RIVER CONTROL

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RIVER AND HARBOR CONTROL

 

Though steamboat operation was funded privately, both federal and state governments aided navigation indirectly by removing obstacles and deepening rivers. Beck, writing in 1818, described the most serious navigational problems:

"The Mississippi is obstructed by planters, sawyers, and wooden islands, which are frequently the cause of injury and even destruction to the boats which navigate it. Planters, are large bodies of trees firmly fixed by their roots in the bottom of the river in a perpendicular manner, and appearing no more than about one foot above the surface of the water, when at its medium height. So firmly are they rooted, that the largest boats running against them will not move them; but on the contrary they materially injure the boats. Sawyers, are likewise large bodies of trees fixed less perpendicularly in the river, and rather of a less size, yielding to the pressure of the current, disappearing and appearing at intervals, and having a motion similar to the saw of a saw mill, from which they have taken their name. Wooden Islands are places where, by some cause or other, large quantities of driftwood have been arrested and matted together in different parts of the river" (Beck 1823:15, 16).

In 1824, the first River and Harbor Act was passed appropriating $75,000 to improve and maintain the Ohio and Mississippi navigation. Through the work of John Bruce and Henry Shreve, the worst of the snags between New Orleans and St. Louis were cleared by 1830 (Dobney 1978:21-23).

However, the dynamic nature of the Mississippi River continued to cause problems for St. Louis. The problem began around 1800, according to Tyson (1875:20):

"Below Bissell's point in 1800 near the Illinois shore a small sandbar lifted its head above the surface of the river. This was the first appearance of Bloody Island. A portion of the water passing between the Island and the Illinois shore being directed against the latter with some force began wearing it away. This wholesale destruction continued for twenty-five years..."

This process continued unhindered throughout the early 19th century resulting in the continued growth of Bloody Island (so named because it was a favorite "no-mans land" dueling site for Missouri gentlemen), the scouring of the Illinois shore, and sedimentation against the Missouri shoreline and formation of Duncan's Island. This progression is shown graphically in Figures 4 through 9. By the 1830s most observers recognized "the possibility that St. Louis might become a land locked city" (Dobney 1978:24). With that realization, an extensive program was Implemented to eliminate Duncan's Island and turn the current of the Mississippi back to its original position against the Missouri shore. Dobney (1978:24-27) described these efforts:

"In 1833, the city leaders decided to take action. They hired John Goodfellow to plow up the sand bars with teams of oxen, thus loosening the sand so that high water would wash it away. The city spent -almost three thousand dollars on this project. In return, they received no diminution of the sand bars, but they learned the valuable lesson that a more sophisticated means would have to be employed to clear the harbor. As in the case of the navigation improvement, only the federal government had the means to undertake such a project. In December 1833, the Mayor of St. Louis wrote to the House Committee on Roads and Canals imploring governmental aid in removal of this hazard to the economic wellbeing of St. Louis. The committee responded in its report that "a city so interesting should not be suffered to dwindle and decay if the interposition of legislative agency can prevent it." Besides which, the bar also threatened the landing at the government arsenal just south of St. Louis.

After examining the harbor personally, General Charles Gratiot, Chief of the Corps of Engineers, stated that the problem could be overcome by constructing a wing dam from the Illinois shore to the head of Bloody Island (as the northernmost bar was called) and another from the foot of Bloody Island parallel to the Missouri shore, thus forcing the current west of Bloody Island and into the bar forming in front of the harbor (Figure 5) ... Gratiot had in his Washington office a young engineer lieutenant who was anxious to get away from his desk job and into the field.

When the lieutenant volunteered to undertake this task, Gratiot agreed, and young Robert E. Lee came to St. Louis to try to restore and preserve the harbor ... in June 1838 Lee began construction of the dike from the foot of Bloody Island parallel to the Missouri shore, since this course of action promised the most immediate reduction of Duncan's Island. The actual design was somewhat primitive but effective; a series of piles four to five feet apart were driven into the riverbed in two parallel rows. Then the forty foot area between the rows was filled with brush and rocks and the exterior side of the piles was covered with brush sloping away from the piles at an angle. The brush was weighted with rocks to hold it in place until it was made permanent by silt depositing against it..." (Dobney 1978:24-27, cited in Smith and Lange 1980:25-28).

