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Origin of the Navigation System

Published Oct. 15, 2015

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. 

In March of 1930, the group embarked on the journey from Minnesota’s capital to the halls of Congress in Washington, D.C., in search of the Holy Grail, the 9-foot channel for the Upper Mississippi River. Among the delegation were Col. George Lambert, chairman of the Executive Committee for the Mississippi Valley Shippers Conference; George Morgan, president of the St. Paul Commerce Association; and Thomas Cunningham, president of the Mississippi Shipping Company representing the Mississippi Valley Association for the Upper Mississippi Division. These were the region’s “heavy hitters” set to make their case for navigation improvements that much of the country already enjoyed; but did they have enough clout to convince those with the real power, the House of Representatives Committee on Rivers and Harbors, that this project was not only good for the region but good for the country? They could only hope.

The hearing commenced at 3:50 p.m. on Tuesday, March 18, 1930, with the Honorable S. Wallace Dempsey, chairman from New York, presiding. The purpose was to discuss the potential for authorization of the 9-foot channel for the Upper Mississippi River. Morgan, representing the commercial interests of the Twin Cities, lead off with a statement expressing with “all the emphasis that I can personally give to it the message of the intense and universal interest among the commercial interests of the Twin Cities in the upper Mississippi development, and particularly in the project which we are urging here today – the authorization of the 9-foot channel.”

Cunningham echoed these sentiments, as he provided to the committee resolutions passed by the Mississippi Valley Association in strong support of the 9-foot channel. He added that the 6-foot channel, authorized under previous legislation, was of no value under current conditions. The 9-foot channel was necessary for transport of goods economically. 

Next to give a statement was Lambert, who briefly reviewed the history of navigation development on the Upper Mississippi River leading up to the present hearing. He also cited relevant reports including the most recent interim survey report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 

The Interim Report actually did favor their home region, as it recommended a 9-foot channel for the Upper Mississippi River. However, the report was problematic in that it didn’t contain the detailed plans for improvements typical of a survey report. The process was out of order in that authorization was being requested before a plan had been developed. Chairman Dempsey pointed this out when he said, “There never has been such a report come before us before in the history of this committee, in my 15 years of my experience.” The Interim Report was submitted at this time, though, “because the board (i.e., special board created to study the potential for navigation improvements) believes that immediate modification of the existing project is highly desirable and justified.” 

The report made two important points. The first was that “the present 6-foot project and the methods of prosecuting it were designed to aid types of river trade which have become obsolete; the project is certainly inadequate for present needs.” The second was a recommendation of implementing plans leading ultimately to a 9-foot channel. 

This plan consisted of two phases; the first, consisting of construction of seven dams with locks that would guarantee a 6-foot channel. This was seen as an intermediate step towards the ultimate 9-foot channel project, which would be attained after implementation of the second step. In his recommendations, the Chief of Engineers stated that “The improvement of the main stem of the Mississippi River as far north as the cities of St. Paul-Minneapolis goes logically in hand with the recently completed 9-foot project on the Ohio to Pittsburgh.” 

The delegation, representing the interests of the Northwest, saw this as unsatisfactory. “Their preference was to bypass any consideration of a 6-foot channel and plan directly for a 9-foot channel. Without assurance of a 9-foot channel, investment in the infrastructure necessary to accommodate a 9-foot channel would not occur leaving the region’s economy wanting." 

Lambert, in citing these references, said action and not recommendations was needed. He emphasized the position of the Corps of Engineers which stated that, “… the present channel is not adequate … A modification which will be a step toward a comprehensive plan is therefore needed at once.” He implored Congress to declare itself in favor of the 9-foot channel and provide authorization for the development and the improvements recommended in this report. 

Reports provide recommendations, not authorization. “What they want is an assurance on the part of Congress that they will have a 9-foot channel … that alone would start the building of boats,” he said. “Everybody could figure on this thing. It would restore some measure of prosperity in our section [of the country].”

Toward this end, Lambert offered to the committee a proposal that the delegation was seeking: “Mississippi River between Illinois River and Minneapolis: The existing project is hereby modified so as to provide a minimum channel depth of nine feet at low water with widths suitable for long haul common-carrier service, and including the construction and maintenance of the works and structures as set forth in the recommended plans paragraphs 601 and 602 of the report and estimates of the special board of engineers, dated Dec 16, 1929 submitted in House Document No 290, Seventy-first Congress, second session, the Chief of Engineers, upon further surveys and with the approval of the Secretary of War, is hereby authorized to make, within the estimated cost of the modified project, with such changes in the type and location of the permanent structures recommended therein as, in his judgment, will more effectively meet the requirements of modern navigation: Provided. That all locks below the Twin City Dam shall be of not less than Miss R standard dimensions.”

Following the hearing, the delegation was confident that they made a strong case for their position and felt good about their chances for authorization of a 9-foot channel. On their side was not only the favorable recommendation by the Corps but also the backing of President Herbert Hoover, who stated just five months earlier, “As a general and broad policy I favor modernizing of every part of our waterways which will show economic justification in aid of our farmers and industries. We should complete the entire Mississippi River system within the next five years.” But still they couldn’t be certain. Was the process out of order in requesting authorization before a plan was developed in detail? Would Congress adopt the two-step plan recommended by the Corps of Engineers? Was the project just too big and costly for the federal government to swallow in one bite? They saw these as potential deal-breakers.

Finally, the authorization they had long sought was given later that summer in the new Rivers and Harbors Act. It consisted of a few simple but profound words, words taken from the delegation’s proposal submitted at the March 18 hearing: “The existing project is hereby modified so as to provide a channel depth of nine feet …” The celebrations could be heard from the bluffs of Dubuque, Iowa, to the plains of North Dakota. And with that, the great Northwest entered a new era in economic promise.