Chapter LIII

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas


Why Des Moines Should Be Navigable  

Enormous Agricultural Production of the Rich valley Counties--Once a Great Highway  

   In a recent number of Wealth, a Des Moines publication, there is a solid article on the value of the Des Moines river to the dwellers in its valley.  We make some extracts:  

Eighteen counties in the Des Moines river valley produced in a single year

45,003,760 bushels of corn

14,818,620 bushels of oats

     769,507 bushels of wheat

     438,000 bushels of barely

     254,530 bushels of rye

Yen of these eighteen counties produced

 5,787,,534 tons of coal

     160,139 tons of gypsum

     200,000 thousands of bricks

  The improved land in those eighteen counties is equal to the improved land in the entire state of Arkansas,, and nearly 90 per cent of the improved acreage of Mississippi.

  The Des Moines river valley7 produces more tonnage than the valley of any other river in the United States excepting only the Ohio, the Mississippi and the Missouri.

  As a freight highway, the Des Moines river would be the fourth in the United Sates-if I was improved.

  While many people like to think of the Des Moines river navigation project as a joke, these facts from the December number of Wealth will convince anyone that it is a business proposition worth millions to Des Moines and Iowa.  The article in full:

   Twenty five thousand dollars were appropriated by the last congress for a survey of Iowa rivers.  The Des Moines the Iowa and the Cedar were the three streams that were in contemplation when congress set aside the federal money.  The Des Moines river is considerably larger than the other two and if any waterway in Iowa is given attention by the government engineers it will be the Des Moines.

  Years ago the Des Moines river was actually used for the purposes of navigation.  W. H. Lehman, as a boy came to Des Moines on a steamboat from St. Louis.  Running boats on rivers of medium flow was not regarded as chimerical in those days.

  In the year of grace 1912, however, it is considered, by the majority of near thoughtful citizens to be an evidence of mental instability to advocate making the Des Moines river again a highway for commerce.  Part of this feeling is born of lack of information.  The rest will melt away before the progress of years.

  “Things move so fast these days,”  said a business man, “that the people who say it can’t be done are constantly interrupted by the fellows who are doing it.”

  The Des Moines river is better adapted to navigation today than ever before in its history.  Yet in 1857 the steamboat colonel Morgan was owned by Des Moines merchants and Keokuk.  It is true that the venture was not decisively successfully, but there was mighty little-either of people or products-to make it.  Where one lone pig squealed hungrily for an ear of corn that had not yet grown in 1857m there are now a thousand fat porkers uttering symphonies of contented grunts with a mountain of yellow corn which must find its way to market on their short legs.  Times have changed since 1857.

  But if the practicability of canalizing the Des Moines river could be proven in no other way except by the experience of the Colonel Morgan, the project would fall.  fortunately there are still other proofs to show that the Wise Man of 1912 who rides in automobiles and places advance orders with Wright Bros. (inc.)

Frequently overlooks a remarkably good thing.

  A few months ago Hon. J. B. Sullivan prepared a report for the war department to show why the congressional appropriation already made should be devoted to a survey of the Des Moines.

  In that report were the names of over sixty steamboats with their captains, that had navigated the Des Moines river in the days when the book worm was unknown.


  Sixty steamboats on a river ought to indicate some slight adaptability for navigation.



   Regardless of modern cavil, the Des Moines river was once a highway for considerable commerce. With the coming of the railway and the American desire for rapid transportation the river fell into disuse. To make matters worse, a private corporation once undertook to improve the river and the result was to give the whole project an unsavory reputation. The demoralization of traffic on the Des Moines argued no more against the physical capacity of the river t carry boats than the abandonment of the Ohio canals indicated that canal boats would not float. The relinquishment of the nation’s waterways was merely a part of the evolution  of American commerce. Steamboats left the Des Moines for the same reason  they left the Mississippi. And there has never been any reason for assuming the Father of Waters had gone dry.

   Men are prone to measure the value of navigable waterway by the volume of water it carries. Now this happens to be somewhat wrong. Once Senator Burton - then Congressman Burton of Ohio-who was the chairmen of the congressional committee on rivers and harbors, said in public that he “would stand for the improvement of the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Ohio and the Columbia, but there he would stop.” When asked why he would favor the Columbia, he explained, in an oratorical and eloquent manner that it was a great river, traversing an enormous territory and pouring a vast volume of water into the sea.




   “But,” said the questioner, “are you intent upon providing a smooth and well kept river bed merely that a great volume  of sparkling water may flow untroubled to the sea? As a mere layman, it would seem to me that federal money ought to be spent on streams that traverse regions where an immense amount of slow-moving freight is produced. A waterway ought to be built to carry traffic and not for spectacular purposes.”

