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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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Zebulon Pike Lock and Dam (#11)
ZEBULON PIKE LOCK AND DAM. In 1929 Congress authorized the construction of locks and dams on the Upper MISSISSIPPI RIVER. The purpose was to maintain a nine-foot deep channel enabling barges and other river craft to use the river through the season of open water. (1) In 1933 a survey indicated that a dam with locks could be constructed less than a mile above Specht's Ferry. (2) An Army Corps of Engineers report, however, found that the river bedrock was not suitable. A second survey indicated that Dubuque would be a good alternative. In addition, the project would provide jobs for many unemployed people. (3) In late 1933 a precise location for the construction was chosen upstream from the EAGLE POINT BRIDGE.

Work on the lock and dam, named for famed explorer Zebulon Montgomery PIKE, began in 1933 with the construction of the locks. Workers earned thirty-five to fifty cents per hour with skilled labor making $1.25. A cofferdam was first constructed around the site of the lock and the area was inside pumped dry for the workmen.

Map showing the cottages, homes and other dwellings to be removed. Photo courtesy: US Army Corps of Engineers
Residents meanwhile began plans for evacuation. (4) Prior to construction, condemnation proceedings led to the removal of twenty-nine cottages, nine chicken houses, three ice houses, two smokehouses and two taverns. Construction on the dam began in September, 1935. On September 13, 1937, the last of the dam's thirteen tainter gates were closed by W. A. Turner, resident engineer and lockmaster.
This cottage belonging to CHRISTOPHER CAPRETZ was constructed on an island in the MISSISSIPPI RIVER. Removal of the home preceded construction. Photo courtesy: Paul Lembke
Clearing Center Island (1935) Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald
To create the pool that would exist behind the dam, workmen labored through the winter sawing and removing trees and demolishing cabins from Center Island on the Wisconsin side of the river. It was feared that the brush and debris would float downstream where they could obstruct the machinery operating the locks. (5)
Construction of the locks ranks was one of the major construction projects ever attempted. Photo Courtesy: Bob Reding

Construction of the dam was started on September 30, 1935. Steel plates were driven up to forty-five feet below the river bed and sixteen chain operated roller and "Tainter" gates were erected to hold back the water. The finished lock measured 600 by 110 feet. The dam was 1,276 feet long in addition to the levee that extended the rest of the way to the Wisconsin shore. (6)

Photo courtesy: Loemker, Herman J., 1868-1937, Loras College Digital Collections, accessed January 17, 2016, https://digitalcollections.loras.edu/items/show/333.
It is not generally remembered that President Franklin Roosevelt was being severely criticized at this time. River traffic had been declining, and critics believed such projects as the lock and dam were a waste of money. (7)

The facility was first put into operation on September 13, 1937 when W. A. Turner, the resident engineer and lock master of the dam, pressed a button closing the last of the thirteen tainter gates. The day was chosen because no tow boats operated by Inland Waterways Corporation were due. It was expected that the locks would be fully functional three days after the gates were lowered. Small pleasure boats were not stopped. A small spot on the Wisconsin side of the dam was left open for their passage. The water there was three feet deep.

Workers are hardly visible within the soon-to-be-completed lock. Photo Courtesy: Bob Reding
The total cost of the project came to $7,443,000 including land acquisition and site preparation. As many as 1,000 workers were employed at the site at one time. Although it was announced that as many as four deaths could be expected on a project of this size, only two workers were killed. Harold Arendt fell to his death; Ardenal Thompson was fatally struck on the head by a stern-operated clam shovel.

The lock and dam were dedicated on August 21, 1938. (8) Miss Hazel Skemp, the centennial queen, broke a bottle containing water from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans over a concrete wall christening the structure. (9) Speeches made from the deck of the steamer "Ellen" belonging to the Army Corps of Engineers were broadcast from speakers on shore and in EAGLE POINT PARK. A regatta, with many replicas of pioneer craft, was organized by Richard BISSELL. In the evening the last performance of "Under Five Flags," the history of the Upper Mississippi, was performed. (10)

In 1940 the J. T. McCarthy Company of Davenport entered the lowest bid of $136,239.70 for the construction of a 700-foot extension of the locks upstream. This guide wall was designed to cut down on the swift cross-currents above the dam which made locking of boats dangerous. Prior to construction of the wall, pilots had to enter the locks at an angle, then flank to align their tows with the lock. If not carried out properly, the maneuver could lead to a tow carried out of control and slamming into the dam. (11)

On June 21, 1993 Lock and Dam 11 was shut down for the first time in eighteen years. (12) Exceptionally high water caused transportation disruption along the entire river.

An estimated 291,000 people visited the lock and dam in 1996 to view the operation. With years of interest in the site, a visitor center in 1997 was completed at the lock and dam along with an additional 25 parking spaces and an area for easy turning around. (13) On September 2, 2001 a DUBUQUE RACING ASSOCIATION grant of $1,300 allowed the local Audubon Society to purchase a 20 power telescope for viewing birds from the visitor center. (14) Nine days later, however, following terrorist attacks in New York, the entire area was closed to the public. (15) It was later reopened.

