top of page

Iowa Article: "Des Moines River Navigation; Great Expectations Unfulfilled," by Dave Huber

Updated: Apr 13, 2021

Hubler, Dave. "Des Moines River Navigation; Great Expectations Unfulfilled." The Annals

of Iowa 39 (1968), 287-306.

Hosted by Iowa Research Online

Hubler's 1968 article focuses on projects to improve navigation on the Des Moines River. As I walk up the Des Moines, Hubler's research relates to my own in a variety of ways. A major focus on the project I am focusing on focuses on the struggle between humanity and nature as it relates to taming the Des Moines. Throughout the journey I will encounter many of the sites of the Des Moines River Navigation Project, especially early on in the Villages of Van Buren County of Bonaparte and Bentonsport. Additionally, I will see the modern legacy of damming projects on the river at Lake Red Rock and Saylorville Lake. The story of the Des Moines River, and humanity's inability to control the waterway, continuously strikes me as critical to Iowa's story. Be it the project highlighted by Hubler, or the legacy of floods like those that took place in 1851, 1993, and 2008, the Des Moines continues to assert a dominant presence on Iowa's history.

Hubler's article opened with a description of why emergent American settlers initial sought to tame the river: the railroad was decades away and water offered the greatest potential means of rapid transportation in the area. The author quickly established the geography of the river, as well as the lands throughout the surrounding valley before asserting that "Iowa did not furnish broad, navigable streams upon which civilization could move easily and swiftly."

Hubler went on to discuss the 1835 Dragoons Expedition, the history of early settlement following the Black Hawk War, and early transportation on the river before moving into the rise and fall of the Des Moines Lock and Navigation Company. The article moves through the fervent efforts of boosters, local officials, and newspaper men who sought to advance the cause of navigability on the river. Eventually, their efforts would be eclipsed by the rise of the railroad. By the late 1850s and early 1860s traffic on the river had peaked and begun to decline as railroads rapidly began to cross the state.

Notable passages from the article:

“During the summer of 1835, Lt. Col. Stephen Kearney dispatched Lt. Albert M. Lea of the First United States Dragoons down the Des Moines to determine the practicability of its navigation.Lea’s reports were quite enthusiastic. He described the stream as ‘from 150 to 250 yards [wide] except a few miles about the mouth, where it is only from 80 to 100 yards wide. Lea ended his report by declaring ‘there is no obstruction to the navigation of the Des Moines in a tolerable stage of water.’” (289)

“John Plumbe, an early settler of Iowa took special note of the development of the Des Moines Valley and saw a great future for its growth. He called it a ‘fine river’ and predicted the Des Moines would be ‘navigated by steam boats for all purposes of trade a great distance from its mouth.’” (290)

“Actual transportation on the river during this period seems to have consisted only of keel-boats and canoes until 1837. In September of that year, the steamboat Science, commanded by S.B. Clark, brought a load of goods up the river to Keosauqua in Van Buren County. Soon thereafter, the American Fur Company, which had a post at the fork of the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers (present site of the city of Des Moines) began to have their supplies shipped in by small steamboats.” (290)

“Van Buren County doubled its inhabitants from 1838 to 1840 while the state was also jumping from 22,859 to 43,114. Maps now listed several flourishing towns on the banks of the stream such as St. Francisville, Farmington, Van Buren, Rochester, Lexington, Bentonsport, and many others.” (290)

“This concentration of people prompted the government to conduct further surveys of the river. Two were completed, one by Capt. W. Bowling Guion in the spring of 1841, and the other by Lt. John C. Fremont in July of the same year. Guion reported ‘the practicability of its navigation is beyond a doubt,’ and Fremont wrote ‘that this river is highly susceptible of improvement, presenting nowhere the obstacles that would not yield readily, and at slight expense.” (290-291)

“The city of Ottumwa was staked out and born May 2, 1843, on the banks of the Des Moines. That same week the steamer Ione, with a detachment of soldiers aboard, reached Des Moines, and from that time on, every Des Moines River town pictured itself as an ‘incipient St. Louis,’ and knew that it had to attract for itself settlers for the back country.” (291)

“With the population increasing at such a high rate, it was imperative that better transportation facilities be provided. And, the most feasible project was the conversion of the Des Moines River into a commercial waterway. Means to accomplish this were asked by a bill introduced by A.C. Dodge. By an act of Congress on Aug. 8, 1846, a grant of land was given to the Territory of Iowa ‘to aid in the improvement’ of navigation on the Des Moines River. Most readers failed to notice that the act did not guarantee navigability.” (292)

“(Col. Samuel R.) Curtis conducted a complete new survey and found the distance from the mouth of the river to the Raccoon Fork was slightly over 204 miles. The slope of the river was determined to be 1.7 feet per mile so that the site of Fort Des Moines was 310 feet higher than the confluence of the Des Moines and Mississippi. The original plan called for 28 dams and locks, but when the project was finally abandoned, only those at Ottumwa, Bentonsport, Keosauqua, Bonaparte, Farmington, and Croton were completed in their entirety.” (294)

“The first Biennial Report of the Board of Public Works did nothing to dampen the hope of any Iowan. The recent survey disclosed deposits of hydraulic lime, coal, and gypsum along the banks for the river. These alone, said the report, justified the ‘most strenuous exertion to push forward the great improvement in question.’” (294-95)

“The engineer’s report to the Board estimated the cost of the project would be $9,344 per mile, including the ten mile canal at Keokuk. This would amount to four or five times the income expected from the sale of lands because of the loss of expected revenue, due to an 1848 ruling by the Federal Government. The ruling found the northern extent of the grant to reach no higher than the Raccoon Fork.” (295)

