Big WaterThe Mississippi River, paramount among North American rivers, along with its tributaries, forms the world's fifth largest drainage system in area - 1,244,000 square miles. The Indians called this river "Father of Waters", literally Misi 'big' and Sipi 'water'. The river has three distinct personalities. At its source, Lake Itasca, to the head of navigation here in the Twin Cities, the river is a clear running fresh stream. From the Twin Cities to the mouth of the Missouri at St. Louis, the river is a powerful, dominant force, moving past stone bluffs gathering streams and small rivers along the way. At the Missouri, the Mississippi changes to a turbulent force. And, at the junction of the Ohio River, the Mississippi swells to its full grandeur.
The river was a pathway through the wilderness for the native Americans, explorers, fur traders, and settlers, Indian villages, settlements, towns and eventually cities grew up along the shores of the river. The river was food, water, livelihood and supplies for the people along its shores. Downstream trips were dangerous but possible when the water in the river was good. But upstream travel remained a journey that only the strong and brave dared to make. Men had to be half-horse half-alligator to make the trip upstream.
The invention of the steamship and the further refinement of a ship designed to ply the Mississippi River made more of the river navigable more of the time. As travel and commerce increased along the river, the demand for navigation improvements was answered by Congress. With the General Survey of 1824, the army engineers were authorized to make these improvements, culminating in the 9-Foot Channel and the Locks and Dams system of today on the Upper Mississippi River.
Stairway of WaterA free flowing river offers many obstacles to travel, low flow, rapids, waterfalls, boulders and snags. A major characteristic of a river is its slope. The change in elevation from head waters to mouth of a river, coupled with the amount of water flowing and the landscape through which it flows, make a river. The slope of the Mississippi River from St. Louis and on down to the Gulf of Mexico, with the additional waters of the Missouri and Ohio Rivers, required channelization and levies to improve navigation. However, the Upper Mississippi River was too steep with insufficient year-round flow for this solution. The proposal of slackwater pools created by the locks and dams offered an answer for this portion of the river.
The locks and dams like the one you see here work together. The dam holds back water creating the pools and the locks act as an escalator or stairway moving the vessels up or down to the next pool.
The digging or dredging of a 9-foot channel was necessary and the series of 29 locks and dams have allowed the Twin Cities to become the head of navigation. Minneapolis and St. Paul are now major trading ports accessible to barges from as far away as New Orleans, carrying products from around the world. Lock & Dam No. 1 is conveniently located between the bread basket to the west and industry to the east.