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1914 County History
The Keokuk Dam

One of the greatest engineering feats of modern times was the construction of a great dam across the Mississippi River at the foot of the Des Moines Rapids, in front of the City of Keokuk. Soon after the first white men settled in Southeastern Iowa, the subject of utilizing the rapids for the development of water power began to be discussed. While Lieut. Robert E. Lee was stationed at old Fort Des Moines he made a report to the war department, in which he suggested the possibility of turning the immense energy of the rapids to some account for the advancement of civilization, and at the same time improving the navigation of the Mississippi. No action was taken by the Government at the time, but in the light of subsequent developments it reads almost like a prophecy. 

People who understood nothing of the practical side of engineering could not recognize that such a thing was possible as the harnessing of the rapids and the development of water power for the use of man. The few who did understand realized that the undertaking was hardly practicable then, because the population of the Mississippi Valley was too sparse to justify the vast expenditure of labor and capital to carry it out. Nevertheless, these few were not willing to abandon the idea altogether and in 1836, while Iowa was still a part of Wisconsin Territory, a company of local men and New York financiers was organized to consider the feasibility of developing a water power from the rapids. 

The first actual effort to utilize the force of the rapids for industrial purposes was made in 1842, when a man named Gates constructed a wing dam and erected a grist mill on Waggoner's Point, on the Illinois side of the river, a short distance above the eastern terminus of the present dam. A great ice jam carried away Mr. Gates' wing dam, but with a persistence worthy of emulation he constructed another and continued to operate his mill with power furnished by the Mississippi. Both his dams were very small and utilized but a very small portion of the power that could have been, and has been since generated. 

In 1843 Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet of Nauvoo, Illinois, had the council of that municipality pass an ordinance giving him a franchise to build a dam from the Nauvoo shore to an island in the river to generate power. But before his project could be carried out Smith met his death while a prisoner in Carthage jail and the Mormons left for Utah. 

Five years after Smith's franchise was granted the people of Keokuk became interested in the subject and some of the leading citizens of that city organized a company to develop the power. Although the efforts of that company resulted in nothing toward the actual building of a dam, the public became inoculated with the germ and from that time there have always been a few optimistic individuals ready to predict that some time, in some way, the power of the rapids would be brought under control and rendered available for industrial purposes. Another company was organized in 1865 and kept up the hammering process, trying to interest capitalists, never for a moment doubting that some day their dream would become a reality. 

In 1868 the United States Government began the construction of a canal along the Iowa shore through the rapids, for the purpose of improving the navigation of the river. It was completed and opened for boats in 1877. In this canal there were three locks — the upper one at Galland, the middle lock, near Sandusky, and the lower lock, at the foot of the rapids. The cost of the canal was $4,500,000 and about three millions more were expended on the dry dock and appurtenances. 

Although the Government work was not intended to develop the water power of the rapids, it served as a stimulus to interested parties to take some definite action toward that end. Consequently, in 1871, while the Government canal was under construction, two Keokuk men employed an engineer to make a survey for a dam at their own personal expense. Their idea was to construct a large wing dam, but the proposition did not meet with the approval of the engineer, who advised them that such an undertaking would be likely to prove unprofitable. The press took up the subject at that time, however, and awakened general interest in the subject.

Bird's Eye View of Keokuk Dam
Bird's Eye View of Power House and Government Rock

Bird's Eye View of Keokuk Dam
Bird's Eye View of Keokuk Dam

In 1893 came the first suggestion that electricity might be used to transmit the power generated by water wheels, but the electric motor was then in an embryonic state, and until the motor was brought to a higher state of perfection its use was not to be considered. Thus matters stood until July, 1899, when C. P. Birge called a meeting of some twenty-five citizens of Keokuk and Hamilton, Illinois — just across the river from Keokuk — to make one more effort to brins? about the construction of a dam. This meeting was really the begin- ning of the Mississippi River Power Company. In April, 1900, the Keokuk & Hamilton Power Company was incorporated under the laws of Illinois with A. E. Johnstone, president; William Logan and C. P. Dadant, vice'president; R. R. Wallace, secretary and treasurer; Wells M. Irwin and D. J. Ayers, of Keokuk, and S. R. Parker, of Hamilton, directors. 

This company obtained a charter from the Federal Government in February, 1901, for the construction of a wing dam on the Illinois side, and Lyman E. Cooley, a hydraulic engineer of Chicago, was employed to make the survey and specifications. Mr. Cooley pronounced a wing dam impracticable and the company was forced to abandon its original intention. 

