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Rock Island lock and dam first of 29

By Laura Botting, Dispatch/Argus Staff writer

Stirring things up is one thing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does best. That is, when it comes to taming the Mississippi River.

Click here for larger view.
Photo courtesy of the Rock Island Historical Society.
Lock and Dam 15, at Rock Island, was the first of a series 29 dams to raise the navigation pool on the upper Mississippi. The facility, here seen under construction, was built in 1934.
If you've ever been held up from crossing the Arsenal Bridge, then you're surely familiar with the amount of barge traffic that passes through Lock and Dam 15 at Arsenal Island. In fact, about 30,000 barges pass through the facility each year.

Without the Corps lock and dam system, river traffic along the upper Mississippi would probably come to a screeching halt, according to the Corps.

Click here for larger view.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Engineers
On Aug. 17, 1933, the second day of operation for Mississippi River Lock and Dam No. 15 at Rock Island, a Naval Reserve boat and the steamer, J.S., move through the main lock. The view is looking east.
In its natural state, the Mississippi River is treacherous and wild. There was a time, when rivermen believed that the dangerous and unpredictable Mississippi never would be tamed.

Since the 1930s, the Corps of Engineers has battled the upper river's natural force with its lock and dam system. Today, the system churns the river, daily upsetting its balance. This "stirring up" has enough calming effect to provide safe river travel.

The road to today's lock and dam system was as rocky as early 19th century Mississippi River travel, according to the Corps.

Contained in a 14-mile stretch of the river just north of Davenport to LeClaire ravaged the dangerous Rock Island Rapids, according to the Corps. In its midst lie submerged rocks, boulders and debris that often caused deadly "snags" adding to the perils of early river navigation. Captains also had to deal with a river bed tangled with limestone chains that reached out into the river from the shoreline.

In 1819 when an Army Corps of Engineers vessel passed beyond the dangerous Des Moines Rapids at Keokuk, steamships began venturing into the Rock Island Rapids. Steamboat traffic carrying tourists and supplies steadily began to increase.

In spite of the captains who braved the river's rough route, the rapids remained dangerous. With increasing settlement and trade, the river's undependable transportation prompted the federal government's involvement in its settlement. In 1852, Congress passed the Western Improvement Act authorizing $100,000 for early rock-blasting efforts aimed at taming the upper Mississippi.

It was after the Civil War when the Corps renewed its effort to calm the Rock Island Rapids with the beginning of the Corps' Rock Island District. The Corps began to tackle the Rock Island Rapids that lie just upstream from the Government Bridge at the tip of Arsenal Island.

The problem areas of the upper Mississippi were deepened three times, once in the late 1870s, once in 1907. After WWI when traffic of larger vessels increased, the river was deepened to nine feet -- the depth that is maintained today. The Rock Island District Corps oversees 582 miles of 9-foot navigation channel, the second longest channel in the country.

In 1934, with $7.5 million, and about 81 tons of steel, the corps built Lock and Dam 15. Each year, millions of tons of cargo pass through its 8-ton lock chambers on giant barges. (Four million tons would fill 2,666 barges forming a line 50 miles long.)

Lock and Dam 15 was the first of the Corps' 29 lock-and-dam systems in place along the upper Mississippi. The Corps spends $69.5 million a year to keep the system maintained to operate 24 hours a day. Crews conduct day-to-day systems checks to keep it up and running year-round. Necessary dredging and repairs are saved for the cold winter months when river travel comes to a halt.

Since the 1970s, the Corps has been modernizing its lock and dam system. Its current rehabilitation project is scheduled for completion in 2002. And the Corps has embarked on a six-year $50 million study to look at the system's navigational, recreational and environmental needs. Half of the study is being focused on the environment.

Copyright 1999, Moline Dispatch Publishing Co.