Home > About > History

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
cemvp-pa@usace.army.mil

St. Paul District History

The history of the St. Paul District is the history of the Upper Midwest and its growth over more than a century. When the district was established in 1866, there was a crucial need to prevent the disintegration of the Falls of St. Anthony, and, with it, the commercial importance of the Minneapolis milling center. After solving that engineering problem, the district saw and influenced the growth and demise of the lumber industry, the rise of the flour industry, the development and operation of Yellowstone National Park, the change from steamboats to diesel powered towboats on the Mississippi, the first flood risk management and hydroelectric power projects in the nation and, in most recent years, the creation of a very popular outdoor recreation program. No stranger to controversy, the district, has, nevertheless, strived to respond to the needs of this important region."

-Col. (Retired) Forrest T. Gay, III, 49th District Engineer, St. Paul District

Brief History

The St. Paul District traces its origins to 1866, when Congress authorized the U.S. Army 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 the 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, Minnesota, 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. 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.

Despite the Corps’ substantive channel improvement efforts, navigation died on the upper river. By 1918, virtually no traffic moved between St. Paul and St. Louis. Fearing that the Midwest would suffer economically without a vibrant and diverse transportation system, business interests initiated another movement to revive river transportation. Around 1925 they lobbied Congress and eventually won support in 1930 for a 9-foot channel project, which authorized the construction of 23 locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi River. These were completed in 1940. The Corps built additional locks and dams at Lower and Upper St. Anthony Falls in 1956 and 1963 respectively, bringing the total in the St. Paul District to 13. With a consistently deep and reliable channel, commerce returned to the Upper Mississippi River.

Changing Boundaries

The earliest description of the St. Paul District’s boundaries included the Mississippi River drainage from the river’s headwaters to the lower end of Lock and Dam 1 between St. Paul and Minneapolis, together with the Red River of the North drainage as far as the international boundary with Canada, and the Rainy River drainage in northern Minnesota, which encompasses the boundary waters area. The district was extended south in 1919 to the mouth of the Wisconsin River and again in 1940 to Lock and Dam 10 at Guttenberg, Iowa. A portion of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan draining into Lake Superior and Isle Royale were added to the district in 1941 but lost during a subsequent realignment in 1979.

Today, the district borders follow the edges of four river basins– the Mississippi River, the Red River of the North, the Souris River and the Rainy River – and cover an area of approximately 139,000 square miles. This area includes most of Minnesota, the western half of Wisconsin, the northeastern half of North Dakota and small portions of northeastern South Dakota and northeastern Iowa. The district also shares approximately 500 miles of border with three Canadian provinces.

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, the district completed America’s first major reservoir system, located in the Headwaters of the Mississippi River and created Leech, Winnibigoshish and Pokegama reservoirs.  In 1910, it finished America’s first national 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, Wisconsin, choosing to relocate structures rather than build levees.

St. Paul District personnel have continuously responded to natural disasters throughout its nearly 150-year history.  Most recently, district members deployed to the Red River of the North basin to assist with record flooding in the spring of 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013. The district also responded to historic flooding along the Souris River in North Dakota in 2011. Additionally, district personnel deployed to New York following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Louisiana to assist with recovery efforts after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008, assisted with the I-35W Bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007 and deployed to Louisiana and Mississippi to assist with recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The district recently contributed to rebuilding the St. Bernard Parish portion of the New Orleans hurricane protection system, too.

District personnel have been supporting the reconstruction efforts in the Middle East since 2002. More than 100 district members have voluntarily deployed to the Iraq and Afghanistan to assist those countries in rebuilding.

Major Awards
The district has received nine Chief of Engineer’s Awards – one in 1983 for the rehabilitation of Lock and Dam 1; one in 1989 for the building of Weaver Bottoms Island in Lower Pool 8 of the Mississippi River; one in 1996 for a flood risk management project in Rochester, Minn.; one in 1998 for a flood risk management project in Saint Paul, Minn.; one in 2004 for the restoration of islands in Pool 8; one in 2008 for the Grand Forks, N.D./East Grand Forks, Minn. flood damage reduction project; two in 2008 for the Water Level Management for Ecosystem Restoration in Pool 5 of the Upper Mississippi River; and one in 2012 for the planning of the Fargo, North Dakota/Moorhead, Minnesota, Flood Risk Reduction Project.

The Minnesota Society of Professional Engineers has presented the district with 17 Seven Wonders of Engineering Awards since 1963.

