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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' 9-Foot Channel Project on the Upper Mississippi River
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1933: The New Deal and a New Emphasis on Public Employment

The Great Depression reached its nadir during the winter of 1932-1933. The national political mood was clear: all civil works projects that could not be modified to serve a major relief work purpose would be abandoned. The 9-Foot Channel Project came under cancellation consideration during the special session of Congress that President Franklin D. Roosevelt called as part of his "First 100 Days." Iowa Representative Edward C. Eicher introduced a bill calling for the abandonment of the 9-Foot Channel Project during a 4-day congressional hearing in May 1933. Also leading the opposition were Iowa Representative Fred Bierman, and A.C. Willford, an Iowa congressman and a national and state Izaak Walton League director. Bierman and Willford did not argue the 9-Foot Channel Project's potential for employing significant numbers of people in an area with acute unemployment. Rather, they opposed the 9-Foot Channel Project on environmental, Progressive, and recovery approach grounds.

During the Great Depression, the Upper Mississippi River 9-Foot Channel Project was seen as an opportunity to provide thousands of much-needed jobs. Among the lucky ones to be working were J.B. Paulson and H. Carlson, inspection personnel for Lock and Dam No. 4, c. 1936. (American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming)

The 9-Foot Channel Project was attacked on several fronts. Conservationists argued that it would flood most of the 90,000-acre Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge that had been created by President Calvin Coolidge in 1924. Progressive politicians were concerned that the project would over-industrialize the Upper Mississippi River Valley. Others claimed that a government-funded waterway improvement on the Upper Mississippi was in direct opposition to New Deal principles, as represented by the National Industrial Recovery Act that was simultaneously being debated in Congress. They argued that an existing, locally important, tax-paying industry—the railroads—should not be forced to compete with improved, not-directly-taxable, river transportation. [1]

Key witnesses supporting the project were A.C. Wiprud, General Counsel for the Upper Mississippi Waterways Association of Minneapolis (the successor organization to the Upper Mississippi River Barge Lines Company), and Minnesota Governor Floyd B. Olson. Charging that it was the railroads that were instigating all opposition to the project, Wiprud argued in the project's favor because it could employ large numbers of people. Governor Olson saw the principal benefit as lower rail rates. Chief of Engineers Lytle Brown, in a masterly demonstration of official neutrality, limited his remarks to the engineering feasibility of the project, what he termed the Corps' real area of expertise. Although the Corps routinely commented on project economics, Brown refused to comment on the economic benefits of the 9-Foot Channel Project—either in terms of rail rates, emergency employment opportunities, industrial revival, or industrial development—and only tangentially dealt with the environmental issues. [2]

No specific legislation or direct congressional orders came out of these hearings. But, as so frequently happens, key government agencies and people apparently arrived at a consensus out of public sight. Conceived of as a means of improving navigation on the Upper Mississippi, the 9-Foot Channel Project was now hailed as an opportunity to provide thousands of jobs. The Corps of Engineers, in a skillful display of bureaucratic flexibility, had successfully recast the project to suit the goals of the new administration.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed the 9-Foot Channel Project during the Nation's greatest economic depression, which affected the program in a number of ways. The emphasis on employment put the Corps and the Upper Mississippi River 9-Foot Channel Project at the forefront of Federal relief work projects. In 1935, at the height of its involvement with emergency relief monies, the Rock Island District alone had 11 National Industrial Recovery Act, Public Works Act, Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, and/or Works Progress Administration funded projects underway. In addition, because of their river channel locations, each 9-Foot Channel Project was in the jurisdiction of two National Reemployment Labor Offices, each part of a different state bureaucracy. Typically, two general contractors and numerous sub-contractors worked at each 9-foot channel location, In the Rock Island District alone, these contractors employed over 10,000 men. Presidential advisor Harry Hopkins, who administered the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, acknowledged the Corps' expertise in Federal relief work in 1935, when he was organizing the Works Progress Administration (WPA). In October of that year, Major Raymond A. Wheeler, Rock Island District Engineer, was assigned to serve as Chief Regional Administrator of the WPA. Colonel George Spalding also served with the Works Progress Administration at the national level. [3]

But the Federal monies brought an added burden to the Corps of Engineers. Relief projects were geared towards maximum employment rather than efficiency. In addition, relief funds came with complicated employment, recruitment, and labor requirements. The independent contractors who worked on the 9-Foot Channel Project often resented these elaborate rules and regulations, seeing them as obstructions to the profitable completion of their contracts. Corps officials had to contend with numerous problems relating to contractor compliance, particularly in terms of hiring practices, time delays, overtime, and claims of changed conditions.

