on the Upper Mississippi River
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1929-1933: The Project Begins

In October 1929, as part of a general reorganization, the Corps of Engineers created the Upper Mississippi Valley Division (UMVD). The UMVD supervised the activities of 12 Corps district offices, including the three located along the Upper Mississippi River: the St. Paul District, the Rock Island District, and the St. Louis District. Following the authorization of the 9-Foot Channel Project, each of these three district offices oversaw the construction of the channel on a particular stretch of the Upper Mississippi. The St. Paul District was charged with supervising the project between St. Paul and the Wisconsin River. The Rock Island District covered the river between the Wisconsin River and Clarksville, Missouri. And the St. Louis District directed activities between Clarksville and St. Louis. The St. Louis District also served as the headquarters of the UMVD.

Lock and Dam No. 15, the first complex of the 9-Foot Channel Project, was located in the heart of the quad cities, raising local concerns about flooding and water quality. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineering)

As originally planned, the Upper Mississippi Valley Division was to design the major elements of the 9-Foot Channel Project, relegating design of "less critical" elements and construction supervision to the three districts. The districts were also responsible for estimating and contract administration, construction supervision, and operation. To accomplish these tasks, the districts expanded their technical engineering expertise, and increased their contract administration sections. They also added resident engineers for each complex, as well as on-site supervisory, administrative, and inspection staffs. [1]

Heading the UMVD was Lieutenant Colonel George R. Spalding, Spalding had been a member of the special Board of Engineers that had conducted the "more thorough" survey of the 9-Foot Channel Project. Immediately prior to his appointment as Division Engineer of the UMVD, Spalding served as District Engineer of the Louisville District, which was just finishing the construction of the 9-foot canal on the Ohio River. The Ohio River canal had been created through a series of locks and dams, and Spalding certainly could have seen the potential for the Ohio River's very experienced and capable engineering team to be used on a similar project on the Upper Mississippi River.

Spalding selected William H. McAlpine to be Head Engineer of the UMVD. McAlpine had been Spalding's principal civilian assistant in the Louisville District. Although ultimate responsibility for the Corps' civil works and military construction units rested with the Corps' military officers, individual projects—no matter how big—were generally overseen by a civilian. The normal tour of duty for a military officer was 3 years. Consequently, a district or division's top management changed frequently. It was the long-term civilian employees, like McAlpine, who provided continuity. At the time of his transfer to the UMVD, McAlpine was also considered to be the Nation's expert in river improvement. [2]

As head of the UMVD design team, William H. McAlpine became one of the principal engineers of the 9-Foot Channel Project. McAlpine's career as a civilian engineer attached to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spanned over 50 years. Born in Massachusetts in 1874, he began working for the government in 1899 as a hydrographic surveyor. By the time he retired from the Corps in 1954, he had served on numerous special projects including work as a consultant to the Panama Canal Office, the Fort Peck and Bonneville Dam projects, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. In 1943, McAlpine participated in conferences between the U.S. and Great Britain regarding the feasibility of constructing artificial harbors for the proposed landing of Allied troops at Normandy. Achieving the highest civilian post in the Corps of Engineers, McAlpine was awarded the Emblem for Exceptional Civilian Service in 1946.

By the end of November 1929, Spalding and McAlpine had begun reassembling the old Louisville design team in the St. Louis headquarters of the UMVD. Among the engineers transferred from Louisville to St. Louis were Lenvik Ylvisaker and Edwin E. Abbott. Like McAlpine, Ylvisaker had a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In Louisville, Ylvisaker had been McAlpine's right hand man, and he served in a similar position in the UMVD. Edwin Abbott was Ylvisaker's assistant. The UMVD team assembled by Spalding designed some of the most critical components of the 9-Foot Channel Project. Although the individual districts eventually assumed a more important role in the design process, the designs of the UMVD under the leadership of Spalding and McAlpine served as prototypes for the 9-Foot Channel Project. [3]

In 1931, the UMVD design team completed construction drawings for the first two installations: Locks and Dams Nos. 4 and 15. Both of these projects were considered high priority. After years of planning and negotiating, it seemed as though the Corps of Engineers would finally be able to build the channel. But, once again, the 9-Foot Channel Project was called into question.

On December 22, 1930, the Corps of Engineers held a public meeting regarding its preliminary plans for Lock and Dam No. 15. The complex was located at the foot of the Rock Island Rapids in the heart of the quad-cities of Moline and Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa. Despite navigation improvements, the stretch of river from the Moline Lock to the foot of the Rock Island Rapids was still extremely hazardous. The Moline Lock, which had been completed in 1908, was also small, 80 by 300 feet. As a consequence, operators were forced to break tows into "lockable" pieces and then reassemble them. The Corps of Engineers designed Lock and Dam No. 15 to solve these problems, at least up to the site of the Le Claire Lock.