“...the Third General Assembly executed a contract with Bangs Bros. and Company of New York to complete the improvements of the river within four years. Compensation was to be the proceeds from the sale of lands below the Raccoon Fork and waterrents and tolls below Keosauqua. However, the contract stipulated a minimum sale price for the land of $2.00 per acre, while land still belonging to the Federal Government in the even numbered sections could be purchased at $1.25 per acre. Saddled with this impossible burden, Bangs and Company failed within two years.” (296)

“The project was then sold to another eastern company headed by Henry O’Reilly from $1,300,000 and all water rents, tolls and other sources of income from the improvement for the next 40 years.” (297)

“By 1853, O’Reilly had organized the Des Moines Navigation and Railroad Company and promised quick results on the river.” (297)

“Though accused of rampant graft and corruption (and rightly so) the Des Moines Navigation and Railway Company did provide slack water navigation to a point ten miles above Keosauqua. Using cheaper methods than their predecessors, they nevertheless accomplished results. A typical dam consisted of a crib of logs thrown across the river. The crib was then filled with rock and covered with oak planking. These constructions lasted for ten years until ice pushed out the rotting weakened timbers.” (298-299)

“By the end of 1855, steamboats were able to reach Keosauqua with no difficulty and Fort Des Moines was accessible much of the period from March to November. Iowa’s population had now passed the half million mark, and Van Buren County reported 15,921 to the census.” (299)

“But 1855 also heard the first knell of the impending death of river navigation. The newly formed Des Moines Valley Railroad began grading a right-of-way from Keokuk to Bentonsport, a distance of 40 miles.” (299)

“ the end of the year (1856) the cries of fraud and graft in the Des Moines Navigation and Railroad Company had become too numerous to ignore any longer. The chief engineer was now being paid a salary of $12,000 per year and his assistant received only $2,000 less. Out-of-state newspapers expected the uncovering of many revelations and sent correspondents to cover the impending investigations.” (300)

“The committee brought in its report and recommended that the contract between the State of Iowa and the Des Moines Valley Navigation and Railway Company be terminated, and that the company be paid a reasonable amount for the work they had accomplished. A bill was then introduced to this effect, with the comment that had the land ‘which has been given to this improvement, been appropriated to some railroad company, it might have built a rode across the State longe before this time.’” (300)

“June of 1857 saw a new and unwelcome arrival in Van Buren County. Over 4000 tons of rails and been brought up the Mississippi from New Orleans the previous fall and by June 10, 1857, a locomotive could travel from Keokuk to Farmington. By the next spring, the rails reached to Bentonsport.” (301)

“In March of 1857, the General Assembly could finally see that the importance of the river navigation was decreasing every day as the railroad neared Ft. Des Moines. The Legislature asked the Des Moines Navigation and Railway Company to cease and desist all work in the project and to relinquish claims to all land not yet conveyed to it. At the same time, the legislature threatened to enjoin the company if it did not accept the proposition.” (301)

“Work accomplished over the six-year period amounted to: (a) a complete engineering survey of the line of the proposed improvement, (b) a ship canal commenced, and a large amount of work performed for a distance of ten miles from the mouth of the river, © and three stone masonry locks of a capacity to chamber boats 160 feet long and 44 feet abeam, and two dams were completed.” (301)

“It is interesting to note that even while the future of navigation on the Des Moines River hung in the balance, the river was enjoying its busiest season ever. With high water most of the year, over 60 steamboats made the trip to Des Moines, with many others calling at towns below the Fork.” (302)

“By a vote of 21-9 in the Senate and 24-5 in the House, the General Assembly donated the grant to Keokuk, Fort Des MOines & Minnesota Railroad Company. The conditions of the grant were that the said company had to assume all liabilities resulting from the Des Moines River improvement operation and that the company had to preserve 50,000 acres of land in secuirty for the payment thereof. Also included in the conditions was the stipulation that the new company would complete and repair dams and locks at Bentonsport, Croton, Keosauqua, and Plymouth.” (303)

“The new railroad company also found some support from an unexpected source. Because of jealousy, or some other unknown reason, various counties of the state opposed the adoption of the Constitution of 1857 which among other things, established Des Moines as the capital. The people of Des Moines, understandably very interested in the adoption of the Constitution, raised a subscription of $100,000 to aid the new railroad company, and gave a majority of 1,500 for ratification of the new Constitution. Lee County (Keokuk), in return for this very high compliment to its pet railroad line, gave a tremendous majority for the Constitution, ‘and saved the day! But it was a tight squeeze; for the entire state majority was only about 1600.” (303)

“Travel on the river for 1859 ceased on June 28 after a season of 112 days. Total number of arrivals at Keosauqua for this period was 107 vessels. This year probably marked the zenith of river traffic on the Des Moines. The boating season of 1860 was quite dry and in 1861 many boats were transferred to the Mississippi to transport soldiers and supplies.” (304-305)

“When the war was over, few wanted to continue the pretense of profitable navigation on the Des Moines River. Newspapers now printed railroad schedules instead of steamboat arrivals and departures. The rails had finally reached Des Moines in August of 1866 and other companies were spanning that state. The Rock Island, which began construction in 1855, reached the Missouri in 1861. The Burlington line began one year earlier and reached the western border in 1870. Both the Milwaukee and Illinois Central began their building in 1870 and had crossed the state eleven years later. The Northwestern offered service to Cedar Rapids by 1859 and to Council Bluffs by 1867. These lines could offer service and reach cities never dreamed of by the steamboat companies.” (305)

“By February 1, 1870, the memorial became law and the Act of 1846 which declared the Des Moines River a public highway was repealed. The approach of railroads, the improvement of roads, and the demand for the steamers on the lower Mississippi during the Civil War made business unprofitable at best.” (306)


bottom of page