In April, 1904, Congressman B. F. Marsh introduced a bill to grant the Keokuk & Hamilton Water Power Company the right to build a dam across the Mississippi River at the foot of the rapids. The bill passed both houses of Congress at the next session and was approved by the President on February 9, 1905. In April, 1905, the stock and franchise of the company was assigned to and vested in a committee consisting of John H. Irwin, A. E. Johnstone, William Logan and C. P. Dadant, with full power to make contracts and transact all other business pertaining to the dam project. Concerning this company and its committee, one of the Keokuk papers said: 

"It must not be forgotten for a moment that this corporation was a quasi-public, quasi-governmental corporation, outside of, and yet a part of the political organization of the State of Iowa, as is the public school system for instance. Its stationery should have borne the subtitle, 'The Public, Incorporated.' While it had a trifle of $2,500 of paid up capital, it handled many times that amount of money as a public trust, a considerable amount coming to its treasurer from the municipal treasuries of Keokuk and Hamilton. There was never in the history of the world anything like that water power promoting corporation. It was frankly organized for promotion purposes, as the representative of the citizenship hereabouts. 

"It operated practically by unanimous consent. Its officers were men of the two cities possessing the full confidence of the masses of the people. It did things to the municipalities that have never been paralleled and that are among the highest triumphs of a dominant democracy. It said it needed money at one time to pay for surveys and other legitimate promotion work — and the city councils of Keokuk and Hamilton promptly voted it an appropriation of public money. Of course this was widely extra-legal ; far from any concealment, the greatest publicity was given to the intended action before it was taken; every citizen suspected of opposition was asked personally, and by newspaper notice everybody else was practically invited to stop the action, if they chose, by a very simple injunctive process. Not a man could be found in the two towns who had any objection. Every citizen considered it his own movement, this water power development movement. It was a movement of the entire mass acting as a unit." 

The Keokuk & Hamilton Water Power Company, through its committee, prepared a circular pamphlet or prospectus giving some data concerning the Mississippi River at the rapids and a statement of their aims and needs, chief of which was the capital to build a dam and a competent engineer to take charge of the undertaking. One of these pamphlets fell into the hands of Hugh L. Cooper, an engineer who had already made a world-wide reputation by his achievements in Jamaica, Brazil, at Niagara Falls and McCall's Ferry, Pennsylvania. Mr. Cooper came to Keokuk, looked over the field, and started out in quest of the necessary capital. He exhausted his private means, and when it looked as though failure was inevitable Stone & Webster, of Boston, came to the rescue with a proposition to finance the undertaking. Of the capital stock, 35 per cent of it was raised or subscribed in the United States and the remaining 65 per cent came from foreign countries, England, France, Germany, Belgium and Canada being the principal contributors toward the consummation of a project that had been hoped for for more than half a century. 

On September 15, 1905, the committee in charge of the affairs of the Keokuk & Hamilton Water Power Company entered into a contract with Mr. Cooper, by which the stock and franchise of the com- pany were turned over to his syndicate, on the condition that the dam and power plant were to be completed by February 10, 1915. 

A survey of the site of the proposed dam and its environments disclosed the fact that many acres of the low lying lands above the dam would be overflowed by its construction. As rapidly as possible the representatives of the company visited the owners of these lands for the purpose of purchasing overflow rights, and in some instances the lands were bought outright. Altogether, about thirteen hundred land owners were dealt with in this way, and it is worthy of comment that every one surrendered his land or the right to overflow it without law suits or other vexatious delays, something unusual where a great corporation desires private property for some gigantic enterprise. Fourteen miles of the tracks of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, that formerly ran close to the old river bank, were raised above the new water level, and this also was accomplished without litigation. At Montrose it was necessary to remove a cemetery and the company had to buy a portion of that town, as well as considerable property at Sandusky and Galland. At Fort Madison it was discovered that the back-water from the dam would affect the sewer system and considerable work was done to overcome this difficulty. Yet all these obstacles were overcome without serious delays, because everybody believed in the dam and everybody wanted to see it built. 

In addition to the acquisition of lands or overflow rights and the changes in the towns above mentioned, the war department imposed several conditions to which the plans must conform. Every detail of the construction work had to be submitted to the secretary of war and receive his indorsement, really through the chief of engineers of the army. The building of the dam made the old Government canal an obsolete institution. The company was therefore required to build a lock and dry dock and provide means for their perpetual operation. Upon the completion of the lock and dry dock, they were to become the property of the United States without cost to the Government. Major Keller, who was in charge for the Government, afterward stated that the company not only complied with all the conditions imposed by the war department, but also did a number of things not included in the conditions, the cost of which he estimated at $200,000. 

