Let the River Run

Many years ago, before the locks & dams were built, the Mississippi River ran wild through the heart of Minneapolis. Why not again?


In 1805, when Lt. Zebulon Pike became the first American explorer to ascend the Mississippi gorge, he found a river entirely unlike the one that exists today. From the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers to St. Anthony Falls, Pike reported, he traversed "almost one continued rapid." All but one of the dozen islands he encountered on the eight-mile stretch are now gone--eroded away or submerged. "Ecologically, it was kind of a unique place. There was a lot of rock, and very little floodplain," notes John Anfinson, a historian with the National Park Service who has written about the river extensively. "At low water levels, you could wade across the river and it would be up to your knees. At high water levels, it became a roaring rapids."

At St. Anthony Falls, early explorers found an astonishing quantity of fauna. In one account, a since vanished, one-acre island was home to "a vast many eagles' nests." The eagles were no doubt drawn to the fish that migrated up to the falls. In one expedition in 1823, a soldier was said to have caught a 142-pound catfish at the falls--more than twice the size of any catfish caught in the state this century. It was most likely blue catfish, a species that was thought to have vanished from the state until earlier this year, when a fisherman on the Minnesota River landed a 52-pound specimen.

Michael Dvorak

But while the rapids may have made for beautiful scenery and a lively fishery, early settlers regarded them as a nuisance. By the middle of the 19th century, St. Paul had established itself as the head of navigation on the Mississippi, recording 1,000 steamboat dockings in a single year. Even though the gorge was navigable under certain conditions, few tried. In a failed effort to cultivate Minneapolis as a port, city boosters paid a steamboat captain $200 to pilot his vessel to the falls; the Lamartine reached its destination, but the rocks and rapids dissuaded other steamboats from following in its wake. By the mid-1850s, civic leaders in Minneapolis and St. Anthony were clamoring for the construction of locks and dams.

As it turned out, the project was delayed for nearly 50 years, owing to the Civil War, economic depressions, and spats over money. Finally, in 1907, the Army Corps completed the first lock and dam in the river gorge: the Meeker Island Lock and Dam. Because of its design, however, the dam was useless to the suddenly burgeoning hydroelectric industry. In 1912, it was demolished to accommodate the construction of a replacement, a 30-foot-high dam that was better suited to generating power. In 1917, Lock and Dam No. 1 was finished. A few years later, the hydro-power rights were granted to the Ford Motor Company, which constructed a power house on the dam to run its factory. The project radically transformed the river upstream. The fast and shallow waters that Lieutenant Pike and other explorers once traversed were now gone, replaced by a large, slow-moving, and deep impoundment.

In the years that followed, Minneapolis never became the port city some had hoped. The construction of the Upper and Lower St. Anthony Locks and Dams, completed in 1963 and 1957, opened the river to barge traffic above the falls. It didn't really matter, though; in practical terms, St. Paul remained the Mississippi's true shipping terminus. St. Paul now averages five times the barge traffic Minneapolis gets. (In recent years Minneapolis has averaged about two million tons annually, about half of its peak traffic in the mid-'80s. Part of it is a matter of simple physics. In the big river at St. Paul, barge operators can push up to 15 200-foot barges at a time. The narrow, winding river in Minneapolis can accommodate only two.)

Given such constraints, it's not surprising that the city-owned Upper Harbor Terminal, one of four commercial docks located above the falls in Minneapolis, has been a chronic money bleeder. Between 1990 and 1996, the city lost some $5.7 million on the facility, mostly on debt service related to construction. Since 1999, when the city paid off those bonds, the terminal has produced a modest annual profit of about $150,000 a year, according to Jim Forsythe of the Minneapolis Community Development Agency. As a long-term investment it's likely a dead end. The city's Upper River Master Plan, commissioned in 1999 to explore how to make the best use of the river, recognized as much. The plan calls for the Upper Harbor Terminal and much of the other industry above the falls to be converted to housing and parks.

Which raises a question: If the Upper Harbor Terminal closes, why maintain the commercial waterway in Minneapolis? In the view of some critics, there is little justification as it stands. The Army Corps spends about $3 million annually to operate its three locks in Minneapolis. That's a lot of money, given that it serves just a handful of bulk commodity companies that deal in scrap metal, gravel, sand, and concrete, says Jeff Stein, a policy analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Taxpayers for Common Sense. In a 2000 report on the Corps, Taxpayers for Common Sense declared the Mississippi in Minneapolis one of the nation's top 25 "deadbeat waterways." "At St. Paul, there is still a considerable amount of traffic, so it's worthwhile to maintain that infrastructure," contends Stein. "But downtown Minneapolis just is not a commercial harbor. It's the vestigial tailbone of the system, which you would have hoped evolution would cut off."

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