#TBT: Headwaters Dams on the Mississippi River
In the dead of winter, the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities appears sluggish, barely moving under a thin sheet of ice or snow. Water continues to course over St. Anthony Falls, certainly, and the patterns of ice and falling water provide beautiful studies for those hardy enough to go outside and study them closely.
Over a century ago, the river would often hardly flow at all in winter, with precipitation falling as snow that stayed put where it fell rather than running off into the river. Low flows were a problem for millers at St. Anthony, of course, since the mills operated on a combination of hydropower and electricity generated through other means. Beginning in the early 1880s, the Army Corps of Engineers constructed dams on several of the headwaters lakes on the Mississippi River, holding back water and releasing it during autumn and early winter to allow a steady supply of water at the Falls.
MNopedia, the online encyclopedia of Minnesota history developed by the Minnesota Historical Society, has an informative article on the headwaters dams. The article mentions, but does not emphasize, the fact that the dams flooded villages and rice beds that had been inhabited and used by Ojibwe people, and that disputes over compensation and eventual relocation added to the whole long sordid history of treaty dealings between the United States and Indian nations.
The point of bringing these matters up is that we often have to understand developments far afield, and well in the past, to fully grasp what is going on immediately in front of us. The water flowing over the concrete apron at St. Anthony today is the result of dozens, if not hundreds, of contingent, specific decisions made at remote times and places. It’s a truism to historians, but a revelation to many others that “things didn’t have to turn out the way they did.” By the same token, our future courses are not inevitable either.