Historical Vignettes

The Old Post Office Building and the Digitization of the St. Paul District

I started working for the St Paul District in March of 1980. At that time the district office was in the main Post Office on Kellogg Boulevard between Sibley and Jackson streets. The building was built in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration.
Published: 10/27/2015

St. Paul District regulatory boundaries

In 1976, the St. Paul District regulatory staff consisted of four people (clerk included) that focused on evaluating projects under Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899. The scrutiny was largely of bridges, trestles, docks/piers and dams that had the potential to impede navigation.
Published: 11/3/2015

Dredge W.A. Thompson and early dredging

In 1930 the 9-foot draft channel was legislated by Congress to increase commerce on the river. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began construction of the series of 29 locks and dams between St. Louis and Minneapolis, creating a stairway of water for river traffic. Since the river is constantly shifting its load of sand and sediment and tributaries along the way contribute more it is necessary to remove the material from the bottom of the channel to prevent a closure to navigation. This process of underwater excavation is called dredging.
Published: 10/27/2015

Meeker Dam: Controversy plagued one of the first locks on the Mississippi River

Listed as one of the “controversies” in Raymond Merritt’s book “Creativity, Conflict & Controversy: A History of the St. Paul District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” the Meeker Dam project continues to provide intrigue.
Published: 11/3/2015

Gouverneur Kimble Warren

Maj. Gouverneur Kimble Warren was the first district engineer of the St. Paul District. After the Civil War, he came to St. Paul in 1866 and began work surveying the Mississippi, Chippewa, St. Croix and Wisconsin Rivers. He also began the preservation of St. Anthony Falls and designed the nation’s first reservoir system, the Mississippi River Headwaters Reservoir System.
Published: 11/3/2015

Henry Bosse

One of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers St. Paul District’s claim to fame is renowned photographer Henry Bosse. Bosse was born in Prussia Nov. 13, 1844. He immigrated to the United States in 1865; and by, 1870, he was working in a book and stationary shop in Chicago. He began working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Chicago in 1874 and was soon transferred to the Corps’ River and Harbor Improvement Office in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1878, he transferred to the Corps’ Rock Island District.
Published: 10/15/2015

Memories linger of disaster at East Grand Forks/Grand Forks

(first published in Crosscurrents Oct.-Nov. 2007 edition) The district, the locals, the volunteers –they all put up a tremendous fight, but ultimately the Red River of the North rose too high, too fast. And although it’s been 10 years since the spring flooding in the Red River Valley destroyed much of Grand Forks, N.D., and East Grand Forks, Minn., the sights, the sounds, the emotions of this event linger for those who were there. "I can still picture those breaches like it was yesterday,” said Neil Schwanz, a geo-tech engineer. “I can picture myself standing [there], watching all this happen.”
Published: 2/28/2017

History of recreation in the St. Paul District

The St. Paul District constructed and placed approximately 15 dams into operation starting with Lake Winnie, Leech Lake and Pokegama Lake dams on the Headwaters of the Mississippi River in 1884 and concluded with the Highway 75/Bigstone Dam in 1972. Except for the Headwaters dams that were constructed at the outlets of large natural lakes, the remaining dams created new reservoirs. These lakes, reservoirs and tail water areas created prime locations for outdoor recreation and visitors slowly starting utilizing the areas as railroads, road systems, vehicles and accessibility became more modern.
Published: 11/3/2015

Engineering the Falls: The Corps of Engineers' Role at St. Anthony Falls

People have always been drawn to the power and beauty of St. Anthony Falls. For Native Americans, the falls possessed religious significance and harbored powerful spirits. For the early European and American explorers, the falls provided a landmark in a vast wilderness, as well as an interesting geological phenomenon. During the 19th century, settlers, tourists and artists were drawn to St. Anthony Falls' picturesque beauty, while entrepreneurs seized the water power of the falls for their lumber and flour mills. Meanwhile, promoters of river transportation viewed St. Anthony Falls as an obstacle to be overcome, as they dreamed of extending navigation on the Mississippi River above Minneapolis.
Published: 10/27/2015

Blackhawk Park site of battle

A lone marker recognizing sacred ground stands at Blackhawk Park, located near DeSoto, Wis. Every year Native American groups visit the park and the surrounding area to pay respect and remember a past. The inscripted stone marks where one of the last Indian-American battles east of the Mississippi River occurred more than 180 years past.
Published: 10/15/2015

