James Eli Shiffer, the Star Tribune’s watchdog and data editor, digs into data and documents to uncover the news. Reach him at 612-673-4116, james.shiffer@startribune.com or follow him on Twitter at @jameselishiffer. Tell us what to investigate. Send your story tips to whistleblower@startribune.com.

The golden age of Minneapolis river traffic never arrived

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: May 16, 2014 - 9:08 AM
The Upper St. Anthony Lock, gates closed

The Upper St. Anthony Lock, gates closed

Big public works projects usually come with over-the-top rhetoric, and so it was with the Upper Harbor development project that brought commercial river traffic to Minneapolis. A January 1963 Minneapolis Tribune article by Pat McCarty reported that the new lock would lift barge traffic over the "obstinate St. Anthony Falls" to "what has been called the world's most perfect natural harbor." Who needs Hong Kong, Rotterdam and Singapore when you've got Minneapolis?

Congress authorized the project in 1937, and it took another quarter century for it to become a reality. To build the upper lock, they punched a hole in the lovely Stone Arch Bridge and replace it with an ugly steel truss so the barges could fit under it. But the harbor traffic never matched the city's ambitions. Now Congress wants to close the lock as a defense against invasive Asian carp, my colleague Corey Mitchell reports from Washington.

Section 2010 of the Conference Committee Report of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act reverses nearly 80 years of history with a few phrases:  

SEC. 2010. UPPER MISSISSIPPI RIVER PROTECTION.

DEFINITION OF UPPER ST. ANTHONY FALLS LOCK AND DAM.—In this section, the term "Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam" means the lock and dam located on Mississippi River Mile 853.9 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

(b) MANDATORY CLOSURE—Not later than 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall close the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam.

Lockmaster Harry Schulz, 1972 (Star Tribune file photo)

Lockmaster Harry Schulz, 1972 (Star Tribune file photo)

The U.S. Army is used to building things, not unbuilding them. It has cost about $1 million a year to operate the Upper St. Anthony lock, although that has dropped to $762,000 in 2013 as hours were cut back. It costs another $360,000 each year to dredge the channel above the falls. The number of "lockages" in 2013 was 1,136, less than half of the traffic five years earlier. Commercial craft, hauling fertilizer, scrap metal, sand and other stuff, made up half of the traffic. 

Russ Snyder, a project manager in the St. Paul Corps District, told me that service and hours have been reduced at locks before, but he could not recall one being taken out of service. From my review of the yellowing news clippings, the Corps has never been particularly fond of the Minneapolis locks and dams, and as of February, the city has given up on its dream to become a world-class port

So now that the city has decided we don't need no barges, did someone save the stones from the Stone Arch Bridge so we can put it back together again?

 

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