A hydro-electric power plant
on the Mississippi

Water Power on the Root

By John G. Shepard

Broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio
September 29, 1995

"Only by going alone in silence, without baggage,
can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness.
All other travel is mere dust and hotels
and baggage and chatter."

Those words were by the great mountain explorer and conservationist, John Muir. I suppose he would have raised his bushy eyebrows at the sight of me waddling with my three packs of food and gear down to the banks of southeastern Minnesota's Root River. It took a second trip to fetch my little solo canoe, paddles, and life jacket. But when I pushed off from shore there was no more dust, not a hotel in sight, and the only chatter was from the birds overhead. I had not yet begun talking to myself or with the passing boulders and trees, so it was also silent in the way Muir would have liked.

I felt suddenly very much like a kid again--almost giddy with excitement, my heart racing, eager to follow the watery path that was carrying me around the bend. I was also a little nervous in an adult kind of way. Beyond the usual dangers I faced as a solo traveler--getting knocked on the head and drowning in six inches of river water, accidentally stabbing myself, getting shot for trespassing--there was a more immediate concern: where was I gonna spend the night? In an hour it would be dark and the first campsite on my map was ten miles down stream--well beyond reach.

Originally, I'd planned to camp at the Moens Bridge canoe landing and start out in the morning. Then The Kid got a look at the gravel parking lot that would have served as a campsite.

"Excuse me?" he said. "You want to camp in the parking lot? With that glassy-eyed dancing river right down the bank there? And the soft sunset hush in the air? And the birds singing to the rising fish? You wanna sit around here all evening?"

Who could argue with that? A mile or so later it was getting dark. The clear September night promised to be cold enough that I knew there'd be no bugs. I only needed a piece of flat riverbank big enough for me to spread out my sleeping bag under the stars. But so far, I'd seen nothing of the sort. One shore alternated between the steep wooded bluffs and sheer limestone cliffs that the Root River valley is know for. The other was planted in corn right down to the crumbling riverbank. Then, I rounded a bend and through the murky twilight saw a large midstream island beneath the branches of a big hardwood tree.

I landed the canoe and meandered over lumpy ground through coarse grasses that grew above my waist. Finally, I found a spot that was tolerably level. I rolled around on the grass until I'd flattened out a nest for myself. Just as the first stars came out, I snuggled into my sleeping bag, scribbled a few notes in my journal by candlelight, then curled up and fell fast to sleep.

What seemed like moments later, I was awakened by a bright light. I opened my eyes and looked up into the face of the full moon. I stood up. It was cold. Where the river had flowed hours earlier, a thick blanket of fog now stretched from bank to bank. Dew glistened everywhere in the silver light--on the gracefully arching blades of grass, on my canoe, on my now-damp sleeping bag. I stood in numbed silence, a solitary witness of this magical scene, until I started to shiver. Then I went back to sleep.

What stands out most in my recollections of the following two days on the river are not the many wild creatures I happened upon. The dozens of hawks who glided about on blufftop thermals high above. The pre-historic looking great blue herons flying in slow motion inches above the water. The spectacular immature eagle that advanced downstream of me whenever I drew near. The half-dozen deer I saw, including a group of three that waded unperturbed across the river before my quietly drifting canoe. Not the fish rising at dusk, nor the cliff swallows whose nests clung like little adobe homes to the undersides of bridges and overhanging cliff faces. Somehow, these beings, wonderful as they were, didn't engage my interest quite as fully as an obscure remnant of past human enterprise.

"Root River Power and Light Company 1915," read the bold cement letters on the decaying building at river's edge. The three-story hydroelectric generating plant was still standing at the bottom of a near-vertical bluff, though time and the elements had taken their toll. Foot-thick cement walls were practically all that remained. The windows were gone. The roof had collapsed. A 20-foot tree was sprouting from thick vegetation covering the ground floor. Steel beams that once supported cement floors on the upper stories were dangling at odd angles in the open air. In places the metal on these beams had rusted into a substance as thin and brittle as tree bark. Despite the decay, the brute labor required to build this structure, which is inaccessible by road or rail, was still almost palpably present. It seemed embodied in the very walls. "Root River Power and Light Company 1915," read the bold cement letters on the decaying building at river's edge.

An account of the construction describes workers using horse teams and cables to lower huge pieces of machinery weighing three to six tons each from the bluff nearly 200 feet above. As they worked these men had to keep an eye out for the rattlesnakes that were still plentiful in the region.

But even these efforts paled compared to the work required to build the 1,000-foot tunnel that runs through the bluff behind the power plant. This tunnel, ten feet tall and eight feet wide, was drilled and blasted by laborers working day and night by candlelight for two years. Their tools were steam engines, air compressors, jack hammers, several railroad cars full of dynamite, and shovels. They worked ten hour shifts, six days a week, for two-fifty a day. When the tunnel was completed it diverted water to the power house from a hulking cement dam, now also in ruins, on the river upstream.

Flowing down a gradient of 20 feet, the rushing water generated enough electricity to power the communities of Preston, Harmony, Canton, Mabel, and Spring Grove. I ate lunch on a sunny sand spit at the base of the old powerhouse. While munching on GORP and cheese, I tried to put my finger on the strange appeal these ruins held for me.

The cracked, vine-sprouting walls and the massive rusting iron equipment were testament to ambitions that are both awesome and disturbing. For me, the power plant represented a time of incredible industry in this country when brute human and animal strength had not yet been entirely eclipsed by the machine. And the new level of civilized technology that Root River Power and Light brought to the region must have been revolutionary for people accustomed to candle light and kerosene.

But the sort of effort that fueled this enterprise completely transformed Minnesota's landscape in a matter of decades. The prairies and forests succumbed to this driving human ambition and were converted to croplands and cities. It was also a time when a few folks--John Muir was one of them--were beginning to win support for protecting the still-wild places.

Muir died in 1914, the year before Root River Power and Light began generating electricity. If, before dying, he had made a solitary trek from the nearest road to this place, where industrial technology was leaving its mark on the wild land, he might not have been pleased.

But I think if he'd been looking over my shoulder, he would have taken some pleasure in what he saw: a solitary traveler following the path that Muir had blazed into the heart of the wilderness. And all around was nature, in its own way and at its own inexorable pace, reclaiming unto itself the baggage that humans had left behind.

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