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The District's First Decade: Navigation and Flood Control in the 1930's
The Dredge Captain Meriwether Lewis, Graphic Restoration by Al Barrus

Nineteen hundred and thirty-three marked the 26th year that the Kansas City District had carried out the improvement project on the entire navigable stretch of the Missouri and its tributaries. By that year, the work on the basin had outgrown the capacity of the vast District. The region's population had grown dramatically; commerce and industry had multiplied; and the river still ran unchecked, alternately pouring over its banks or drying within them.

In October 1933, the Corps of Engineers reorganized its Missouri River operations. The Kansas City District was broken off from the Upper Mississippi Valley Division. In turn, the District became the new Missouri River Division, with three Districts of its own. These conformed roughly to the lower, middle, and upper reaches of the river, with a new Kansas City District in charge of work up to the Nodaway River near the Kansas-Nebraska border and a District at Fort Peck managing the work on the big dam. A District at Omaha took charge of the long stretch of river between the two. 

Work in Omaha actually got underway with the new year. On 2 January 1934, Captain James M. Young became the first Omaha District Commander, with a staff of 63. Most of the employees came to the offices on the 14th floor of the City National Bank Building from Kansas City District. They were no strangers to the Corps or the wild Missouri.
Discharge from the dredge Lewis

There was no escape from the drought which began in 1931 and lasted a decade. Young knew that the Engineers had to have 20,000 cubic feet per second (c.f.s.) of water flowing past Kansas City to fill the 6-foot channel. Only one-half of that flowed past the Kansas City neighborhoods of Armourdale and the Argentine. He also saw the effects of the drought as he shopped in the market district or visited his crews in the field. There were fewer vegetables available, and his crews did not wear workingmen's caps as Major Larkin's men did at Fort Peck. Young's men wore bib overalls and cracked high-topped shoes that were accustomed to following a plow. 

This was the situation in which Young began his planning. He had Captain Wyman's report on the Missouri and the host of prewar studies on the streams of the lower basin. All of these helped him get started with his own comprehensive planning and the preparation of his "308" reports.

Young knew that his basic task, the reason for the existence of the Omaha District, was to improve the Missouri River. He had three essential chores on the Missouri: to control the erosion of its banks; to make it navigable; and, as far as he could, to do something about its floods.

Omaha's City National Bank 1928 - from the Bostwick-Frohardt Photography Collection owned by KMTV and on permanent loan to Western Heritage Museum
The District staff dealt with a braided river from 1,000 to 10,000 feet wide. Its valley, bluff to bluff, ranged in width from a quarter of a mile to 15 miles. The river had to be constricted to between 600 and 1,000 feet and its channel made sinuous. It had to be narrowed to give it adequate depth and velocity for navigation and fast enough to transport silt, but not fast enough to scour its bottom. If the stream contracted too tightly, high velocities, scouring, and floods could result.

To help the river help itself, it had to be trained to follow curves with radii of 7,000 to 14,000 feet. The curves had to be larger near Rulo in the southeastern corner of Nebraska and near Kansas City because of the increased flows from the tributaries. Dikes that were 3,000 to 4,000 feet long trained the river's banks to such curves. Where the current flowed swiftly, stone dikes would be used to keep the river from destroying its banks. Revetments of asphalt or stone over willow or lumber mattresses could protect the concave banks where the river exerted its greatest force.

Among the difficulties in planning were fluctuations in the river's depth and its tendency to change course. Larkin at Fort Peck reported a variation in depth from a normal stage of 7.3 feet to a high of 17 feet. At Sioux City, the Missouri varied between its normal 10.4 feet and 1892's high of 25 feet. Moreover, the river had to be kept under its bridges and flowing at a volume sufficient to supply the waterworks of the cities along its course. The Missouri's greatest slope, hence greatest potential velocity, was from the mouth of the Platte, near Nebraska City, to near St. Joseph. The river 's slope had to be improved.

