Jan 4, 2021

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Between 1933 and 1939, the entire Upper Mississippi from St. Louis to St. Paul changed personalities, courtesy of the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Until 1933, the Mississippi was a wild river, coming and going as it pleased, creating islands and washing them away, teasing steamboats. In that year a dam and two locks were completed between Davenport and Rock Island—a massive structure looking like it was fresh off a solidarity poster.

Eventually, 26 dams turned the river into an aquatic staircase. Roller gates in the dams allowed the engineers to control the flow of water so that tow boats and barges would have a constant nine-foot-deep channel. The river that flows past Rock Island today is tame.

Opponents of these obstructions in the river blame the Corps of Engineers for causing floods, for not preventing them, for being the tools of pork barrel legislators, for destroying the environment, for being in the pocket of shipping interests, for making work to keep employed. When it comes to the Corps of Engineers, everyone is an expert.

All these arguments try too hard. Any boy or girl who has ever sailed a paper boat down the gutter after a rain or put stones across a farm creek to make a pond to skinny dip in knows the real reason for the locks and dams, knows the instinctive pleasure of controlling water. That's why walking home from school in the rain takes twice as long. There are leaf dams to break open—or make, puddles to drain into other puddles.

The engineers who built the locks and dams in the 1930s were no different in their delight. The Mississippi and the gutter differ merely in size. It's only that the engineers' machines are much larger than the sticks and stones of boys and girls. And their appropriations are far handsomer.

That's why those signs near Corps of Engineers' construction sites are inappropriate. Instead of "Men at Work," they should read "Children at Play." Water is far too important a thing to leave to grown-ups.

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