   But Senator Burton still held to his original opinion. Which shows that  even the best of us “become as little children” once in a while.

   There would be no reason for the federal government improving the Des Moines river if such a waterway were not needed to carry traffic, But the tremendous productivity of the territory along the stream places it in a unique position among the rivers of the world.




   Here are some facts:

   Uncle Sam has expended hundreds of thousands of dollars upon the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers. Both are streams of considerable magnitude. The Cumberland is 65o miles long. The Tennessee is 800 miles. The Des Moines is only 450 miles. Yet the eighteen counties immediately in the valley of the Des Moines  produce a larger tonnage of every kind than the region naturally tributary to both these longer rivers.

   The eighteen counties along the Des Moines river produce a greater tonnage from agriculture than the entire state of Arkansas.

   All the products of southern California could be piled together in one heap on the scales and they would not weigh up with the produce of those same eighteen Iowa counties.

   Mississippi is a corn raising state of some magnitude but the entire state falls far behind Iowa counties in raising corn.

  The total agricultural tonnage of Tennessee falls below the farm produce of those eighteen counties.

  Where Senator Burton to collect in one place all the agricultural and manufactured products that come from the territory traversed by the Columbia river during the last ten years he would still have to add his suitcase, his household furniture and all the government documents in the basement of the capitol before he could “weigh in” against the produce of those eighteen Iowa counties far a single year.




  In addition  to the amazing agricultural wealth of the counties in the valley of the Des Monies there are bituminous coal deposits of no small consequence. S

Six million tons were mined in 1908.

   Besides the coal  there are enormous deposits of clay and shale. With cheap water transportation these clay deposits would be developed into the greatest brick and tile producing spots in the United States. Natural gas belts can successfully compete with Iowa now that with clay and coal together coupled with water transportation to Chicago. St. Louis and Pittsburgh the valley of the Des Moines would become a factor in the ceramic manufactures of the nation.

   These are the great-economic facts which justify the improvement of the Des Moines river.

   Like all big projects the movement far a navigable waterway into Des Moines had to be instituted by one man. There is a John  the Baptist for improvement of the Des Moines. He is Al. C. Miller a banker when not engaged in educating his fellow citizens to a realization of the magnificent possibilities of their future.

Beginning about two years ago, he induced the Commercial club, the East Side League and the Greater Des Moines  committee to provide for the organization of a joint committee to be known as the Des Moines river improvement committee. He was made chairman of the new committee and with initial fund of $25,started out to canalize a river over three hundred miles long.




   There were other men who worked with him. They gave all the help they could but it was Miller who “dreamed the dreams and saw the visions.”  More than half the twenty five dollars in the treasury was spent in obtaining, tabulated form, a complete statement of the expenditures by the federal government on inland waterways during the past sixty years. The name of each river in the union was written on a card and the expenditures of federal money was noted under the name. The result was staggering. Nameless or forgotten  bayous in Mississippi and Louisiana appeared year after year in the rivers and harbors bill. No freight ever moved on them. They were not in the line of trade between cities. No earthly purpose was served by the government expenditure and those places seemed  rather less remote from Hades than heaven. To cap the climax, it was discovered  that $25,000 had been appropriated for the survey of a little creek in northern Minnesota “for purposes of navigation.,”  where  D.T. Patton (a member of the committee) was went to fish and were he found the water to shallow to float a canoe carrying two people.

   It was the first time that the rivers and harbors pork barrel with the brine missing had been exposed to the view of Des Moines men.

   The revelation only hardened Miller’s purpose. He declared that a river flowing through such a country as the Des Moines could surely be improved if such amazing things could find congressional support.




   Late in the fall of 1907 the conference with Capt. J.A. T. Hull the congressman from Des Moines Jan.20,1908, Captain Hull introduced in congress H.R. 14379 providing  for  a survey of the Des Moines river for the purpose of determining whether  it could be converted into a navigable stream. The bill was referred to the river and harbors committee. All the commercial bodies in Des Moines, under the leadership of Mr. Miller passed resolutions favoring the bill. Similar resolutions were passed by such state organizations as the Grain Dealers association.

   When the bill came out of committee it was chewed up and pretty well digested, but the necessary element was still intact. Three Iowa rivers were named with others, in connection with and appropriations of $600,000 to be expedited in determining whether those river were susceptible of permanent and profitable improvement or not. In railroad building, such action would be called a preliminary survey.




   When the appropriations bill was thru congress, the boosters thought the fight had been won and that the survey of the river would proceed without further delay. But, lo , there were many thing to be ---------------- [rest of article missing.]


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