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The Keokuk Dam

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The print in the River and Harbor Bill of June 13th, 1902 was small and technical, but for the Mississippi River, it was the same handwriting on the wall that the King of Babylon saw in the Book of Daniel. "This night thy soul shall be required of thee."

In that bill, Congress authorized a survey of the river at Keokuk to determine the effect of a dam. The Keokuk and Hamilton Waterpower Company planned to use the dam to generate electricity.

For the Mississippi, it marked the beginning of the end. The Mississippi had been bridged often by 1902, but never dammed. The channel ran free from St. Anthony's Falls in Minneapolis to the Gulf of Mexico. Steamboat men especially believed it should remain forever free.

Those eager to dam the river, tame it, could not have picked a more devious location than Keokuk to make their initial assault. Keokuk lay at the foot of the Des Moines Rapids, a thirty-mile stretch of river obstructed by a slanted sheet of rock that made navigation always difficult and often impossible. The Corps of Engineers had created a narrow canal with locks around the rapids, but steamboats found that slow going, too. Even boatmen had to admit that a high dam at Keokuk would drown out the rapids and improve navigation.

The report on the feasibility of the dam was favorable, but even then, the dam might not have been built had the waterpower company not offered the Corps of Engineers several perks. They would build and operate a large lock for boats at the dam, and they would construct a brand-new boat yard and dry dock for the fleet of Corps boats and give the boat yard free electricity.

In the report to Congress, all sides agreed that the Mississippi could get along without a soul. In May of 1913, the last load of concrete was poured and the first dam across the Mississippi was complete. On May 31st, the company held a locomotive parade across the new dam from Iowa to Illinois. The locomotive, the river's rival, must have added an extra insult, and its clank and rattle must have helped cover up the sighs coming from the Mississippi forty feet below.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.