Captain Herbert B. Loper, who started as Young's assistant and replaced him in July 1935, continued the "308" investigation for the Omaha District. He needed additional funds and more men and material to conduct the surveys because of the size of the District itself, the number of states with in its boundaries, and the variety of climatological and meteorological conditions within the District. He stressed the intimate connection between water and the economic well-being of the Great Plains and argued for more money for his District. Loper also advanced the idea that the Corps and the Omaha District should become involved in basinwide water resources planning.

Captain Loper established a section within the District organization to conduct these surveys. By 1941, the section had completed a local survey of the Platte River at Schuyler, Nebraska, and "308's" on Bear and Cherry Creeks in Colorado and on several other streams. Combined with the study of the Missouri River conducted by Captain Theodore Wyman while he was Kansas City District Engineer, these and later surveys make a major library on the Missouri River basin.

In 22 June 1936, the District received a new task when Congress passed New York Senator Royal S. Copeland's Flood Control Act. This bold piece of legislation affirmed the proposition that flood control should be comprehensive and moved the Corps of Engineers beyond navigation into flood control. The law authorized the Corps to undertake measures against floods on navigable waterways and their tributaries. The law also contained a cost-sharing provision for the first time. This required contributions from states and their subdivisions. Local assurances in three areas had to precede Federal appropriations.

These categories, which came to be known as the a-b-c requirements, included (a) purchase of rights-of-way and easements, (b) recognition that the United States was not liable for damages due to construction, and (c) commitment to maintain and operate completed works.

Downstream from Rock Bluff, 8 Oct. 1934
Downstream from Rock Bluff, 20 July 1936
Downstream from Rock Bluff, 18 Sept. 1942

In its first foray into national flood control work, Congress authorized very little construction for the Omaha District that bore on the problem of the Missouri. The lawmakers directed the District to undertake local projects at Council Bluffs; at Belle Fourche, South Dakota, on the Belle Fourche River; at Forsyth, Montana, on the Yellowstone River just north of the Custer battlefield; and at Wibaux, Montana, on a branch of the Little Missouri River. These bank protection projects were all similar in scope to the ones which had so vexed the Missouri River Commission.


The work at Council Bluffs focused on Indian Creek near its confluence with the Missouri. A 30,260-foot length of the creek was improved and enlarged and its cement trough was given a carrying capacity of 6,000 c.f.s. The Chief of Engineers, Major General Lytle Brown, recommended that the District construct 2,800 feet of levees and put in a 340-foot concrete wall to protect the town .

When the "308" report on the Yellowstone River was completed, Major General Edward M. Markham, then Chief of Engineers, advised Congress that Forsyth should receive flood protection. The Depression still set heavily on that town, which could not finance its obligatory share of the project. The community did not help fund the 10,000 feet of levees and retaining walls, which now protect it, until 1947. Marmarth, on the Little Missouri in North Dakota, also could not finance its share of the project designed to protect the town. The 7,000 feet of levees which embrace Marmarth were not completed until 1959. Wibaux chose not to cooperate in the project, and no works were constructed there.

After almost 60 years of sporadic improvements on the upper river, the Corps and the Omaha District have no mission there other than the Fort Peck Dam. The last new navigation work on the river above Sioux City was done in 1933 by the Kansas City District. In 1934, the Benton Transportation Company reported its last income from running riverboats, a mere $460.74. The company was out of business 2 years later, ending the era of steamboating on the Missouri.

Among the difficulties in planning were fluctuations in the river's depth and its tendency to change course. Larkin at Fort Peck reported a variation in depth from a normal stage of 7.3 feet to a high of 17 feet. At Sioux City, the Missouri varied between its normal 10.4 feet and 1892's high of 25 feet. Moreover, the river had to be kept under its bridges and flowing at a volume sufficient to supply the waterworks of the cities along its course. The Missouri's greatest slope, hence greatest potential velocity, was from the mouth of the Platte, near Nebraska City, to near St. Joseph. The river 's slope had to be improved.