As soon as all these preliminary arrangements could be completed, work was commenced on the dam itself. To describe all the details of that work, such as the building of the huge cofferdam to keep out the water, the excavating into the bed rock for an anchorage for the concrete work, the conflicts with storms and floods to protect the dam during the process of construction, would require a volume. And while it might prove interesting to the reader, it is not considered necessary to give such an account here. 

The length of the dam, including the abutments at each end, is 4,649 feet, or nearly nine-tenths of a mile. At the base it is forty- two feet in thickness and at the top, twenty-nine feet. It is composed of 1 19 arched spans, so molded together that it is virtually one solid piece of concrete, which extends downward about five feet into the bedrock, to which it is securely anchored. Each of the 119 arches is provided with a gate of steel truss framework faced with a sheet of the same metal. These gates can be raised or lowered and thus keep the water above the dam at a fixed and uniform level. In times of very high water they are all left open; in stages of unusually low water all can be kept closed. By this system a constant stage of water is maintained above the dam and the pressure against the whole structure regulated. 

The power house is 1,718 feet long, 132 feet 10 inches wide, and 177 feet 6 inches high, measuring from the lowest point in the tail race to the roof. The foundation begins in the bedrock, about twenty-five feet below the natural bottom of the river, for the purpose of gaining more fall. The substructure is one solid mass of concrete, cast in forms so as to form the necessary passages and chambers through which passes the water that moves the great turbines. Reinforced concrete was used in building the walls of the superstructure, or power house proper, in which are the generators, etc. 

Between the power house and the Iowa shore is the lock, which is 1 10 feet wide, 400 feet long, with a lift of 40 feet. The walls of this lock are 52 feet high and vary in thickness from 8 to 33 feet. Directly north of the lock and next to the Iowa shore is the dry dock, 150 by 463 feet. 

On the last day of May, 1913, the last concrete in the dam was placed in position. As soon as it set the water above was gradually raised and flowed through the spillways for the first time on June 3, 1913. Nine days later the lock was put into commission by the passage at one time of two of the largest steamboats on the Upper Mississippi. On July 1, 1913, electric current was delivered to St. Louis. The great power plant was in operation and the dream of years had become a reality. A formal celebration of the great achievement was held at Keokuk on August 25, 26, 27 and 28, 19 1 3, the second day of the proceedings being the day when the great dam was dedicated to the use of mankind. Governor Clarke, of Iowa, and Governor Dunne, of Illinois, were prominent participants in the exercises, and thousands of visitors came to visit and inspect the work.

The Government lock at Keokuk, built at the cost of the
Mississippi River Power Company, to become the property
of the United States upon completion. This lock is
in the Panama class, having the same width hut a much
higher lift than any lock on the Isthmus.
Fhoto by Anschutz.

Soon after work was commenced the plant was placed under the management of the Stone & Webster Management Association, which manages more than fifty public utilities in all parts of the United States, and some of their best trained and most experienced men were sent to Keokuk to look after the service. Transmission lines have been built to Fort Madison and Burlington, Iowa; Dallas City, Nauvoo, Warsaw, Quincy and Alton, Illinois; Hannibal and St. Louis, Missouri, and light and power are also furnished to the cities of Keokuk and Hamilton. 

The large body of water held in check by the dam, extending up the Mississippi to the City of Burlington, has been named Lake Cooper, in honor of the engineer who designed and constructed the dam. From the low islands in the river and the partly submerged woodlands along the shores the timber has been removed by the power company, so that the trees, after being killed by the water constantlv standing around their roots, may not be washed into the stream and become a menace to navigation. By the raising of the water level several miles of wagon roads along the river banks were overflowed. To overcome this condition of affairs, the company offered to donate a right-of-way through its property, use its engineers and equipment and give $75,000 toward the cost of constructing boulevards to Montrose, Iowa, and Nauvoo, Illinois. These improvements were finally completed at a cost of $375,000. 

Changing the water level also submerged several historic points in Lee County. Foremost among these is probably the huge bowlder known as "Mechanic's Rock," from the fact that the steamboat Mechanic was wrecked by striking it in 1830. This rock is situated at the head of the rapids, about a mile below the Town of Montrose and near the Iowa shore. In times of low water it stood above the surface and was one of the landmarks used by pilots on the Mississippi. When it was covered with water boats could take the open channel without danger. The steamer Illinois was also wrecked upon this rock on April 20, 1842. 

Lemoliese, the French trader who located where Sandusky now stands in 1820, was buried near the bank of the river and his grave has been covered by water since the construction of the dam. Part of the old Tesson land grant has also been submerged.

Source:  History of Lee County, Iowa, by Dr. S. W. Moorhead and Nelson C. Roberts, 1914

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