From the Great Lakes to the Gulf
In the early days of statehood, Minnesota’s commercial development was propelled by a natural system of navigable waterways.
Although railroads were fast becoming the dominant mode of transportation by the 1870s, lawmakers had not abandoned water transport.
The 1874 Legislature proposed an intriguing civil engineering feat — the construction of a canal between Lake Superior and the Mississippi River, an idea hatched by the territorial legislature. The 1887 Legislature later urged Congress to chart the best route between the two bodies of water.
“The saving of distance through a canal connecting Lake Superior waters with the Saint Croix River would tend to open an immense trade, and result in carrying the agricultural surplus products of the Upper Mississippi Valley to eastern and European markets without transferring to breaking bulk,” lawmakers wrote. “America’s great inland seas, and the Mississippi River must be connected.”
Subsequently, the federal government ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to chart the proposed waterway.
A 1909 letter to Congress from Secretary of War J.M. Dickinson, who also was the head of the Corps, reported the findings of Minnesota district engineers as to “whether existing conditions render such project now feasible and practicable, considering the necessary location, plans, cost of construction and maintenance, commerce affected, and water supply.”
Various routes along the Nemadji, Kettle, Rum, and Snake rivers were considered, but ultimately a 210-mile canal between Allouez Bay on the Wisconsin side of the Duluth-Superior Harbor via the Brule River to the St. Croix River was selected as the most favorable course.
Estimates put the cost of the channel at nearly $8 million for construction and $420,000 for annual maintenance and operation.
This would not have been the first waterway to connect a great lake with the Gulf. Illinois had dredged a 96-mile channel from Lake Michigan in 1848 at the cost of around $6 million and there was a second connection in Wisconsin, but the report found that by 1909 commerce on those waterways was greatly diminished.
Engineers questioned the commercial viability of Minnesota’s proposed canal.
It would take six days under favorable conditions to complete a trip, they estimated, and barge traffic would be stymied by winter and face stiff competition from freight trains that could travel from Duluth to St. Paul in 10.5 hours.
Nevertheless, local business interests and citizens along the route were overwhelmingly in favor of the project.
“The value… is so self-evident that Congress must ‘sit up and take notice,’” read a Stillwater Daily Gazette editorial from May 26, 1909.
In addition to potential economic benefits, proponents maintained that a canal would increase hydroelectric power generation in the region and bolster flood mitigation efforts.
“The more canals wisely planned, the better for the country they reach; the better also for the ports they leave.” Read a Duluth Daily Star editorial dated May 7, 1909. “Bring on your canal.”
Conversely, railroad interests had obvious competitive reasons to oppose the canal and the report suggested that grain, coal, and lumber dealers also dismissed the idea.
“These business men, keen to scent of profit, would be apt to disregard even the cost of construction and maintenance of such a canal if the outlook for a saving in freight rates were promising, yet all of them oppose the canal as a useless waste of government money.”
Ultimately, the report concluded that “while existing conditions render such a project practicable, from an engineering point of view, it is commercially impracticable, and that it is not now advisable for the general government to undertake the work.”
A joint Minnesota-Wisconsin canal commissioner later failed to reverse the decision.
This article was reprinted with permission from the April 19, 2002 issue of Session Weekly, a nonpartisan newsmagazine published by the Minnesota House of Representatives Public Information Services office. For more information call, (651) 296-0337.
By N. Wood