Photographs of the Mississippi River taken a century ago show a wide, shallow waterway of braided channels and islands. In dry years, you could wade across it in the early fall.
Today, the sandbars and backwaters are gone and the boulders upstream from St. Paul lie submerged under a deep current.
You can get a look at what caused this remarkable transformation by visiting one of the locks and dams in the Twin Cities.
"We have people walking in from Australia and Japan. A lot of foreign visitors like these locks," said Tim Tabery, lockmaster of Lock and Dam No. 1 in St. Paul, which gets more than 50,000 gawkers a year.
But my St. Paul-bred children were not excited when I suggested a lock tour. I went first to St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam in Minneapolis, the only metro-area lock that offers guided tours. (Lower St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam under the Interstate 35W bridge isn't open to the public.)
Our guide, Jessica Jones, led us to the visitor center, where a wall of windows overlooks a huge rectangular pit with damp concrete sides.
"What you're looking at is a lock," explained Jones, a St. Catherine University student hired for the summer. "It's empty because the last boat coming through was a little boat heading south."
Fifty feet below, in the shaded depths, we could see the black surface of the water. Upper St. Anthony is not only the northernmost lock but also the deepest on the river.
STAIRWAY OF WATER
Think of locks
First came wing dams of lumber and dirt, prompting Mark Twain to remark: "The military engineers have taken upon their shoulders the job of making the Mississippi over again -- a job transcended in size by only the original job of creating it."
In 1930, Congress asked for a deeper, 9-foot channel so barges could move grain and commodities out of the Midwest. Twenty-nine locks and dams were built from Minneapolis to St. Louis. The deep pools behind the dams allow boats to descend a "stairway of water" from here to the Gulf of Mexico.
I would have liked more time in the visitor center to read the history, but Jones hustled us outside to continue our half-hour tour. A highlight was walking across the upstream doors, called miter gates, named for their front beveled edge. Seen from the air, they form a shallow V pointing upriver.
"The only thing keeping this shut is the water pressure on the other side," explained Jones as we walked across the metal grate walkway. The doors stretched below us into the
"This is just freaking me out," said my 12-year-old son, who kept his hand on the railing. "I don't think this is safe."
My other two children were impressed but not bothered.
"It wasn't scary at all," his 6-year-old sister said smugly.
If we had come earlier, between 10 and 11 a.m., we would have seen a barge making its nearly daily run upriver with a load of gravel.
"If people want to know why we're still using barges, well with one barge, you can carry as much as 58 semi trucks," said Jones. "So, it's a lot more environmentally friendly."
Recreational boat traffic is down due to Asian carp, an invasive species that has been slowly making its way upriver. After a silver carp was netted near Winona this year, legislation was introduced in Congress that would give the Army Corps of Engineers the authority to temporarily close the lock at Upper St. Anthony Falls. In the meantime, several organizations have stopped using the lock in the hope of protecting the Mississippi headwaters from a carp invasion.
Paradise Charter Cruises stopped sending its boats through this season, including its replica paddleboat the Minneapolis Queen, which represented about 40 percent of the Upper St. Anthony lockages last year.
Wilderness Inquiry no longer sends canoe trips through the metro locks. This year, Friends of the Mississippi River avoided locks entirely and rerouted paddlers during its annual Mississippi River Challenge into the Minnesota River.
It's just a matter of time before Asian carp reach the Twin Cities, and what that means for the locks is still being hashed out. I'd say, go see Upper St. Anthony Falls in action soon, while you still can.
Or check out one of the other busier locks. Lock and Dam No. 2, just upriver from Hastings gets the barge traffic that stops in St. Paul, including flotillas of 15 barges pushed by a single tow.
Less busy is Lock and Dam No. 1 under the Ford Parkway Bridge in St. Paul. I visited with my 6-year-old daughter during an open house, held every July during Highland Fest. It's the only time the public is allowed into the control tower, where windows offer stunning views up and down the river.
You reach the lock from West River Parkway in Minneapolis, near Minnehaha Park. Be prepared for a long walk from the top of the bluff, or drive down and snag one of the few parking spaces under the bridge.
In the control room, head operator John McQuiston showed us how he monitors the locks on two big computer screens and opens valves with a click of a mouse.
"The tow boats call me when they're going under Fort Snelling bridge," McQuiston said. "They want me to be ready. That means they're about 20 minutes out."
Even if you don't get inside the control room, you can walk around and above the lock from April through November. Panels of photos and text give plenty of background on the history of the Army Corps and how locks work.
While waiting for a boat to show up, I learned that the first steamboat arrived in St. Paul in 1823 and that 100,000 to 1 million cubic yards of sediment is dredged from the river every year between here and Guttenberg, Iowa.
One of the best things about the self-guided tour is being able to walk right up to the dam. The amber river flows smoothly over the dam's concrete top and crashes into a line of creamy froth at its base.
"It looks like a root beer float," my daughter yelled above the roar. When the breeze changed, we felt cool mist on our faces. The constantly changing cascade was as mesmerizing as watching flames in a campfire.
"I could stand here forever," she said.
Then, we saw boats coming upriver. We ran up the steps to a walkway over the downstream gates.
"Look, there's a doggy on one," my daughter squealed, as a fishing boat floated directly under us, a pointer standing on its bow like a canine figurehead. Two big white boats floated in behind, the Galaxsea out of Prescott, Wis., and the King's Cabin out of Eagan. I wouldn't have minded hanging out on the one that had wicker furniture and a buffet set out on the rear deck.
After they were in the lock, we walked down to the edge of the lock to get a better look. A couple of women in bikinis waved at us from the damp pit where the boats bobbed 30 feet below (the Ford Lock and Dam is the third highest on the river). Then the water started to rise.
We stood there for nearly 15 minutes as the rungs of a metal ladder built into the concrete wall disappeared, one by one. That's how long it takes to fill with 6 million gallons of water -- the equivalent of nine Olympic swimming pools. When the water level in the lock reached the water level upstream, the big gates slowly swung open and the boats floated out and headed upstream under the Ford Bridge.
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at 651-228-5295.
What: Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam Tour
Where: 1 Portland Ave., Minneapolis
Information: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 877-552-1416 x5719 or 651-290-5719
When: Tours are usually offered on the hour, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Monday, and after Labor Day on weekends only through early October.
Target audience: Anyone with an interest in history, engineering and really big water toys
Crowd pleaser: Walking on the miter door.
Avoid: Showing up for a tour that has been canceled. Call ahead or check times posted daily on a sign outside the lock and dam building.
Tip: You don't need a tour at Lock and Dam No. 1, 5000 W. River Parkway, St. Paul, or at Lock and Dam No. 2, 1350 Dam Road, Hastings. Public viewing areas with interpretive signs are open dawn to dusk April through late October.