The elevation gauge at Dam No. 7 is geared for a maximum pool height of 667 median sea level (m.s.l.). Conservationist groups, such as the Izaak Walton League, argued that higher pool elevations in the 9-foot channel would adversely impact the Upper Mississippi River Valley environment. (Clayton B. Fraser, Fraserdesign)

At the public hearing, Rock Island city officials expressed concern that if Lock and Dam No. 15 were built in its proposed location, the city would have to draw its water from the pool behind the dam rather than from the river. This raised the specter of health problems. Local officials also objected to the proposed locations of the lock and guidewall because they would "have the effect of putting Rock Island in the backyard of the Mississippi River." [4]

Rock Island officials were not the only ones who saw problems with the Lock and Dam No. 15 complex. Moline officials were afraid the dam would flood their industrial areas. The complex would also adjoin the northwest tip of Arsenal Island, home of the U.S. Army's Rock Island Arsenal. U.S. Army Ordnance Colonel D.M. King expressed official concern that the proximity of the lock and dam to the government bridge leading to the Rock Island Arsenal would affect access to that installation, as the swing span would have to be open much of the time. [5]

There was also opposition to Lock and Dam No. 4, located near Alma, Wisconsin. Here, the controversy focused on the pool elevation. Health and environmental experts claimed that the structure's navigation pool, which would raise the water level of the river and inundate previously non-inundated land, would hurt the river valley environment. At a public hearing on February 26, 1931, the Corps agreed to lower the pool from 670 median sea level (m.s.l.) to 667 m.s.l. The 3-foot variance guaranteed substantial protection from an otherwise negative impact. However, the Corps wanted the dam structure to be "readily adaptable" to 670 m.s.l. in the event that it was necessary to raise the elevation. If the pool did have to be raised, the Corps assured that "ample time" would be given to all concerned to take the necessary "protective measures." [6]

These assurances, however, did not satisfy conservationists. In March 1931, the national organization of the Izaak Walton League held a meeting in Winona, Minnesota, that focused public awareness on the issue and intensified pressure to lower the proposed water elevation. Had the conservationists been alone in their protests, they may have been unable to lower the pool elevations. But they were not alone. Simultaneously, a number of railroad companies—seeing both a long range threat to their freight transport business from increased river commerce, and a more immediate threat to their riverside properties from the higher pool elevations—began fighting the project. Unlike the conservationists, however, the railroads did not content themselves with merely holding meetings and passing resolutions.

In 1931, the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad (CB&Q) sued the Federal Government regarding the navigation pool behind Lock and Dam No. 4. The railroad claimed that the pool would damage its right-of-ways. The Corps did not dispute the claim, but hoped for a financial settlement with the railroads. But in their arguments before the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, the CB&Q's attorneys asked for neither money nor a mitigation of damages. Rather, they asked that the Federal Government be barred from building Lock and Dam No. 4. The railroad's lawyers pointed out that the 1930 authorization permitted the Corps to build the system described in House Document 290. The Corps' 1931 plans were quite different: they included non-navigable rather than navigable dams. The CB&Q's attorneys contended that this change constituted a radical difference in nature and kind. The court agreed and, in early 1932, enjoined the Corps from building Lock and Dam No. 4. [7]

The judgment alarmed the Corps of Engineers. If the courts could suspend construction of an individual lock or dam because it differed from the original plans, the entire 9-Foot Channel Project could be brought to a halt. The Corps always knew that the 9-foot system, as outlined in House Document 290, might need modification, particularly in the downstream sections of the project. The original plans were made without the benefit of detailed site specific surveys. But, following the CB&Q ruling, if the Corps made any design changes, the railroads could get similar injunctions at most, if not all, of the other proposed lock and dam complexes. UMVD Division Engineer Spalding suggested that the U.S. attorney general's office retain attorneys with specialized legal expertise on railroad matters. "The railway companies, with their fine legal talent, are doing this very thing," argued Spalding. "They are fighting these cases jointly by exchanging briefs and combining defenses to defeat the government." [8]

The Corps of Engineers needed a way to prevent the railroads from pursuing this strategy. House Document 290 had outlined and authorized the specific administrative parameters for the 9-Foot Channel Project. The Corps now sought to amend the 1930 authorization to give the Chief of Engineers the power to make changes in the original plans. On February 24, 1932, Congress and President Hoover signed into law a joint resolution that gave the Corps the right, at its professional discretion and without additional approval, to change the type and location of the lock and dam systems. [9]

Corps officials wasted no time in implementing the new authority. The lawsuit regarding Lock and Dam No. 4 was quickly dismissed. In early March 1932, Attorney General William D. Mitchell made it clear to the U.S. attorney at Madison, Wisconsin, that "the case is moot and to move for a mandate to the Court below to dismiss the case." [10]