Captain Herbert B. Loper, who started as Young's assistant and replaced him in July 1935, continued the "308" investigation for the Omaha District. He needed additional funds and more men and material to conduct the surveys because of the size of the District itself, the number of states with in its boundaries, and the variety of climatological and meteorological conditions within the District. He stressed the intimate connection between water and the economic well-being of the Great Plains and argued for more money for his District. Loper also advanced the idea that the Corps and the Omaha District should become involved in basinwide water resources planning.

Captain Loper established a section within the District organization to conduct these surveys. By 1941, the section had completed a local survey of the Platte River at Schuyler, Nebraska, and "308's" on Bear and Cherry Creeks in Colorado and on several other streams. Combined with the study of the Missouri River conducted by Captain Theodore Wyman while he was Kansas City District Engineer, these and later surveys make a major library on the Missouri River basin.

On 22 June 1936, the District received a new task when Congress passed New York Senator Royal S. Copeland's Flood Control Act. This bold piece of legislation affirmed the proposition that flood control should be comprehensive and moved the Corps of Engineers beyond navigation into flood control. The law authorized the Corps to undertake measures against floods on navigable waterways and their tributaries. The law also contained a cost-sharing provision for the first time. This required contributions from states and their subdivisions. Local assurances in three areas had to precede Federal appropriations.

These categories, which came to be known as the a-b-c requirements, included (a) purchase of rights-of-way and easements, (b) recognition that the United States was not liable for damages due to construction, and (c) commitment to maintain and operate completed works.

St. Mary's Bend, 8 Nov. 1936
Cutoff, 31 Oct. 1939

In its first foray into national flood control work, Congress authorized very little construction for the Omaha District that bore on the problem of the Missouri. The lawmakers directed the District to undertake local projects at Council Bluffs; at Belle Fourche, South Dakota, on the Belle Fourche River; at Forsyth, Montana, on the Yellowstone River just north of the Custer battlefield; and at Wibaux, Montana, on a branch of the Little Missouri River. These bank protection projects were all similar in scope to the ones which had so vexed the Missouri River Commission.

The work at Council Bluffs focused on Indian Creek near its confluence with the Missouri. A 30,260-foot length of the creek was improved and enlarged and its cement trough was given a carrying capacity of 6,000 c.f.s. The Chief of Engineers, Major General Lytle Brown, recommended that the District construct 2,800 feet of levees and put in a 340-foot concrete wall to protect the town .

When the "308" report on the Yellowstone River was completed, Major General Edward M. Markham, then Chief of Engineers, advised Congress that Forsyth should receive flood protection. The Depression still set heavily on that town, which could not finance its obligatory share of the project. The community did not help fund the 10,000 feet of levees and retaining walls, which now protect it, until 1947. Marmarth, on the Little Missouri in North Dakota, also could not finance its share of the project designed to protect the town. The 7,000 feet of levees which embrace Marmarth were not completed until 1959. Wibaux chose not to cooperate in the project, and no works were constructed there.

After almost 60 years of sporadic improvements on the upper river, the Corps and the Omaha District have no mission there other than the Fort Peck Dam. The last new navigation work on the river above Sioux City was done in 1933 by the Kansas City District. In 1934, the Benton Transportation Company reported its last income from running riverboats, a mere $460.74. The company was out of business 2 years later, ending the era of steamboating on the Missouri.

The decline of steam navigation did not mean the end of the 6-foot channel. Work persisted, with almost 60 million tons of material dredged from 214 locations. The dredgeboats worked in tandem with construction crews who placed dikes and revetments to contract the channel and give the river sufficient speed and depth to transport its own silt. The dredges made cutoffs, eliminated the bars at crossings, and cleared material from the front of the longitudinal dikes which realigned the course of the river. The dredge fleet, headquartered at the District's Florence boatyard from 1938, made channels which helped straighten the river and eliminated shallow flat bends. The vessels that worked on the 6-foot channel included the William M. Black, Keokuk, Robert McGregor, St. Genevieve, and three dredges named after men closely associated with the Missouri, the General Chittenden, the Meriwether Lewis, and the William Clark. On 12occasions, leased dredges complemented the District's fleet.

