Stories from the Mississippi

  • Mike DeRusha
    Mike DeRusha, lockmaster at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District, operates the gates for the Upper Saint Anthony Falls lock in Minneapolis.

    Navigating the Mississippi and its History

    "The river is like a motorcycle," explained Mike DeRusha, lockmaster at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District. "If you don't respect it, it will do you in."

    The lock and dam systems on the upper Mississippi River were designed to help maintain navigation and minimize flooding on the river. In the summer when the water level drops, the Corps of Engineers maintains a 9-foot deep channel for the tugs pushing barges up and down the river. DeRusha explained how the lock system worked.

    "The net effect is like putting a boat in an empty bathtub and then filling the bathtub so the boat can climb up to a greater height. This system allows boats to walk or climb up a series of 27 steps on the upper Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri, to St. Paul, Minnesota."

    I wasn't interested in climbing up; my canoe was pointing south, or down the river.

    Slowly, I paddled my tiny canoe into the large "bathtub" that was filled with river water. The lock chamber is 56-feet wide and 400-feet long. Accompanied by friends Phil and Eric Reinhardt, our tiny boats seemed to be small bobbers or floating toys for a concrete bathtub.

    Tom, one of the staff members at Lock and Dam No. 1, lowered a rope down to my canoe. The rope was for me to hold as the water emptied out of the chamber.

    Phil Reinhardt
    Phil Reinhardt of St. Paul, Minnesota, holds onto a rope in Lock and Dam No. 1 on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis as the gates close in the background.

    "We never hear what happens to you guys," Tom said, as he leaned over the edge. He was referring to the people who explore the entire length of the river. "Make sure you let us know when you get to the end of the river."

    "Yes, I'll let you know when I get to the end," I replied. I just hope I get to the end.

    The process of the lock uses gravity to feed in or to release the water into the chamber. This either rises or lowers whatever is captured inside. Slowly, the large doors closed until the Mississippi River disappeared behind us.

    Soon, millions of gallons of water began leaving the chamber and my canoe inched lower. I could measure my progress as the rope passed through my hand.

    After about 15 minutes, I looked up along the wet concrete wall. Water squirted through a few places from the large doors behind us. A random thought floated though my mind. "If those gates failed, a 40-foot wall of water would sweep us down river."

    The 40-foot drop felt farther, almost spooky like a tomb, especially when looking up from below in a tiny canoe.

    Phil and Eric Reinhardt
    Phil and Eric Reinhardt of St. Paul, Minnesota, paddle out of Lock and Dam No. 1 on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. The lock and dam system helps maintain river navigation and control flooding.

    There is no charge to go through the locks, whether you are in a tug with barges or in a tiny canoe.

    "How do we know when it's time to go?"

    "They will give a signal," Phil Reinhardt replied.

    Just as Phil completed his sentence, a loud horn sound filled the air.

    "That answered that question," I said, laughing.

    I put my paddle into the water and guided my canoe back to the open river.

    Dean paddling
    Dean paddles his canoe toward downtown St. Paul, Minnesota on the Mississippi River.

    The river was considerably lower from the high water in the spring. Brown rock, generally below the water, lined both sides of the river. People fished from the bank and pleasure boats passed as we continued downstream.

    Above was Fort Snelling, once the frontier west. This was a military fortification located at the confluence of the Minnesota River and Mississippi River. In 1825, this was the end of the world. For some Native American Indians, it was the beginning of the world. Now it is surrounded by city.

    It was also this location that resulted in what is now widely regarded as the worst U.S. Supreme Court decision, Dred Scott v. Sandford. The Supreme Court ruled in 1857 that African Americans, whether slave or free, could not be American citizens.

    It was a decision that would eventually help set the framework for the Civil War.

    The river was changing from its small beginning in northern Minnesota and so was its role in history.

    Fremont Tribune

Copyright © Dean Jacobs 2019. All Rights Reserved.