The St. Paul District published a monthly periodical, Old Man River, to promote safety practices among the employees. (American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming)

In some instances, the disagreements led to lawsuits. At Lock and Dam No. 12, the contractors sued the Federal Government, claiming that the government had not provided enough skilled and unskilled labor for contractors to hire while, at the same time, limiting where they could secure workers. The enormity of the problem is reflected in the size of the claims. The James Stewart Corporation sued the Federal Government for $314,114.66, almost 25 percent of its $1,346,720.83 contract. [4]

Maxon Construction Company, the general contractor for Dam No. 12, sued not only on that project, but also on its Lock No. 18 contract. Maxon Construction's president, G.W. Maxon, had over 25 years experience in river construction, most of which was for the Corps of Engineers. Maxon was familiar with Corps procedures and its classification of employees. However, Maxon was not prepared to deal with Federal relief work rules. Maxon believed that Federal relief workers were often unqualified, so he hired other workers. But the Federal Government withheld payment for these unauthorized employees. Maxon argued that unqualified workers increased his costs because of the high risk of accidents which, in turn, raised his liability insurance premiums and caused him to miss project deadlines. Maxon's cases ended up in the U.S. Court of Claims. The court awarded Maxon more than $100,000 on his Lock No, 18 claim, an amount equal to about seven percent of the contract. [5]

Contractors' fears about unskilled labor were well-founded. Under the Economic Recovery Act and related programs, a great number of untrained laborers were hired to work on the Upper Mississippi River locks and dams. And as the contractors claimed, these workers increased the possibility of accidents. Throughout the course of the 9-Foot Channel Project, the Corps of Engineers endeavored to maintain safety standards at all of the construction sites.

The Corps of Engineers photographed all aspects of Upper Mississippi River navigation improvement. The life vests worn by the photographers reflect the Corps of Engineers' emphasis on safety. (U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, Rock Island District)

Each district office implemented safety regulations. In the St. Paul District, Corps officials produced a monthly periodical, Old Man River, to not only keep all personnel abreast of various project developments but also, as advertised on its own sub-banner, "to promote safety among District and Contractor's employees." The Rock Island District published a similar newsletter, entitled The Safe Channel. St. Paul District officials also promoted safety by offering classes in which workers participated in demonstrations of safety equipment such as hard hats, safety shoes, and kapok life vests. District engineers displayed charts noting the number of accidents at each lock and dam project, and the number of man-hours lost to accidents. As the projects neared completion, concern over safety did not diminish. Bulletins establishing safety procedures, district safety meetings, and tours of facilities continued to be items of importance. Unfortunately, however, construction-related deaths were not uncommon. Between November 30, 1934, and December 31, 1937, 11 accidental deaths occurred at the St. Paul. [6]

Corps officials painstakingly documented the construction of the 9-foot channel. In the course of the 10-year project, the documentation reached gigantic proportions, encompassing thousands of maps, drawings, and records. Detailed engineering logs documenting the erection and assembly of the complexes, weather conditions affecting work, and pertinent data relating to the project's successful prosecution became part of the public work record. Officials in the district offices also made motion pictures of the construction progress. In July 1935, the St. Paul District office purchased a 16-millimeter Cine Kodak Special motion picture camera. Two 400-foot reels were produced entitled "Mississippi 9-Foot Channel Project." The Corps showed the picture so often and it was received so favorably that an additional project of greater scope was attempted. The St. Paul District made two additional films, one devoted to technical questions for engineering schools, the other for general audiences. Of the almost 19,000 feet of film shot, approximately 16,000 feet related to actual lock and dam construction. The Corps edited this raw material into twelve 400-foot reels with running times of approximately 15 minutes. Films of 4,800 feet were made for technical audiences; 2,400-foot films were assembled for non-technical viewing. [7]

The Rock Island District photographically documented the project's construction in both high-quality, 8 by 10 format, black and white, still photographs, and 16-millimeter silent movies. The Rock Island District constructed a photo lab in its Clock Tower Building, and the archives of that district contain at least 80 reels of film documenting the construction of Locks and Dams Nos. 1 through 22. The films vary in length from 20 minutes to over 1 hour. [8]