Through 1939, the Omaha District used traditional snagging techniques to improve navigation. During the period, 3,000 snags were pulled from the river, 11,800 trees felled, and 883 acres of brush cleared by District forces. The District blasted a rock point and 17 gumbo points from the river, pulled out 70 decaying pile clumps and 1 steamboat wreck, and dynamited 6 old wharves. As the river stabilization work progressed, the need for snagging lessened. The entire snagging allotment for 1941 was spent clearing the mouth of Camp Creek at Peru, Nebraska.
While snagging declined on the Missouri, the Corps tried a new method of bank stabilization, employing asphalt to revet some reaches of the river. After grading the riverbank at low water, the District spread the asphalt on the bank. The same problem that troubled asphalt highways beset the revetment. Chuckholes occurred, landslide seepage undermined the pavement, or the river current washed the soil from behind its edges.
Asphalt Plant, 10 Nov. 1938
Asphalt Paving, 22 Aug. 1939

While attempting to tame the river, the District also tried to increase its understanding of it. In cooperation with the United States Geological Survey, the District established numerous gaging stations to document the behavior of the river. The information was necessary for the construction program and the future management of the basin. A silt-measuring program gave the Engineers a better understanding of silt deposition and accretion and assisted in the ongoing maintenance of the channel. The District also collected hydrological data and damage reports on every flood within its boundaries during the late 1930's. This information led to studies of the effects of floods and provided some basis for prediction of the behavior of District waterways. The flood studies also provided information which might help protect the 6-foot channel.

New Deal economic initiatives involved the District in work with other Federal agencies. The desperate economic conditions of the Depression spawned the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to build public works projects and provide employment. When Lieutenant Colonel William M. Hoge replaced Loper in 1938, the District supervised 90 WPA dam and levee projects over 15 feet high. Initially, uniformed personnel designed and supervised these projects, but Hoge had so few officers that he assigned civilians to the WPA tasks.

By passage of the Flood Control Act of 1941 , Congress explicitly recognized the social purposes to which water resource projects were being put. All of that year's projects were authorized "in the interest of national security and the stabilization of employment." The imminence of war and severity of unemployment meant more flood control projects.

The District administered 55 contracts for digging the 6-foot channel during the prewar peak construction year of 1939 and was still hard at work on it when Lieutenant Colonel Helmer Swenholt took over the District on 1 December 1940. In his 1941 report, he said the reach from Rulo to Omaha was practically complete. Little work was needed to secure the reach. A few troublesome bends remained between Omaha and Sioux City. Swenholt believed those bends could be brought under control and that reach made ready for navigation by the summer of 1943.

All the work done to that time yielded little by way of improved navigation. In 1932, Captain Wyman had written that the only vessels on the river between Kansas City and Sioux City served the Corps' work on the 6-foot channel itself and carried no commercial goods. Six years later, Hoge wrote that the river had only a 3-foot depth at low water and that navigation would improve after completion of the Fort Peck Dam. He also noted that there was no commercial navigation between Kansas City, Omaha, and Sioux City.

Nevertheless, a number of old river towns remained optimistic about the possibilities of the District's navigation work and began building commercial riverfront terminals. At Brownville, the Hart, Barlett, and Sturtevant Grain Company of Kansas City erected a riverfront elevator with rail and highway connections. Nebraska City created a municipal dock board and put in 50,000 cubic yards of fill, riprapped it, and laid a 200 by 60-foot floor, over which was built a frame and corrugated iron warehouse. City then built a 1-million-bushel elevator at Nebraska City.

In Omaha, the creation of the Omaha Dock Board to build a port for the city sparked considerable interest. The proposition was vigorously discussed before the voters supported the Dock Board and the city built a waterfront complex. A steel bulkhead 900 feet long was driven; a dockhouse, freight house, and crane house rose along with a 300,000-bushel elevator; and cranes were installed. Areas that handled bulk coal and lumber were created, and the Socony Vacuum Oil Company (Mobil Oil) put in a temporary petroleum terminal.