Engineers for the 9-Foot Channel Project were now free to modify plans without the threat of lawsuits. Concessions, however, had been made along the way. To alleviate damage to railroad right-of-ways, as well as to the river valley environment, the Corps had also agreed to lower the pool elevations. Almost a year to the day after the 1931 public hearing on Lock and Dam No. 4, a change in plans by the Corps of Engineers called for the pooling of waters at no more than 667 m.s.l. Previous rhetoric about possible future needs to raise water levels was noticeably absent. Strange bedfellows, the railroads and conservationists had together, but for entirely different reasons, succeeded in altering the design of the 9-Foot Channel Project.


1. In 1933, the Corps of Engineers created the Ohio River Division (ORD) and the Missouri River Division (MRD), thereby reducing the territory covered by the UMVD.

2. Johnson, Louisville District, 182-183; and Civil Works Study Board, "The Interrelationship Between Civil Works and Military Mission," Annual Report 1965, 27-30.

3. Transfer approvals for Ylvisaker and Abbott are contained in Chief of Engineers Lytle Brown to Colonel George R. Spalding, November 30, 1929, RG 77, District Files, 1923-1942, Box 825, File 2294, NA. Information on Ylvisaker's education and his role in Louisville comes from interviews by Leland R. Johnson and Charles E. Parrish with Oren Bells, Louisville, KY, June 6, 1986, as cited in Leland R. Johnson to William Patrick O'Brien, February 6, 1988 (first letter of that date) copy in files of National Park Service, Rocky Mountain Regional Office.

4. "U.S. Engineer Office, Improvement of Mississippi River, Development Near Rock Island, Illinois, Hearing on December 22, 1930," typescript, 67, RG77, Entry 81, Box 798, NACB.

5. When the final construction plans for Lock and Dam No. 15 were completed, they included remedial works. The Corps decided to build a 2-mile long reinforced concrete seawall with an integral, intercepting sewer and a 4.5 mile long earthfiil levee enclosing the continuation of this intercepting sewer along the Davenport and Bettendorf waterfronts as part of the project. It also decided to build a raised levee along a portion of Arsenal Island, an intercepting sewer for Arsenal Island, and an extension of the water supply intake pipe for the City of Rock Island. H. Doc. 137 as cited in "Mississippi River Lock and Dam No. 17: Final Report Construction," Vol. I: "Introduction, Lock and Temporary Buildings" (Rock Island: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Rock Island District, March 1938, hereafter cited as "Final Report-Lock 17"), 4-5, RG77, Entry 81, Box 666, NACB; and "Final Report Lock and Dam 15," 7.

6. Lieutenant Colonel Wildurr Willing, Major Glen E. Edgerton, W.H. McAlpine to Division Engineer, UMVD, St. Louis, April 21, 1931, "Report: Public Hearing—Alma Dam," 1-30, passim; W.H. McAlpine to Col. Wildurr Willing, April 30, 1931; Lieutenant Colonel George R. Spalding to Chief of Engineers, Washington D.C., May 28, 1931, 1-5; Lieutenant Colonel Wildurr Willing, "Notice to the Press and Interested Parties," August 3, 1931; Transcript: Hearing at Wabasha, Minnesota, February 26, 1931, re: construction of dam at Alma, Wisconsin, 1-31, RG 77, subgroup: St. Paul District, Operations and Maintenance Files, 1931-1943, Box 395861, Entry 1626a, File 413.b, NACB.

7. Hearings, January 1932, 6-10; Congress, House, Committee on River and Harbors, Mississippi River to Minneapolis—Decree of Injunction Restraining the Government From Construction of a Lock and Dam at Alma. Wis., H. Doc. 7, 72nd Cong., 1st sess., 1932; and H. Doc. 290.

8. Colonel George R. Spalding to Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army, Washington D.C., March 24, 1932.

9. Congress, House, Public Resolution No. 10, H.J. Resolution 271, 72nd Cong., 1st sess., 1932; Memo: "Modification of Plans, Lock and Dam No. 4, Miss. River, in accordance with H.J. Res. 271;" and George R. Spalding to Chief of Engineers, February 29, 1932, 1-4, RG77, subgroup: St. Paul District, Operations and Maintenance Files, 1931-1943, Box 395861, Entry 1626a, File 413b.3, NACB.

10. William D. Mitchell, Attorney General, to Patrick J. Hurley, Secretary of War, Mar. 8, 1932, RG77, subgroup: St. Paul District, Operations and Maintenance Files, 1931-1943, Box 395861, Entry 1626a, File 413b.3, NACB.

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Last Updated: 01-Feb-2008