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St. Paul District History

The St. Paul District traces its origins to 1866, when Congress authorized the Corps of Engineers to establish a 4-foot navigation channel on the notoriously unreliable Upper Mississippi River. Maj. Gouverneur Kemble Warren, a West Point graduate widely acclaimed for his leadership at Battle of Gettysburg, was tasked with initiating the new program and conducting preliminary surveys of the main river and its tributaries. Warren arrived in St. Paul, Minn., and opened the first district office in August 1866.

Well known for his hard-working and diligent manner, Warren set about establishing the new district and initiating his new projects. By 1869, he had already surveyed much of the region and sketched at least 30 maps of the main stem of the Mississippi and its tributaries. Additionally, he acquired the district's first floating plant -- a dredge and snag boat -- for creating and maintaining a 4-foot low water channel between St. Paul and St. Louis and authorized the construction of the first wing and closing dams in the district.

These measures ultimately proved inadequate to the growing commercial needs of the Twin Cities, and Congress authorized the Corps of Engineers to construct six dams in the headwaters between 1880 and 1907. Flour millers at St. Anthony Falls especially pushed for reservoirs above the falls, recognizing that the release of water from the reservoirs for navigation in the later summer and fall would increase the flow of water to keep their mills turning longer and more consistently. Though Congress initially balked at the project's pork-barrel appearance, it finally authorized an experimental dam for Lake Winnibigoshish in 1880 and authorized the remaining dams shortly afterwards.

The Headwaters project provided for construction of the Winnibigoshish Dam (1883-1884) and the completion of dams at Leech Lake (1884), Pokegama Falls (1884), Pine River (1886), Sandy Lake (1895) and Gull Lake (1912). In its 1895 annual report, the Corps of Engineers reported that releasing the water from the Headwaters reservoirs had successfully raised the water level in the Twin Cities by 12 to 18 inches, helping navigation interests and the millers. Also by 1895, the St. Paul District had built more than 100 miles of wing dams and 94 miles of shore protection at a cost of nearly $6 million.

--Anfinson, John O. The River We Have Wrought: A History of the Upper Mississippi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Significant Contributions

The St. Paul District Office had been in existence for only three years when the Eastman Tunnel of Nicollet Island in Minneapolis collapsed in 1869. The district responded to this disaster by designing and building several structures to save both Nicollet Island and St. Anthony Falls. Those structures are still in place, and in use, today.

In 1884, it completed America's first major reservoir system, located in the Headwaters of the Mississippi River and created the Leech, Winnibigoshish and Pokegama reservoirs.

In 1917, it finished America's first federal dam with a hydroelectric plant, Lock and Dam 1 in Minneapolis.

In the 1970s, the St. Paul District proposed and constructed the Corps' first nonstructural flood reduction project in Prairie du Chien, Wis., choosing to relocate structures rather than build levees.

St. Paul District personnel have continuously responded to natural disasters throughout its history. Most recently, we have responded to Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ivan, Isaac and Sandy; the Red River of the North floods in 1997, 2001, 2002, 2006, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012; the Mississippi River floods of 2001, 2008 and 2011; the I-35W bridge collapse in 2007; and the Souris River flooding and recovery in 2011/12.

District personnel have also supported the reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. More than 70 district members have voluntarily deployed to assist the citizens in rebuilding their countries.

Contact History Office

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
St. Paul District - History Office
180 5th St. E., Suite 700
St. Paul, MN 55101
Phone: (651) 290-5680
Fax: (651) 290-5752