IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
Saturday Evening Post
E. H. Thomas
IN SIZE OF RIVERS
Moines Should Be Navigable
Agricultural Production of the Rich valley Counties--Once a Great
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
769,507 bushels of wheat
438,000 bushels of barely
254,530 bushels of rye
Yen of these
eighteen counties produced
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.)
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.
A GOOD HIGHWAY.
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
But Senator Burton still held
to his original opinion. Which shows that
even the best of us “become as little children” once in a
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
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
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
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