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The River We Have Wrought

The River We Have Wrought: A History of the Upper Mississippi

John O. Anfinson
Copyright Date: 2003
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 388
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  • Book Info
    The River We Have Wrought
    Book Description:

    The River We Have Wrought is a landmark history of the upper Mississippi from early European exploration through the completion of a navigable channel and a system of locks and dams. John Anfinson examines how politics has shaped the landscapes of the Upper Midwest and how taming the Mississippi has affected economic sustainability, river ecology, and biological diversity.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9410-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xxii)

    On February 20, 1931, the Izaak Walton League’s Minnesota division issued a notice about “Two Big Meetings.”¹ The first was scheduled for Wabasha, Minnesota, in six days, and the second for Winona, Minnesota, on March 7. Both meetings focused on the 9-foot channel project for the upper Mississippi River. Under this project, Congress directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct twenty-three locks and dams from just above Red Wing, Minnesota, to Alton, Illinois. Although the Corps had improved the river for navigation under a series of major projects since the Civil War, the river had remained too shallow...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Innumerable
    (pp. 1-28)

    Paddling upstream from St. Louis, Missouri, to Fort Snelling, Minnesota, in 1823, theVirginiabecame the first steamboat to navigate the upper Mississippi River. It did so twice that year. Other boats plied the river—birchbark and dugout canoes, pirogues, flatboats, and keelboats—but theVirginiaannounced a new era. Italian adventurer and romantic Giacomo Beltrami, a passenger on that first voyage, captured the moment best. Upon arriving at Fort Snelling, at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, he declared: “Our passage to this place forms an epoch in the history of navigation. It was an enterprise of...

  6. CHAPTER 2 This Splendid Juggernaut
    (pp. 29-52)

    After two years rambling through the upper Great Plains, George Catlin, adventurer, romantic, artist, returned down the Mississippi River from Fort Snelling in the fall of 1835. He mourned, wistfully, for the Native Americans and their world. He foresaw the bones of their ancestors ploughed up by impatient settlers, taking away the Native Americans’ homeland and sacred ground. He knew what was coming. “I have seen thus, in all its forms and features,” he proclaimed, “the grand and irresistible march of civilization. I have seen this splendid Juggernaut. . . .”¹ Returning down the Mississippi, he blanched at the growing...

  7. CHAPTER 3 The Bounty of Providence
    (pp. 53-80)

    Immediately following the Civil War, most farmers still produced for local or regional markets. Twenty years later, they cried for cheap access to international markets for a surplus vastly beyond regional and national needs. Farmers could not turn to the upper Mississippi River, however. The largely natural river was incapable of handling the grain offered to it. Railroads bridging the upper river and spreading throughout the plains beyond offered the best outlet but often charged unacceptable rates. Out of this milieu farmers and midwestern merchants began calling for a project that would radically change the upper Mississippi River’s physical and...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Making the Mississippi Over Again
    (pp. 81-100)

    When Captain Alexander Mackenzie took command of the Corps’ Rock Island District in June 1879, the upper Mississippi River possessed most of its natural character. In 1896 he left a vastly different river. Congress, by authorizing the 4½ -foot channel, directed the Corps to recast the upper Mississippi, to forge a permanent, uninterrupted navigation channel, 4½ feet deep at low water, for the river between St. Paul and the mouth of the Illinois River at Alton. This required dramatic changes in the Mississippi’s physical and ecological character. It meant eliminating the wide shallows and sandbars and the innumerable little pools...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Highway of Empire
    (pp. 101-124)

    By 1900 the upper Mississippi River appeared ready for its return as a great commercial thoroughfare. Under the 4½-foot channel project, the Corps had made the river more navigable than it had ever been. The national and regional economies had rebounded from the depression of the 1890s, and at times, farmers, merchants, and manufacturers offered more commodities than railroads could carry. Timber rafting still thrived, providing the foundation upon which a more diverse shipping industry could grow. But the end of riverboat commerce was rapidly approaching. Despite the Engineers’ efforts to resculpt the upper Mississippi River, it remained too fickle...