Work had progressed well by the end of 1838 and the southern dike had been extended 2,500 feet from the foot of Bloody Island. The results were immediate: 700 feet of Duncan's Island disappeared and the shoal across the old channel between Bloody Island and Duncan's Island was deepened seven feet. In addition, the 18 foot wide channel east of Bloody Island had been filled until it was only 8 feet deep. However, the ice flow during the winter of 1838 formed a barrier at the head of Bloody Island, diverting the main flow of the river back Into the channel east of the island and deepening the channel against the Illinois shore. This forced Lee into designing an alternate plan to start the wingdam further upstream above the town of Brooklyn so that the dike would be aligned almost parallel to the river. However, the operation was set back momentarily when Congress adjourned in 1838 without appropriating money for the St. Louis harbor project. Citizens of St. Louis raised $15,000 to continue the work, and with authorization from the mayor and General Gratiot, Lee resumed construction (Bond 1969:42, 43). Dobney's (1978:27-29) account continues:

Captain Lee began construction of the slanting dike, using money provided by the citizens of St. Louis. Beginning on the Illinois shore he drove a double row of piles into the river bed, extending 1300 feet toward Bloody Island. Lee's plan was to intersect the dike at that point with another dike of a single row of piles running from the Illinois shore to Bloody Island. But by early November the weather intervened and the second part of the project was not completed...

... Lee had a small amount left in his account, and on August 12, 1839, he commenced construction of the dike to the head of Bloody Island. Lee himself worked beside his men "in the hot, broiling sun..." But after only two weeks of work, an Illinois property holder (in Brooklyn) secured an injunction against continuation of construction on the grounds that it threatened to lessen the value of his property by diverting the river. Although Lee considered the suit specious, he was forced to discontinue his efforts. Lee would return in the summer of 1840 to inspect his works and to write a final report, but further appropriations were not forthcoming from Congress; Lee's work in St. Louis was done...

The harbor was still not secure, however. The dikes constructed by Lee needed to be completed, strengthened, repaired, and maintained if the river was to be prevented from returning to the Illinois side of Bloody Island. This work was undertaken by the city when it became obvious that the federal government was not willing to expend the funds to complete the work. One of Lee's civil assistants, Henry Kayser, was named by the city to carry on the work at the city's expense...

In the five years after Lee left St. Louis he corresponded with Kayser, providing long distance guidance. By 1844 it was apparent that the completed portion of Lee's work had been "seriously injured" and that the Mississippi was continuing to eat away at the Illinois shore. Now, more than ever, a wing dam from the Illinois shore to the head of Bloody Island was needed to divert the current. Very few of the piles driven by Lee for the slanting dike extending from the Illinois shore remained... In 1843 Topographical Engineer Captain Thomas Jefferson Cram was sent to survey the St. Louis Harbor with an eye to possible improvement...(Dobney 1978:27-28, cited in Smith and Lange 1980:28-29).

Cram's survey and report (Figure 10) indicated the extent of erosion and sand bar building, and severity of the damage to the dike works by the devastating flood of 1844. "Cram calculated that between 1814 and 1844 the river had cut 1050 feet into the Illinois shore at a rate of 36 feet per year, and that the amount of water flowing between Bloody Island and the Illinois shore was fully 60 percent as great as that in the main channel of the river (Cram 1844: 353, cited in Smith and Lange 1980:29). Although Cram recommended extensive improvements totalling over $190,000, the government failed to provide the necessary money" (Dobney 1978:28, 29).

In 1848, St. Louis decided to carry on the work without government support under the direction of Henry Kayser. However, this time the Alton City Council took exception and went to the courts to stop the project. The state of Illinois even went as far as ordering 20 militiamen armed with two cannons to the riverfront with orders to fire on any boat approaching the dikes (Reavis 1876:58-61).

One would expect the Wiggins Ferry Company to have had a very strong interest in the situation developing around the harbor improvements. In fact Wiggins had already purchased Bloody Island in 1819 in anticipation of the commercial potential the sandbar presented. However, by the mid-1840s the ferry company and Bloody Island were totally controlled by Andrew Christy and his sister-in-law, Melanie Jarrot Christy. The company showed its economic allegiance to St. Louis, in contrast to the Alton and Brooklyn dissenting factions, by contributing money to the St. Louis harbor project. Soon after, the Christy's acquired title to the rest of the island not covered by the 1819 purchase from the United States government for $1.25 an acre. After settlement of the harbor controversy in 1849, the Wiggin's Company gained control of the old channel area between the island and the Illinois shore, also for $1.25 an acre (Figure 11). In 1847, the city of St. Louis and the Army Corps of Engineers, with cooperation by the Wiggin's Ferry Company, began construction of a dike to the southern end of Bloody Island (Plate 2). The dike was placed from the foot of Brady Street across a portion of old channel more than 40 feet deep and included a stone-paved road to the island. The flood of 1851 swept the dike away and another dike was constructed to the north. When it was finished in 1858, it became the western terminus for the St. Clair County turnpike and later became known as West Broadway Avenue (Globe Democrat 1962; Reavis 1876:60-61).