Asphalt revetment 5 minutes after start of failure
35 minutes after start of failure
60 minutes after start of failure

The optimism reflected by the creation of new facilities was due in part to the emergence of a new era of barge navigation on the Missouri. The Federal Barge Line, a subsidiary of the Government-owned Inland Waterway Corporation, pioneered this development on the Missouri. Its barges came to the river in 1935 and ran the reach from Kansas City to St. Louis with three towboats. Four years later, barge traffic began on the reach from Kansas City to Sioux City, when Captain Leonard Thompson eased the towboat Kansas City Socony into the current with two barges carrying 700,000 gallons of gasoline. He sailed from Socony Vacuum Oil Company's Kansas City wharf for the company's new terminal in Omaha. As the 590-foot tow made 4 knots an hour up the Missouri River, spontaneous celebrations occurred at the many towns it passed. The tug was hailed all along her course as she breasted the current which flowed through a channel 4.5 feet deep.

By 15 July 1939, five petroleum tows reached Omaha. Four of them were barge tows carrying 800,000 gallons of gasoline. On 27 June 1940, a two-barge Socony Vacuum tow with 400,000 gallonsof gasoline arrived at an exuberant Sioux City. During that spring, 16 round trips were made to Omaha, and on 29 May 1941, the first tow of general merchandise reached Sioux City. The tow-carried nine carloads of goods and loaded grain for the return trip. Navigation had returned to the river.
As the 6-foot channel neared completion, the Flood Control Act of 1941 approved additional work for the Omaha District. One of the authorized projects was on the Platte River at Schuyler, where Lost Creek paralleled the Platte for a distance of 4 miles. The streams approached each other 3.5 miles west of Schuyler; and a danger existed that the Platte would break through the intervening embankment, capture Lost Creek's channel, and flood the town. The District set out to protect the bridges and parks by reveting the bank where the two streams were closest. The bank between them was leveled, willows were planted in the swales to give overbank protection, and scouring was prevented. War delayed completion of the project until 1946.

The 1941 act also authorized a more complex flood control project for the South Dakota resort of Hot Springs. This authorization was the District's first assignment to plan a complex, albeit not comprehensive, flood control project. A railroad once followed the steep narrow course of the Fall River into the Black Hills town. High cliffs on one bank and almost equally high and steep hills on the other severely narrowed the river. This natural constriction caused any heavy flow of water through the canyon to menace the town. At Cold Brook and Cottonwood Springs, the District planned to canalize the Belle Fourche River and build a pair of small flood control dams to lessen the flows through the town. The dams would have controlled outlet works so that small pools of water would be impounded. Construction here was also delayed until after World War II.

Like the Black Hills, the area around Denver, Colorado, is subject to flash floods on the many streams in and near the city. Denver's earliest settlers crowded the banks of Cherry Creek to mine its gold. There the city grew. By 1941, ample evidence showed that Front Range thunderstorms could fill Cherry Creek in a few hours, drive it out of its banks, and flood the community.

In accordance with the Flood Control Act of 1938, the Corps considered evacuating the flood plain and eliminating the project. However, the relocation of residents was so costly that the idea was dropped, and Omaha offered a different method for Denver's protection. The District recommended a flood control dam across Cherry Creek and a series of levees down the South Platte River into which the creek flowed.

As the District's missions multiplied, the work force and the need for space grew. The City National Bank Building became crowded and the District's lease was about to expire. A solution to the overcrowding presented itself when the Omaha Bee News went out of business and put its building at 1709 Jackson Street on the market. Hoge found the building suitable for his needs and received Washington's permission to purchase it. The transaction took place in April 1939. Less than 2 years later, the District also outgrew these new quarters.

Kansans City Soconoy
Lieutenant Colonel Swenholt had to remodel the building to house the additional employees needed to prosecute a heavily increased military construction mission. The few years in the City National Bank Building had been important ones. The District had been established, and Congress had moved from the theoretical recognition of multiple-use programs to the reality of flood control legislation with provisions for local cost-sharing. The District's work had expanded under pressure from economic difficulties, and river traffic showed signs of change and revival. At the end of the 1930's, war was a real possibility and the civil works organization of the Corps faced a new challenge, converting its pacific skills to military use.