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For thousands of years, the Twin Cities had a white-water rapids roaring through it, tumbling and roiling over and around enormous limestone chunks that still litter the Mississippi River’s floor for eight miles from the St. Anthony Falls dam all the way down to Ft. Snelling.
If it were restored to its natural state, the “gorge” would be a kayaking and recreational wonder with hundreds of acres of new parkland, a photographer’s delight and a sportsman’s paradise. Scores of eagles would nest there, drawn by all the fish that would mass in oxygen-rich water and spawn in gravel beds under swirling eddies.
And lately a small but growing band of restoration advocates see that two key events — the prospective closing of the Upper Harbor Terminal in Minneapolis and impending shutdown of the Ford Plant in St. Paul — are giving hope that the rapids may one day roar again.
It would require the removal of the federal government’s Lock and Dam No. 1 (the Ford Dam), and while doable, it won’t be easy.
It was in 1917 the feds built the Ford Dam, muting the thundering rapids under a head of water whose flat surface is so tranquil that rowers can glide across it in flimsy shells. They needn’t even worry about running into the few barge-pushing towboats that the expensive dam and locks promised to bring.
And so, Mike Davis asks, would anyone today seriously consider erecting a dam and burying what would be the longest and perhaps only white-water run through a major city anywhere in the world?
“Of course not,” Davis answers himself, emphatically.
Davis is an ecologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and his special fondness for mussels brings him often to the Mississippi River’s only gorge, where he studies the river’s underwater world and imagines what was and what might be.
“To me, the Mississippi’s rapids are a buried treasure, just waiting to be revealed again,” Davis said.
The rapids were stifled as a result of intra-city rivalry rooted in St. Paul’s early success as the northern terminus for Mississippi riverboats, an era begun in 1823 when a single sternwheeler took 20 days to navigate upriver from St. Louis. By 1844 St. Paul docked 44 of the boats and that grew to more than 1,000 by 1857, bringing tourists and cargo and thousands of immigrants to settle a new frontier.
Minneapolis boosters watched jealously, anxious for their fledgling city to compete for the riverboats — but those rapids wouldn’t allow it.
There ensued a prolonged push to erect a dam and locks. After a failed attempt with “the Meeker Dam” (its concrete remnants are still visible), the Ford Dam with its 35-foot drop was completed in 1917. It not only covered more of the rapids, but importantly it provided sufficient head for hydro-power that enticed Henry Ford to build “the world’s largest” auto assembly plant in a sparsely populated outpost between two cities.
White water hasn’t splashed over a limestone boulder in the Mississippi ever since.
John Anfinson, a historian with the National Park Service, helped paint a portrait of the Mississippi’s turbulent past — geologically and politically — during a recent cruise on a sun-filled day. It’s the Mississippi’s only gorge, and it’s a spectacular place that many cross each day but few seem to notice.
Anfinson has written extensively about the river and, like Davis, he ponders what might be as he easily recalls its storied past (a synopsis of Anfinson’s informative book, “The River We Have Wrought,” is online here).
“We haven’t always treated the river so well,” Anfinson says, noting that when the South St. Paul stockyards were in full tilt there’d be blood, offal and rotting animal carcasses in the water. Raw sewage would flush in, made worse with each rainstorm that carried nutrient-rich waste from city streets and combined with sewer overflow to make a stinking river teem with disease in an oxygen-depleted dead zone.
Pools behind the Ford Dam and the Hastings Dam farther downriver trapped waste whose smell and unsightliness drove people away. That changed somewhat in 1935 when the sewage treatment plant was built on Pig’s Eye Island south of downtown St. Paul; along with other improvements, it helped bring about a community revival that looks to instead of away from the famous river.
Within the last decade, the St. Paul Riverfront along with residential development and major attractions — the Mill City Museum in the historic district in Minneapolis and even the new Guthrie Theater — have helped bring eyes to the river.
But those eyes don’t see the rapids that remain entombed under the pool behind the Ford Dam.
Trip through the gorge
The geological history of the rapids is as fascinating as a trip through the gorge with Anfinson, which we took last fall. The falls made the gorge, he said, along with the stilled rapids that lies 20 or more feet below our boat.
It was 12,000 years ago that a 175-foot falls that rivaled Niagara was where downtown St. Paul is, with massive volumes of meltwater from glacial Lake Agassiz — at the time much larger than the present Great Lakes combined — filling the Minnesota River (then the River Warren) to the brim. The Mississippi was a mere trickling stream by comparison.