The 9-Foot Channel Project's new emphasis on employment had yet another effect: it encouraged the decentralization of the design process. At the 1933 congressional hearing, Chief of Engineers Lytle Brown had explained that he could achieve maximum employment by starting the 23 as-yet-unstarted 9-Foot Channel Project complexes simultaneously. His assistant, Brigadier General George B. Pillsbury, added that all 23 sites could be started within 4 months, To honor these public commitments, Brown and Pillsbury now had to decentralize the project as much as possible, so that the maximum number of tasks could be undertaken at the same time. [9]

Following the hearing, Brown and Pillsbury transferred survey and land acquisition, as well as the rest of the design work, from the UMVD to the districts. As a result, the UMVD design team that had been assembled by Spalding and McAlpine was greatly reduced in size after mid-1933. At the same time, the staff, activities, and influence of the St. Paul, Rock Island, and St. Louis Districts increased.

The decentralization spawned personnel changes. Within days of the congressional hearing, UMVD Division Engineer George Spalding was replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Edmund L. Daley. Daley served as UMVD Division Engineer until 1935, when he was replaced by Colonel John N. Hodges. Hodges headed the UMVD until 1938, when Lieutenant Colonel Malcolm Elliot assumed command of the division. Except for a brief period in 1939, when Lieutenant Colonel Phillip B. Fleming was Acting Division Engineer, Elliot served as UMVD Division Engineer for the rest of the 9-Foot Channel Project. [10]

The Corps' construction photographs, such as this one taken at Dam No. 10 on a cold February day in 1938, are an important record of the working conditions and construction techniques of the 9-Foot Channel Project. (U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, Rock Island District)

In 1933, Head Engineer William McAlpine accepted a transfer to the engineering section of the Chief of Engineers' office. Lenvik Ylvisaker resigned from the Corps. Edwin E. Abbott transferred to the Rock Island District. Neither a new head engineer, nor designers and technical engineering specialists such as Ylvisaker and Abbott, were assigned to the division office. Rather, Corps officials created a new administratively oriented position of Assistant Division Engineer. Major William A. Snow was the first UMVD Assistant Division Engineer, serving from 1933 until 1935. Major Bartley M. Harloe was UMVD Assistant Division Engineer from 1935 to 1936. Captain Emerson C. Itschner, who later served as Chief of Engineers from 1956-1961, was UMVD Assistant Division Engineer from 1936 to 1937. Captain Reginald L. Dean assumed the position in August 1937, and saw the 9-Foot Channel Project to completion. [11]


1. Hearings, May 1933, 4-5, 7, 77. Beginning in April 1933, various people attempted drafts of what became the National Industrial Recovery Act. Debate continued throughout April and early May. Roosevelt presented a draft to Congress on May 17. He did not sign the resulting act until June 16, 1933. William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940 (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 56-58.

2. Hearings, May 1933, 25, 44, 51-52, 61.

3. In 1938, Harry Hopkins developed a plan for the WPA to do the construction associated with preparedness and rearmament. In an attempt to keep the work from going to the WPA, the Quartermaster Corps made an issue of who controlled emergency construction. By late 1938, President Roosevelt had come to favor the transfer of all military construction to the Corps of Engineers, if the transfer of responsibilities could be accomplished without a fight with Congress which might jeopardize his other programs. As part of these negotiations, the Corps agreed to have the WPA actually do, under the Corps' supervision, some of the construction associated with preparedness and rearmament. Since the May 1933 redefinition of the Upper Mississippi River 9-Foot Channel Project, relief workers employed by private contractors had already been building waterway improvement structures under Corps supervision. Since the Flood Control Act of 1936, the WPA had also been doing and funding flood control construction work under the supervision of the Corps. These precedents paved the way for the President's late 1938 decision to support the addition of the supervision of all WPA construction projects to the Corps' work load. Once he had made this decision, Roosevelt rapidly came to support the Corps' retention of all its traditional civil works functions. Roosevelt's reluctance to give all water resource development to the Corps revolved around the Corps' lack of experience in planning comprehensive programs. However, once Roosevelt had made his decision, it ended the 1920s and 1930s threat of removal of civil works functions from the Corps. Roosevelt to Senate, August 13, 1937, in Edgar B. Nixon, ed., Franklin D. Roosevelt and Conservation, 1911-1945 (Hyde Park, New York: General Services Administration, National Archives and Resources Service, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, 1957), 102.

