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Saturday
Apr282018

The Meeker Island Lock & Dam

Article by Michael Rainville, Jr.

On the Mississippi River, where Minneapolis and St. Paul meet, an abandoned structure lies just beneath the waves. Between the shore and the navigation channel are the remains of the Meeker Island Lock and Dam, originally named Lock and Dam No. 2. While it was not operational for a very long time, the impact it had on the utilization of the river from St. Paul to Minneapolis is tremendous.

Screenshot from Google Maps showing the remnants of the lock.

During the mid-1800’s, paddle boats started to make the trek up the river and line the shores of St. Paul, bringing resources and people looking for a new home. While it was possible for boats to reach Minneapolis, it was a very dangerous trip. The eight-mile stretch from St. Anthony Falls to where the Minnesota River flows into the Mississippi was dotted with small islands and rapids with an elevation change of 110 feet. To take advantage of the power St. Anthony Falls was generating for the lumber and flour milling industries, Minneapolis needed to be connected to the transportation network that the river created. In 1898, after roughly fifty years of negotiations, the construction of two lock and dams, one near the Ford Bridge for St. Paul to harness electricity with, and the other near the Lake St. Bridge for Minneapolis, commenced. This would raise the level of the river and hide all those islands and boulders that made navigation very risky.

The Meeker Island Lock and Dam was the first to be built, and it was completed in 1907. On May 19th of that year, the Itura became the first boat to pass through the new lock, and the Meeker Island Lock and Dam became the first lock and dam on the entire Mississippi. During its short lifespan, the lock and dam would see anywhere from 200,000 to 475,000 tons of lumber a year pass through, which was the main use of the lock. The only other industry to use the lock was tourism and transportation. During the early years of the lock, the Army Corps of Engineers annual reports estimated that $15,000 worth of excursion business passed through the lock per year.

Photo of its construction, looking down stream with the Lake St. Bridge in the backgroud.

Photo of its construction, looking up stream.

Shortly after the Meeker Island Lock and Dam was completed, construction for the second dam, just downstream, began. Halfway through its construction, hydropower technology progressed so much that these two lock and dams would not be able to handle the new technology that was required for hydropower. Because of this, a new plan was agreed upon. In 1912, just five years since the Itura passed through its doors, the Meeker Island Lock and Dam shut down and was partially dismantled to make way for the new Lock and Dam No. 1. Not only would this new and larger lock and dam raise the river level even more in the river gorge, it would provide an immense amount of electricity. A man by the name of Henry Ford quickly realized this would be a perfect opportunity to open a new automobile factory and approached the city of St. Paul to strike a deal. I think we all know what happened after that.

Post card of the completed lock and dam.

While the Meeker Island Lock and Dam was only in operation for five years, it opened the river for safe travel up to Minneapolis, and laid the ground work for the current iteration of Lock and Dam No. 1, also known as the Ford Dam. The milling industries in Minneapolis were going to grow no matter what, but if it wasn’t for the idea that first popped up before the Civil War to install a series of locks and dams between the Twin Cities, it’s hard to believe that Minneapolis would eventually become the Mill City.

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About Michael Rainville, Jr.

A 6th generation Minneapolitan, Michael Rainville Jr. received his B.A. in History from the University of St. Thomas, and is currently enrolled in their M.A. in Art History and Certificate in Museum Studies programs.

Michael is also a lead guide at Mobile Entertainment LLC, giving Segway tours of the Minneapolis riverfront for 5+ years.

He can be reached at mrainvillejr@comcast.net.

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