In 1853 the Wiggin's Ferry Company applied for renewal of its 1819 charter and petitioned for the right to build a city on Bloody Island, to run their ferry operation from the island, and "generally to engage in any business required by the exigencies of a city proprietorship" (Bond 1969:47). Protest from both sides of the river was loud. The St. Louis Republican expressed concern that "the city on Bloody Island, with all its wharves, lots, streets, and alleys, would probably belong from many generations to come to this incorporated company ... St. Louis has felt...the evil of having a great mass of ... property in the hands of one man or a few men" (Bond 1969:48). The St. Clair County state legislators protested to the state that the new charter would give the Wiggin's Ferry Company a monopoly on all commercial traffic through St. Louis. Despite the concern voiced by many, the state of Illinois granted incorporation to the ferry with the right of perpetual succession. The stage was set for a new phase in the Wiggin's Ferry Company operations with the advent of the railroad in the late 1850s.

Further north, the town of Brooklyn had been shut off from the river by the shoal created by Lee's dike. An injunction against the harbor improvements in 1839 had resulted in a settlement of $1600 for Kerr's Ferry Company. However, because the Wiggin's Ferry Company was awarded all of the channel fill inside the long dike all the way to Brooklyn, the Kerr Ferry was forced to move north in order to have direct access to the river once again. The settlement money was used to construct a bridge across the slough to connect the new island called Kerr Island with the mainland. The settlement that grew up around this new ferry landing was called Venice (Bateman 1888:521; Bond 1969:45). Brooklyn was to be forsaken by the move north to Venice. A once promising river town, it was killed by the harbor improvements that landlocked it, and the land acquisition by the Wiggin's Ferry Company that prevented it from moving west to the new shoreline. It was not until developments in the late 19th century provided a new economic base for Brooklyn to be reborn in the industrial revolution.

The new town of Venice achieved early prosperity as a ferry landing and terminus of the National Road (Bateman 1888:521). This was the major east-west highway for transportation of bulk freight. Begun in 1815 by the federal government, it originated from Cumberland, Maryland, which had turnpike connections to Baltimore . From there, the road extended west, reaching Columbus, Ohio, in 1833 and Vandalia, Illinois, by mid-century when plans for its extension were abandoned (Taylor 1966:22). The connection to Venice that Bateman mentions was apparently not an official leg of the National Road but was one of the routes taken by travelers and freight carriers who continued through to the Mississippi River. This road terminated at Kerr Island with the "National Way," a 100-foot wide road leading,to the ferry landing. This was the principal street of Venice.

The National Way became the commercial center of Venice with two hotels, two livery stables, three general stores, and two blacksmith shops. One of the hotels served additionally as a post office and as headquarters for the stockmen from Alton. Hogs and cattle were annually driven to the ferry for shipment to St. Louis via the "Slough Road" from Alton. The town experienced an initial boom with the passing through of the migrants heading west during the gold rush of the 1840s. However, in 1844, a flood swept away most of the buildings as well as the bridge over Kerr Slough. Venice was revived and resumed business until 1851, when again a flood swept away the town. This flood carried away buildings and much of the island, leaving the terminus of the National Way far out into the river (Bateman 1888:521).

Beginning after the devastating flood of 1851, the business interests of Venice relocated to a safer location southeast of the original town. As the new site of Venice developed (Figure 12), old Venice became utilized more and more as a collecting point for passengers, stock, grain, and other commodities awaiting transfer on the Madison County Ferry. During the mid-19th century, a hotel for ferry passengers was established in old Venice along the north side of Bremen Avenue (the old National Way). However, following the flood of the 1851, the ferry operation was relocated to Ferry Street, near present-day McKinley Bridge. The ferry landed in St. Louis at North Market Street for passengers, horses, and wagons, and at Bremen Avenue for cattle (Fechte n.d.:1).

Throughout the 19th century the ferry locations at Venice changed with movement of the river and technological innovations in transfer facilities, with ferry establishments at the foot of the National Way (later Bremen Avenue), at the foot of Ferry Street, and north of Merchants Bridge.

 

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