The History of Transportation
on the Mississippi River

Part Three
by Richard Moore, IWLA

When the proposal to create locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi River was first authorized, the nation was in the depths of the Great Depression. The Hoover administration resisted the idea to put America to work by funding large public construction projects. But as the US economy continued to decline, the nation turned to new leadership.

When Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933, more than 10 million Americans were unemployed and many of those who continued to work earned only half of the wages they enjoyed only four years earlier. Roosevelt did not share Hoover's reluctance to use the public treasury create jobs for desperate citizens. On the contrary, over the next eight years, the Roosevelt Administration poured hundreds of millions of dollars into public works projects across the country.

The scramble to secure a piece of Roosevelt's New Deal was furious, but the proponents of the lock and dam project managed to get in line early. In 1933, the federal government committed more than $30 million to the Upper Mississippi, the first in a series of investments that would total more than $164 million by the time the project was complete. In 1940, the last of the lock and dam systems was finished, and the Upper Mississippi River had finally been tamed for commercial barges.

Through the early years, traffic on the river grew slowly. Agricultural production in the region had been somewhat limited by the Roosevelt Administration in an effort to bolster prices, so grain was initially a minor portion river traffic. The Second World War boosted river commerce as raw material, oil and coal were shipped to industrial centers, but even then, river commerce did not experience the economic boom that its early boosters had predicted.

Beginning in the 1950s, post-war global economic development and changing US trade policies began to increase the demand for American grain. At the same time, the productivity of Midwestern farms was steadily increasing as better technology and improved varieties of corn, soybeans, and wheat became available to the region's farmers. By 1970, grain, which had been a negligible commodity on the river, accounted for nearly 1/3 of the ever-increasing volume of river traffic. Total grain shipments in 1970 amounted to approximately 18 million tons, nearly three times the total river traffic in 1940.

As traffic on the river increased, The Corps of Engineers began to make adjustments to the existing lock and dam system. Of the many several modifications made between 1948 and 1960, the most significant was the construction of a new, 1200-foot lock at Keokuck, Iowa. Prior to its completion in 1957, the longest locks on the river were 600 feet.

In the 1960s, the Corps, encouraged by the members of Congress, began to review plans to further expand navigation on the Upper Mississippi. Among the options under consideration were deepening the channel to 12 feet and opening up the river to year-round traffic. Then, as now, traffic on the upper river stops in winter when the pools ice over.

Conservationists and others were beginning to become concerned about the level of barge traffic on the Mississippi. The river had been tamed for barges, but the costs in terms of environmental quality were thought to be high. Increasingly, conservationists began to challenge the notion that the potential of the Upper Mississippi to carry barges was unlimited.

The growing tension between conservationists and the Corps, coupled with the Corps' increasingly ambitious plans for navigation, set the stage for a major battle between competing interests. It was only a matter of time before this tension erupted into a full-fleged clash of competing interests. And, just as the Great Depression set the stage for the initial construction of the lock and dam system, a new American social phenomenon had come about to fan the flames of conflict.

During the 1960s, Americans were becoming more aware of how human society interacted with the natural world, and more concerned about the impacts we were having on our environment. By the end of the decade, Congress was passing comprehensive laws to protect the environment, most notably the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969. This would have been unimaginable in 1960.

So, by the time the Corps formally proposed the construction of a new 1200 foot lock at Alton, Illinois in July of 1969, the stage had been set for a collision between the Conservation Movement and the Corps.

to be continued...

History of Mississippi River Transportation
Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7 - Part 8 - Part 9 - Part 10

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