Fall '10

From the President

By David G. Barber

In July, I embarked on a three week tour of canal and navigation sites in the upper Midwest ranging in size from the largest lock in the Western Hemisphere (the Poe Lock at the SOO) to many obscure sites that most have never heard of. While most of these were originally built for freight travel, as is the tradition, a few were built in the Gilded Age for passenger boating. One was even built in the modern era for power boating. But, most have declined as we shifted to other modes of travel and boating became something that we do in individual puddles rather than linked waterways. I’ll leave the details of most to articles elsewhere in American Canals and entries on our web site.

But two sites bug me because they are similar and illustrate a larger problem. With the coming of railroads in the late 1800s, Oconomowoc, WI developed into a resort area and eventually the “Newport” of the Midwest. It is situated west of Milwaukee and on the mainline of the Milwaukee Railroad. In the late 1800s, many wealthy families such as the Pabsts of Milwaukee and the Armours of Chicago meat packing built large summer homes on the three lakes there. The middle lake, Fowler, is a dammed up marsh. The other two, Lac La Belle and Ocomonowoc Lake are natural, but the later was controlled by a dam. The three are connected by the Oconomowoc River and wooden locks were provided at the two dams. Today, the dams remain, but the locks have been filled in. So now to cruise all three, you have to trailer your boat between them. Unfortunately, when I tried to visit the local historical museum on a Friday (when it was scheduled to be open), it was closed.

The other site was the Detroit Lakes in northwestern Minnesota. Similarly, a series of lakes on the Pelican River and accessible via the mainline of the Northern Pacific Railroad from the Twin Cities were interconnected by three wooden locks in the late 1800s and early 1900s. With the coming of the automobile, the steamboats that used the locks were abandoned about the time of WW I. However, the upper two locks were rebuilt in concrete by the WPA in 1937 and turned over to the state for operation and maintenance. They responded by never operating them. After WW II, the state gradually removed the operating gates and other hardware and in 1964 turned the upper lock over to the city as part of a park. When Bev Morant saw it in 1974, the concrete and gate frames remained, but he didn’t seem to get any info that it was once operable. Twice after WW II, there appear to have been local groups that tried to restore navigation, but they disappeared. The second attempt did result in a marine railway parallel to the lock, which remains in service. In 2001, the county removed the lock and parallel spillway and replaced them with a rocky channel saying that was more “natural”. Boating remains active on all the lakes in the chain, but you can’t travel the through route as you could one hundred years ago.

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