Red River Flood of 2009

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District, declared a victory late April 2009 after facing massive flooding in the Red River of the North river valley for more than a month-and-a-half. By the end of the fight, the district had distributed 11.3 million sandbags, 4,201 rolls of plastic and 136 pumps, as well as let 50 contracts, built approximately 70 miles of emergency levee and spent more than $32 million.
Published: 10/28/2015

Hiram M. Chittenden

Captain Hiram M. Chittenden’s photograph appears on the wall outside the executive office of St. Paul District. Chittenden served as temporary district engineer for four months in 1901, during which time he gets credit for the conversion of Leech Lake Dam from a timber to a concrete structure and the design of Twin Cities Lock and Dam #2. Chittenden was assigned to St. Paul District for much of his career, more than those four brief months of command.
Published: 10/15/2015

Expansion of the regulatory mission

The Department of the Army Regulatory Program is one of the oldest organizations within the federal government. Initially, its purpose was to protect and maintain the navigable capacity of the nation's waters. The St. Paul District’s regulatory role in protecting Minnesota’s and Wisconsin’s water resources has evolved and expanded greatly since the program began regulating commerce and navigation on the Upper Mississippi River in 1866.
Published: 11/3/2015

History of the Headwaters Recreation Areas

The Mississippi River Headwaters dams, located in north central Minnesota, were constructed and placed in operation between 1884 and 1912. Maj. General Warren, the first St. Paul District commander, noted the importance of the Mississippi River Headwaters area during field surveys in the 1860s. Less than 10 years later, Congress authorized a feasibility study to determine whether a series of dams and reservoirs could aid in stabilizing water flow in the Mississippi River between St. Paul, Minnesota, and Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. As a result, a system of dams capable of raising water levels and storing annual spring runoff from six existing lake systems was designated. These structures are located at the outlets of Gull Lake, Leech Lake, Big Sandy Lake, Cross Lake, Pokegama Lake and Lake Winnibigoshish. Two of these lakes, Leech and Winnibigoshish, are located within the Leech Lake Indian Reservation.
Published: 10/28/2015

St. Paul District Engineers

The district is turning 150 years old in 2016. I have to admit I have never thought much about what
Published: 10/27/2015

Origin of the Navigation System

Along with their best suits, the delegation packed the hopes and dreams of the entire Northwest – from the farmers in the hinterland to the captains of commerce in St. Paul, Minnesota, and from the merchants on Main Street to the pillars of industry in Minneapolis.
Published: 10/15/2015

Bosse navigation charts in the new century

As commercial navigation becomes more dependent upon electronic technology, the use of paper navigation charts like the hand written ones completed by Henry Bosse in the early 1900s and used on the Dredge Thomson until 2005 are becoming a thing of the past.
Published: 9/25/2012

Floods of 1997

The St. Paul District faced one of its biggest challenges ever when, in the timeframe of around six weeks in 1997, it simultaneously fought floods in three river basins – the Red, the Minnesota and the Mississippi.
Published: 10/28/2015

Dredge Goetz

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District, uses the Dredge William L. Goetz to help maintain 850 miles of the Upper Mississippi River, 335 miles of the Illinois River and other inland rivers. The St. Paul District acquired it in the spring of 2005.
Published: 10/28/2015

Flood of ’97 overwhelms Wahpeton/Breckenridge

(originally published in the October-November 2007 Crosscurrents) Engineering division’s Matt Bray and Tim Grundhoffer fought two swiftly rising rivers, blizzard conditions and extreme temperatures only to be overcome by conditions beyond their control and to lose portions of a town not just once, but twice, in the same flood. Bray, a geotech engineer, and Grundhoffer, a structural engineer, were assigned as flood subarea engineers in Wahpeton, N.D., and Breckenridge, Minn., during the 1997 floods that wreaked havoc across the Red River Valley. Although they worked together closely, Bray worked primarily in Wahpeton and Grundhoffer in Breckenridge. Pete Corkin, from Rock Island District, assisted them.
Published: 2/28/2017

Gull Lake Native American Burial Mounds

The Gull Lake Mounds were excavated in 1969 by the University of Minnesota. This excavation was one of the last large-scale mound excavations conducted in Minnesota. The human remains and many of the artifacts removed from these mounds were returned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District, to the Dakota people for reburial in 1998.
Published: 10/28/2015

The Boatyard: History of the Fountain City Service Base

For 100 years, the Fountain City, Wisconsin, Boatyard has played an essential role in supporting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ efforts to improve navigation on the Upper Mississippi River. These efforts have included the 4 ½-foot channel project (1878-1907), the 6-foot channel project (1907-1930) and the 9-foot channel project (1930-present).
Published: 10/15/2015