About 10,000 years ago the falls had retreated to where Fort Snelling is today and headed up the Mississippi. Water rushing over the limestone cap-rock and seasonal freeze-thaw cycles eroded the underlying soft sandstone and pushed the falls upstream at the (geologically rapid) rate of about four feet per year. (A miniature version of St. Anthony can be seen at the present-day Minnehaha Falls, with the same retreating forces in evidence as you view the bowl carved into sandstone underlying the perched cap-rock over which the water flows.)
As the falls moved upstream, giant blocks of limestone and shale — as much as 25 feet thick — broke off and cluttered the riverbed, leaving jagged chunks that make rapids boil on a fast-flowing river with a significant 110-foot drop through the Twin Cities (half of the Mississippi’s total drop of 1,475 feet occurs between Itasca and Ft. Snelling).
Today’s falls are somewhat upstream from when Father Louis Hennepin wrote about them in 1680 and pegged their height at 50-60 feet (ignoring Native Americans who regarded the falls as spiritual, he named the falls for his own patron saint, Anthony of Padua). By the time Zebulon Pike saw the falls in 1805 as he explored America’s Louisiana Purchase, the falls’ height was put at just over 16 feet.
Its retreat now speeded to about 26 feet per year as cap-rock thickness diminished, the falls was soon viewed as a power source for gristmills and up to 16 sawmills at St. Anthony village and, later, for 27 grain mills that made Minneapolis the world’s leading flour producer. (Facade glimpses of the mills are still evident today because they were made of stone, while wooden sawmills either burned down or decayed to uselessness.)
Through various efforts, the falls’ retreat was slowed and finally stopped by the existing concrete dam that, in 1963, was fitted with a lock that, together with the Ford Dam and the “Upper Lock and Dam” (immediately below St. Anthony), allowed Minneapolis to finally realize its dream of being the head of commercial navigation. The city built the Upper Harbor Terminal and other industry located above the falls to take advantage of the river as a transportation conduit to America’s heartland and, even, overseas markets.
Vision vs. reality
But the reality never fully matched the vision. Because of the smallish size of the locks through Minneapolis, tows are restricted to a couple barges while tow-trains of a dozen or more barges can easily be accommodated in St. Paul, which remains the river’s northern-most major shipping harbor.
Meanwhile, the Ford Dam is still in place and the rapids under its pool are still muted.
Advocates like Mike Davis noted a few years ago in an interview for a splendid story in City Pages by writer Mike Mosedale that the only realistic chance for the white-water rapids to be restored would be IF:
• Barge traffic would continue its decline, making it increasingly difficult to justify the $3.4 million the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says it costs each year to operate and maintain the locks at Ford, Upper, and St. Anthony dams.
• The Ford Plant in St. Paul would close, obviating the need for the 13 megawatts of power generated at the Ford Dam.
And both IFs are happening.
Records of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the three locks and dams, show that shipments have fallen steadily over the decades to near the one million tons per year, a “rule of thumb” break-even in the Corps’ cost-to-benefit ratio.
Shipments would fall off even more with the expected eventual closing of the Upper Harbor Terminal in Minneapolis, something highlighted in the city’s “Above the Falls” (PDF) vision that calls for residential and recreational development throughout the industrial north side.
One of two remaining major commercial users of the river, American Iron, expects that its shipments of scrap steel will increase. A spokesman for American Iron argued that without the locks, its barge traffic would increase trucks on crowded city streets and highways (it ships 20 barges a month — roughly half the total traffic through the St. Anthony locks — and says each barge hauls the equivalent of 60-70 trucks).
But there seems to be broad agreement that commercial shipping out of Minneapolis will continue to drop as Minneapolis looks to continue to transform the industrial North side to more people-friendly uses that can take advantage of spectacular views of the downtown over the winding river that is the reason for the city’s existence.
In St. Paul, the Ford plant is slated to close in 2011. In anticipation, Ford sold its hydro power plant to Brookfield Power of Quebec along with a federal operating license that’s good through 2034.
And so, with the Ford plant soon gone and dwindling commercial traffic on the river, folks like Mike Davis are pressing the notion that a rapids through the metro would be a popular attraction that fits with the Twin Cities’ new-found embrace of a river long abused and ignored.
As for now, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is obligated to maintain the river for commercial navigation, and only Congress can change that. There’s also the issue of the power-generating plant on the Ford Dam (power generation at St. Anthony is not included in a restoration scenario).
Davis said he’s taken his thoughts and PowerPoint presentation to those in the commissioner’s wing of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
“They seemed interested,” Davis said.
With the Ford Dam gone, Davis said, water would rush through the gorge — especially during spring high flows — and scour clean the silt-laden boulders and inject huge doses of oxygen into the rapids that would bring back the fishery. It would be, Davis said, an internationally recognized recreational and natural resource.
“It is a time for an alternative vision with a view towards the future,” Davis said.
Ron Way writes about the environment and outdoors for MinnPost.