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

Published Nov. 3, 2015
Meeker Lock and Dam under construction Sept. 27, 1905.

Meeker Lock and Dam under construction Sept. 27, 1905.

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. 

Meeker Lock and Dam, also known then as Lock and Dam 2 or Government Dam, and Lock and Dam 1 were the creative solution to solve the navigation conflict between the Minnesota cities of St. Anthony, Minneapolis and St. Paul. 

Proposed by territorial judge Bradley Meeker and some business associates from Minneapolis as early as 1857, the Meeker Lock and Dam project stalled in territorial and state legislatures until it reached the U.S. Congress – where approval was granted in 1894. Several issues caused the project’s delay to include the Civil War, the Panic of 1857, land acquisitions and changes in the make-up of the businessmen investors. 

When Congress approved the plan to bring navigation to Minneapolis and St. Anthony in 1894, they said a second dam, location to-be-decided, was needed, too. This “undecided” dam would ultimately become Lock and Dam 1 and is located downstream of Meeker Dam near the mouth of Minnehaha Creek, where it still operates today. 

Meeker Dam was less fortunate. The dam was destroyed in 1912 just 5 years after it was put into use. The top 5 feet of the lock walls were blown up but can still be seen during low water periods. 

Challenges and controversies 

The project had many controversies including the lock and dam’s conception, which was seen by some as a land-grab by a territorial judge. Bradley Meeker of Kentucky was one of three supreme court territorial judges appointed in 1849 by President Zachary Taylor as a result of a recommendation from his uncle during a time when the spoils system was accepted practice. As with many territorial judges, Meeker had time for other interests – such as real estate speculation. The judge owned several hundred acres of land in Ramsey County, some of it bordering the Mississippi River, including an island, which was marked for development of the dam. Meeker and his associates stood to gain significantly from the disposition of these lands. 

Titus Welles, a lumberman and businessman of the era, said in his memoirs that the land deal was “the attempt of a few selfish plunderers to seize upon 200,000 acres of the best pine lands of the state and hold them for speculation …” 

The dam was also opposed by lumbermen who wanted continued passage of their logs down the river and St. Paul interests who wanted to hold on to overland shipping businesses and the title “head of navigation” for the Upper Mississippi. 

Despite these project opponents, there were groups that continued looking to improve the river for navigation. Groups employed techniques such as snagging and removing sandbars and boulders. In 1866, Gouverneur K. Warren, St. Paul District’s first district engineer, employed Francis Cook, a civil engineer, who worked for the milling interests in Minneapolis to design a lock and dam at Meeker Island. In a subsequent report to Congress, Warren concluded that the only way to achieve navigation to the cities of St. Anthony and Minneapolis was by means of a lock and dam at Meeker Island. 

By the 1890s, when work began on the Meeker project, Judge Meeker was already deceased, but the work continued during a period of change in the nation’s planning priorities to include exploring opportunities for hydroelectric power. 

Although the Meeker Dam was evaluated for its hydroelectric potential, it was considered insignificant. Lock and Dam 1, under consideration near the mouth of Minnehaha, was deemed a better candidate for hydropower. These changes ultimately led to a more comprehensive look at navigation on the Upper Mississippi and the Meeker Dam was no longer considered necessary to get the steamboats to St. Anthony and Minneapolis.