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Hennepin Canal

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

One of the oddest projects ever to reach the Mississippi River was the seventy-five-mile Illinois and Mississippi Canal connecting Rock Island via thirty-three locks with the Illinois River at Hennepin, and from there to Lake Michigan. Completed in 1907, it was too little and too late to save the dwindling steamboat traffic on the Mississippi. It was seldom used, reaching a peak of one six-hundredth of its capacity in 1929 and closing for good in 1951.

The Hennepin Canal, as it came to be called locally, is often used as an example of Congressional pork barrel-boondoggling at its worst.

We Rock Islanders know better. We’re a peaceful folk. We seldom punch an adversary out directly; we're more subtle. We know that the Hennepin Canal is just one of the ways in which we have avoided fist fights.

Enter the adversaries. In 1854 the railroad first reached the Mississippi at Rock Island and began competing with steamboats for trade. The trip by steamboat to Chicago was 607 miles down the Mississippi and up the Illinois River. By railroad, it was 188 miles.

"We need a canal," the rivermen cried to Congress.

"Not on your life," cried the railroads, whose monopoly of the Chicago route allowed them to charge whatever rates they wanted. The railroad lobby prevailed for thirty years; then the steamboat lobby won, and the canal was funded.

"Wait a minute," cried the railroads, and convinced Congress to narrow the width of the canal to thirty feet, making it useless for existing steamboats.

"Build it anyway," replied the steamboats. "Its presence will be a threat that will keep rail rates down."

"Besides which," the Upper Mississippi steamboats thought, “the ability to bypass St. Louis will keep that older snooty sister in line, too."

No, the Hennepin Canal was not a boondoggle; it was merely a fight that got a bit out of hand, at a cost to the taxpayers of $7,300,000. Come to think of it, it might have been cheaper to have had a fist fight instead.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.