4. RG77, Entry 111, Boxes 977 and 978, File 3524, Washington National Records Center, Suitland, Maryland (hereafter referred to as WNRC); and transcript of Case No. 45051, Court of Claims of the United States, James Stewart Corp. vs. the United States (Lock 12), RG77, Entry 111, Box 673, WNRC (duplicate copy is in RG77, Entry 81, Box 678, NACB).

5. R.A. Wheeler to Chief of Engineers, November 13, 1933, and January 18, 1934, and E.L. Daley to Chief of Engineers, February 14, 1934, RG77, Entry 111, Box 990, File 3408, WNRC; R.A. Wheeler to Chief of Engineers, January 8, 1934, and March 19, 1934, RG77, Entry 111, Box 989, File 3344, WNRC; G.E. Edgerton to Chief of Engineers, October 22, 1934, and R.A. Wheeler to Chief of Engineers, January 7, 1935, RG77, Entry 111, Box 993, File 3524-part 1, WNRC; and transcript of Case No. 45262, Court of Claims of the United States, Maxon Construction Company vs. the United States (Lock 18), RG77, Entry 111, Box 685, WNRC.

6. Lieutenant Colonel Malcolm Elliot: Division Administrative Bulletin No. 1201, December 22, 1937, Subject: Kapok Vests (memorandum); R.L. Dean: Division Administrative Bulletin No. 1205.1, July 12, 1938, Subject: District Safety Regulations (memorandum); Schedule for UMVD Safety Meeting To Be Held In The St. Paul Minnesota District, June 22-23, 1939; Methods of Handling Visitors (memo, n.d., submitted by districts in compliance with request of this office dated May 11, 1937), RG77, subgroup: UMVD, Box 9, Para 5-C, SR 345-250-5, NAKCB; and Brian J. Kenny to Christine Whitacre, May 7, 1991, files of the Rocky Mountain Regional Office, National Park Service, Lakewood, Colorado.

7. " Channel News," Old Man River 2, No. 5 (February 1938), RG77, St. Paul District, Old Man River Safety Bulletins 1938-1940, Box 2, Entry 1626, NAKCB.

8. Dudley Hanson, Planning Division of the Rock Island District, to Christine Whitacre, April 25, 1991, files of the National Park Service, Rocky Mountain Regional Office, Lakewood, Colorado.

9. May 1933 Hearings, 53 and 71.

10. Annual Report 1933, 674; Annual Report 1934, 783; Annual Report 1936, 878; Annual Report 1938, 1047; Annual Report 1939, 1147; and Annual Report 1940, 1152. The prominence of the post-1933 division engineers is reflected in Col. Hodges's career. A 1905 West Point graduate, Hodges served with the 6th Engineering Division of the American Expeditionary Force in France. Between 1920 and 1923, he was district engineer for the Little Rock and Memphis districts. From 1928 to 1931, he was with the office of the chief of engineers in Washington, D.C. For the last two of those years, he was editor of the Military Engineer. Following his tenure with the UMVD, Hodges served in 1943 with the United States Army Forces, Middle East; and as division engineer for the North Atlantic Division (1943-44). He retired as a brigadier general in 1944 at the age of 60. He died at age 80 in 1965. George W. Cullem, Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy from 1802 to 1867 (rev. ed., with a supplement containing the Register of Graduates to Jan. 1, 1979, New York: James Mile, 1879), Entry 4351.

11. Leland R. Johnson to William Patrick O'Brien, February 6, 1988 (2nd letter of that date), copy in working files, National Park Service, Rocky Mountain Regional Office; "List of Officers and others available for Witnesses," February 4, 1937, RG77, Entry 111, Box 995, file 3524-part 3, WNRC; "List of Witnesses available to testify on Meltzer Claim Case on Lock 22," May 26, 1941, RG77, Box 998, file 3524, WNRC; Annual Report 1934, 783; Annual Report 1936, 878; Frederick J. Dobney, River Engineers of the Middle Mississippi: A History of the St. Louis District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (St. Louis: U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, St. Louis District, 1978), 92-93; Annual Report 1937, 916; and Annual Report 1938, 1047.

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Last Updated: 01-Feb-2008