Thousands of people are expected to visit southeast Iowa this weekend for the 100th anniversary celebration of the historic dam that spans the Mississippi River between Keokuk and Hamilton. Mike Foley, a member of the planning committee for the 100th anniversary spent hundreds of hours researching the project and reviewing photographs and newspaper articles.
Foley says there is a drawing that stands out to him as a summary for what people thought the dam would do for Keokuk. “What they did was take the tallest building in Chicago and added about five, six stories to it and they just filled the shoreline with these skyscrapers. They really believed this was such as beautiful project that Keokuk was going to grow to become a little Chicago,” Foley explains.
The dream never came to pass as the community’s population grew to about 15,000 in 1920, but never exceeded 17,000. Far short of Chicago’s population of more than two-million people at that time. Keokuk did gain several local industries, including Midwest Carbide and Keokuk Steel Castings, but it never realized those skyscrapers from the drawing.
Foley says while the dam did not lead to the population or economic growth people expected — it at least put Keokuk on the map. “Popular mechanics magazine every month had at least two pages dedicated to the building of it. The New York Times, the Chicago papers all ran articles constantly about the progress of this great dam across the Mississippi River,” Foley says.
The construction of the dam seemed impossible to some. John Hallwas wrote the book “Keokuk and the Great Dam” and says engineer Hugh Cooper pushed for articles to be written about the construction for that very reason.
“There were a lot of challenges in it and he just didn’t want to fail. He just wanted people to realize how very difficult it was and that he was doing his best, so he really got a lot of public support,” Hallwas says.
Hallwas says the notoriety increased as more and more dignitaries such as governors and senators from other states came to visit and observe the construction. And he says it’s important to note that the dam did accomplish its initial goal of improving river transportation.
“It ushered in a new era for America’s greatest river,” Hallwas says, “It made travel up and down the river just as easy as it is today, and so that had an enormous impact.” Today the dam still controls river levels and produces electricity.
Keokuk Mayor Tom Marion says there is another benefit — tourism. “You can visually see it and you can watch a boat lock through and things like that, so from our standpoint, it is tourism. I saw a family, the other day, they were getting ready to cross the bridge when they saw the dam. They stopped and got out and stood with their backs to the dam and the powerhouse and took a family photo,” according to Marion.
Foley with the planning committee says the most important thing to consider when it comes to the dam is that it is simply still there.
“A hundred years later, it has just been sitting there, doing its job the whole time and so we just sorta take it for granted. But the importance of it is that there is nothing like it that has lasted this long,” Foley says.
Local organizers expect 15-to-20,000 people to visit Keokuk and Hamilton to participate in the 100th anniversary celebration.