  10. CHAPTER 6 So Nearly Perfected by Nature
    (pp. 125-144)

    Even though 6-foot channel boosters had inserted their survey into the 1905 Rivers and Harbors Act, they faced a problem. They had not developed a broad base of support. Unlike the movement for the 4½-foot channel, farmers had not joined the 6-foot channel movement yet, nor had communities away from the river. So far, only towns along the river backed it. With these towns as their foundation, they hoped, as one booster urged them, to arouse interest from the Alleghenies to the Rockies and from north to south.¹ The new boosters, however, would soon learn they could hardly rouse their...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Cradle, Home, and Place of Sojourn
    (pp. 145-174)

    From the Midwest’s beginnings, one vision guided the region’s view of the upper Mississippi River. William Windom, Oliver Kelley, Lewis Boswell, W.J. McGee, Corps officers, and most Midwesterners subscribed to it. God, Divine Providence, or Nature had laid out America’s rivers, especially the Mississippi, as an ideal transportation system. Not to use this gift amounted to blasphemy. An alternative vision was emerging, however, a vision that would challenge the navigation booster’s worldview.¹

    In the early 1900s, as siltation, channel constriction, pollution, reclamation, and overuse degraded the river’s environment, concern for its health grew. More and more Americans looked to rivers...

  12. CHAPTER 8 A Marooned Interior
    (pp. 175-196)

    Conservationists won a piece of the Upper Mississippi River valley as navigation seemed to be fading away for good. Soon, it appeared, conservationists would have the river to themselves. By 1918 no through commerce moved on the upper river; no packets or raftboats made the trip from St. Louis to St. Paul. Nearly every city on the upper river had abandoned its riverfront, and few had facilities for loading and unloading barges. But in 1924, the same year Congress authorized the Upper Mississippi Wildlife and Fish Refuge, a new navigation movement began to stir. The movement would exceed any previous...

  13. CHAPTER 9 Straining at the Chains
    (pp. 197-212)

    Midwesterners had reached a turning point by 1925. Would they give up on the river as a commercial highway, or would they fight to restore navigation? More than one critic of navigation improvements suggested the Corps should end its work, that any further efforts were misguided nostalgia. But many Midwesterners, especially farmers and business interests along the upper Mississippi River, feared railroads would soon monopolize bulk shipping. They still hoped to develop a diverse transportation system so they could compete successfully in domestic and foreign markets. They no longer trusted the Interstate Commerce Commission. With the commission’s approval, railroads had...

  14. CHAPTER 10 An Inland Empire’s Need
    (pp. 213-238)

    Navigation boosters entered the fall of 1928 pleased with themselves and confident that they could restore commerce to the upper Mississippi River. They had won their battles with the Coolidge administration, and they had made shipping on the river a regional concern. The 1928 election and efforts to solve the farm crisis would give navigation improvement national attention. Problems still remained, problems that could ensure the river’s failure as a transportation route, despite the boosters’ efforts. Over the coming year, the boosters’ satisfaction would turn to anger and frustration, but their confidence and determination would grow.

    Farmers, in particular, looked...

  15. CHAPTER 11 This Noble River
    (pp. 239-274)

    As navigation boosters tried to hurry the 9-foot channel survey ahead, conservationists realized that a threat, possibly far greater than any the river had faced, was gaining momentum. The effect of slack-water reservoirs on the Upper Mississippi River Wildlife and Fish Refuge especially worried the Izaak Walton League. The league cherished the refuge as its “first born and probably greatest accomplishment.”¹ Commenting on pollution, Judson Wicks, president of the Minnesota Izaak Walton League, captured the league’s sentiment well and evinced a radically different vision for the river. “There is something shocking and scandalous,” he bristled, “in the thought that this...

  16. EPILOGUE: Fourth River
    (pp. 275-292)

    A new Mississippi River coursed its way from Minneapolis to St. Louis in 1940. As the last roller gates and tainter gates dropped into the river, they gave rise to a third era in the river’s physical and ecological evolution. The natural river was already gone. For sixty years wing dams and closing dams had transformed the upper Mississippi, but the channel constriction works vanished beneath the waters of the new reservoirs and from the minds of most Midwesterners. The constricted, fast-flowing, and clearly defined main channel gave way to a broad, often slow-moving river in which the navigation channel...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 293-348)
  18. Index
    (pp. 349-364)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 365-365)