Headwaters reservoirs: Streams, dreams and navigation
February 6, 2013
By Patrick Moes
The late 1800s were challenging times for people living in the Midwest. Flour millers in the Minneapolis area, as well as boat captains on the Upper Mississippi River, often had difficulties working on the river in the late summer months because the river ran dry.
The need for reliable river transportation was a growing requirement for the Minneapolis /
St. Paul, Minn., area, said Brad Perkl, archaeologist. So much so that one of the first tasks assigned to Brevet Maj. Gen. Goveneur Kemble Warren, the district's first commander, was conducting field surveys of the Mississippi River Headwaters region in the 1860s. According to Corps reports, engineers quickly realized the importance of the Headwaters region to improving river navigation in the Twin Cities. Following the surveys, the Corps created several plans to reduce the navigation issues found along the river.
After exploring the Headwaters region and additional river basins in Minnesota and Wisconsin, Warren called for as many as 41 reservoirs in 1870. The reservoirs were to be scattered across the St. Croix, Chippewa, Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers.
With surveys completed, Congress formally asked the Corps to study the impacts that the reservoir system would have on navigation. The study began in 1879. Maj. Charles J. Allen, the fourth district commander, wrote in a Corps of Engineers Annual Report to the Chief of Engineers, "The lakes at the source of the Mississippi furnish a compact reservoir system, almost as if laid out by an engineer."
While the reservoir plans were welcomed by the millers and navigation captains alike, the Native Americans didn't share the same optimism. Brad Johnson, regulatory division archaeologist, said the Objibwe Bands were often on the losing side of the dam construction process.
According to Jane Carron in her article "Dams and Damages," the bands opposed the dam construction from the very beginning.
The Pillager Band of Objibwe Chief Flatmouth said, "No one that comes here and stops for a while can know how important this is to us. When our lands were given to us by the Great Father we could do something, but if these dams are made we will all be destroyed."
Despite the Objibwe Bands opposition, Congress approved $75,000 in 1880 for the Corps to begin constructing Winnibigoshish Lake Dam via the Rivers and Harbors Act. The Corps of Engineers announced in 1882, "The Winnibigoshish Dam is the inauguration of the reservoir system for the entire country." The first of six reservoirs to be completed, the wood-framed dam, also known as Winni, was finished and placed into operation in 1884.
Jeff Steere, northern Headwaters section supervisor, said, despite their opposition to the dams, many Native Americans helped build them. "We've had a number of different families come back trying to research and see if one of their family members worked on the dams," he said.
The Dam construction continued in 1882, when the Corps began building more wood-framed dams in the region. Leech Lake Dam, Pokegama Dam, Pine River Dam and Big Sandy Lake Dam were all completed by 1886. The Big Sandy Lake Dam was modified in 1896 to contain the only navigation lock at any of the Headwaters reservoirs.
Despite completing all the wood-framed dams in the Headwaters region, the Corps began rebuilding them less than 20 years later with the more modern construction material -- concrete. The Gull Lake Dam, near Brainerd, Minn., was the last of the dams constructed, and it was the only one initially built in concrete.
According to the Corps' annual reports, the region's navigation needs continued to increase south of St. Paul and the reservoirs were looked at as the cure for navigation during the summer. During this time, the Corps was also making improves downstream of St. Paul as part of the four-and-one-half foot channel requirement.
The reservoir cure was short-lived. Henry Bosse, district draughtsman and photographer in the 1880s, testified before Congress in 1898 that the reservoirs only helped raise water levels in St. Paul during a prolonged drought by more than a foot. "Our boat was aground and we had no rainfall, and that was due to the reservoirs -- they raised the river and we floated off," he said. While the water release was beneficial to navigation in St. Paul, it wasn't the same further downstream. Bosse said, "I had the general opinion of pilots and other river men that the effect below Lake Pepin was hardly noticeable."
Even with the Corps' best efforts to use reservoirs to shield the navigation industry from low water events, Perkl said the Corps ultimately looked toward locks and dams on the Mississippi River as the best option.