Jack’s Column

“The Land of 10,000 Lakes” is Minnesota’s name.  Sounds like a lot of water but we have rivers too and many small streams.  Many of our cities started on a lake or river.  In fact, the main mode of transportation was either on foot or canoe before horses were introduced.

Early explorers were eager to find a source of the mighty Mississippi.  They knew that small rivers flowed into the Mississippi, thus giving them a waterway further into the country.  

It wasn’t until 1832, that Henry Schoolcraft found the source of the Mississippi River.  This provided information on the amount of water that was upstream feeding a river that could be used for navigation.  

About the time discoveries were being made about all the waterways, Robert Fulton developed the steam engine so it could be used to propel a boat, thus the early steamboat.  This boat helped develop the interior of the United States by carrying supplies for living to developing cities.  The Mississippi River was a main artery for the steamboat.  

Rivers are not always dependable in providing enough water to float a boat.  The upstream may be slowed by the lack of water.  One way to solve this problem is to slow the flowage of water so it lasts longer.  This was accomplished by building “wing dams.”   Materials readily available were stones and trees.

To make a wing these materials build on one another part way across the river, thus forming a “wing,”d slowing the water down.  These were built alternating on each side of the river.  By slowing flow of water, the river was available for steamboats used more months of the year.  

Steamboats were built so they had a shallow draft.  The hull was wide and did not require deeper water.

Originally these boats carried “goods” like bales of cotton on deck.  Later, barges were afixed to the front of the paddle wheel wheelers and more goods could be transported.  

Today, diesel powered boats built like tow boats push up to 15 barges up and down the main rivers.  It is amazing how these skilled river boat pilots maneuver these boats around tight curves of the river.  

Shipping coal, fertilizer, cement or any bulky items is done with barges.  They hold many times more volume than railroad cars.  

Because shipping by water became more economical for bulk items, a need arose to maintain water levels in the rivers at a consistent level.  

During the 1930’s economic depression, when a large number of men were unemployed, our government decided to build dams on navigable rivers.  These dams maintained (pools of water) at least 9 feet deep behind each dam.  They built 23 locks and dams between Minneapolis and St. Louis.  

If you haven’t seen a tow boat locking through a dam, take a trip down Hwy 61.  

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