After decades of use, Lock and Dam 11 made the Army Corps of Engineers list for repair projects in 1996. (16) In 2006 a $26.9 million rehabilitation project began to replace the structure's electrical system, resurface the lock chamber, repair concrete on the upper and lower guide walls, and replace the lock machinery. (17)

Workers replaced mitre gates which control the water level in the lock on May 2, 2018. Cracks had been discovered during a routine inspection. These were considered temporary repairs. That work was in addition to the scheduled closings for mitre gate replacements on May 8th and 10th. (18) The cracks that appeared at the anchorage at Lock and Dam 11 caused an immediate emergency closure of the facility which stopped traffic up and down the Mississippi for twenty-four hours. When the lock reopened, boats were lined up for seven miles. (19)

Barges crash into the lock and dam on May 4, 2018
On May 4, 2018 perhaps the greatest threat to the lock and dam occurred. In the afternoon, a group of twelve barges broke apart from the towboat and struck the dam. One of the barges went over the dam on Saturday morning while two others filled with corn and beans sank above the dam. Damage to the dam was not known four days later. The announcement was made that efforts to raise the sunken barges would not be made until the water level dropped. (20)

When the lock-and-dam structures at Dubuque, Bellevue and Guttenberg, Iowa were installed in the 1930s they were designed for a life expectancy of fifty-years. (21) Through careful maintenance, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers have lengthened that time period. In 2018, however, there was no plan for replacement. In the latest annual reports, Corps officials state that maintenance needs have surpassed annual operations and maintenance budgets. New locks should be modernized by making them twice as long eliminating the need to split a tow allowing only some barges to be moved at a time--a process that could take ninety minutes. (22)

Making the situation dire was the increased use of the river to move commerce. In 2016 an estimated 18.9 million tons of commodities moved through Lock and Dam 11. That was the highest tonnage in Dubuque since 2002 and a 28% increase over 2017. Sixty percent of the total or 11.4 million tons was food and farm products. Among the reasons given was the expansion of the Panama Canal and sections of the Mississippi being dredged allowing larger ships to move further inland. River transportation continues to have a lead over other carriers. One 15-barge tow carries as much material as 240 rail cars or 1,050 semis. The tourism industry centering on the river depends upon the locks-and-dams as much as the tows. (23)



1. "Forty Years of Service: That's Some 'Boondoggle'" Telegraph Herald, July 24, 1977, p. 1. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=UNFBAAAAIBAJ&sjid=OKoMAAAAIBAJ&pg=3721,2874769&dq=zebulon+pike+lock+and+dam+dubuque&hl=en

2. "Lock and Dam Will be Built at Eagle Point," Telegraph Herald, October 11, 1933, p. 1. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=8f9BAAAAIBAJ&sjid=U6oMAAAAIBAJ&pg=4301,1324218&dq=lock+and+dam+dubuque&hl=en

3. Kruse, Len. My Old Dubuque, Dubuque, Iowa: Center for Dubuque History, Loras College, 2000, p. 68

4. "Forty Years of Service...."

5. "Clear Island to Make Way for Dam Here," Telegraph Herald, September 29, 1935, p. 25

6. "Dubuque Area About All Set," Telegraph Herald, May 5, 1939, p. 5. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=S95BAAAAIBAJ&sjid=AaoMAAAAIBAJ&pg=2796,1953161&dq=lock+and+dam+dubuque&hl=en

7. Ibid.

8. "Dubuque Dam Dedication is Set for August 21st," Telegraph-Herald, August 7, 1938, p. 20. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=sNtBAAAAIBAJ&sjid=3akMAAAAIBAJ&pg=6870,4631540&dq=zebulon+pike+lock+and+dam+dubuque&hl=en

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. "Davenport Firm is Low Bidder," Telegraph Herald, May 29, 1940, p. 7

12. Hanson, Lyn. "Dubuque Gridlock Halts Barges, Boats," Telegraph Herald, July 10, 1993, p. 2. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=X2VFAAAAIBAJ&sjid=NrwMAAAAIBAJ&pg=5676,1972166&dq=lock+and+dam+dubuque&hl=en

13. "Visitor Center to be Finished This Fall at Lock and Dam 11," Telegraph Herald, March 26, 1987, p. 2. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=M5VSAAAAIBAJ&sjid=8ssMAAAAIBAJ&pg=3838,4554899&dq=lock+and+dam+dubuque&hl=en

14. Reber, Craig. "Telescope Is for the Birds; But It's Up Close and Personal," Telegraph Herald, September 2, 2001, p. 14. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=f4xdAAAAIBAJ&sjid=f1wNAAAAIBAJ&pg=6372,213922&dq=lock+and+dam+dubuque&hl=en

15. "Lock and Dam Closed to Public," Telegraph Herald, September 15, 2001, p. 3A

16. Krapfl, Mike. "Corps Talks Repairs for Lock & Dam 11," Telegraph Herald, October 16, 1996, p. 2. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=HVZFAAAAIBAJ&sjid=1rsMAAAAIBAJ&pg=5440,2591517&dq=lock+and+dam+dubuque&hl=en

17. Reber, Craig. "Lock Undergoing Rehabilitation," Telegraph Herald, February 23, 2006, p. 3A. Online: http://nl.newsbank.com/nl-search/we/Archives?p_product=DQ&p_theme=dq&p_action=search&p_maxdocs=200&p_topdoc=1&p_text_direct-0=10FF873FAB12A838&p_field_direct-0=document_id&p_perpage=10&p_sort=YMD_date:D&s_trackval=GooglePM

18. "Lock and Dam Closed for Work," Telegraph Herald, May 2, 2018, p. 5A

19. Montgomery, Jeff, "Will Lock System Be Left High and Dry?" Telegraph Herald, August 12, 2018, p. 1A

20. "2 Sunken Barges Remain After Pileup at Lock and Dam No. 11," Telegraph Herald, May 8, 2018, p. 3A

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid., p. 2A

23. Ibid.

Special thanks to Joe Schallan.