The Hamilton-Keokuk Dam and Powerhouse


Dry dock and original locks - Early photo - 19 teens or twenties

Another view of the original locks from the bridge which is swung open for barge traffoc, abt. 1950

Hamilton-Keokuk Dam and Powerhouse

Since Union Electric has merged to form Ameren, the description of the powerhouse and dam has disappeared from easy access on the web. Please accept this description taken from the pages of The Hamilton Press

Hamilton, Illinois
Thursday, August 12, 1954

Dam, Power House
Are Major Feature
Of Our 100 Years

(From a talk before Hi Tension Club by George P. Gamble)

From the time that Thomas A. Edison opened the Electric Age back in 1877, it was almost inevitable that a dam would some day be built across the Mississippi River at Hamilton and Keokuk.

There had been attempts to build a dam here even before Edison. As far back as 1848, before Hamilton was incorporated, a company was formed to dam the river in order to eliminate the dangerous Des Moines Rapids. These rapids, which extended up the river from Keokuk, effectively blocked navigation at this point. A dam would put the rapids under water and, with a set of locks, would greatly enhance Keokuk's importance as a river town.

The 1848 group never got beyond the planning stage. Perhaps engineering hadn't advanced to where the project seemed feasible.

Whatever the cause, the idea was dropped and a compromise move was made in 1863. That is when the Federal government started work on the old canal around the rapids.

This nine mile canal, with a set of three locks, was completed in 1876.

It was not until 1899 that the group was formed that was eventually to complete the dam.

Here was a body of men unskilled in engineering but convinced that somehow a dam could be built between these high bluffs. By this time electricity was nearly a quarter century old. Its value to industry as a labor saver and to the householder as a safe, convenient source of light had been well proven.

The group that put their heads together as the Keokuk and Hamilton Water Power Company saw what tremendous benefits a dam could bring to a major sector of the Middle West.

They started with a capitalization that today would seem minute. They had $2,500. They went to the City Councils of Keokuk and Hamilton and secured appropriations totaling another $7,500.

These 25 made one false start. They secured from Congress in early 1901 a franchise to build a "wing dam." Their idea was to build out only from the Illinois side of the river, extending their dam diagonally upstream and then harnessing the power of the water caught behind their enormous hook.

When They were advised by private and Federal engineers that this idea was impractical, the Keokuk and Hamilton people readjusted their sights and went out after a full dam.

They went to the Secretary of War with their story and secured appointment of a board of engineers. This board reported, in 1903, that a dam from bluff to bluff was feasible.

This was enough to quiet any misgivings that might have been in the minds of others essential to the project.

Congressman B. F. Marsh introduced a bill April 24, 1904 to grant the company "rights to construct and maintain for the improvement of navigation and development of water power a dam across the Mississippi River."

This bill was pass by both houses of Congress and signed by President Theodore Roosevelt February 9, 1905. It gave the K. and H. Company the exclusive right for five years to build a dam here. At the time five years seemed more than adequate.

At this stage of the game the K. & H. Co. was about in the same position as Columbus when he arrived at the conclusion that there was a better way to get to India. These men were better off than old Chris in that they had been assured on good authority that what they wanted to do was feasible. They were like Columbus in that they lacked funds and they were worse off than the great discoverer in that they knew they couldn't do the job themselves.

To secure the funds and the talent needed, a 30 page prospectus describing the potentialities of the project was printed and sent to engineers and financial people all over the country.

Responses were discouraging. None gave any good indication that the respondents were capable of taking hold of a job of this magnitude.

It was not until September, 1905, that the gloom was lifted. A telegram arrived from a Hugh L. Cooper of Stamford, Conn. Mr. Cooper, an engineer, was then completing one of the power houses at Niagara Falls. He requested an appointment with the K. & H. officers.

With speed that was characteristic, Cooper arrived here two days later.

A stocky, energetic man of 40, he immediately won respect by his vigorous approach to the problem.

Within a week he had a K. & H. committee at Niagara so that they might see for themselves that he was capable of carrying out their plans.

Two days later, on September 15, 1905, Cooper had sold the project to insurance interests in Toronto. A contract was signed there that day giving Cooper authority to go ahead. It gave him and his backers an option to buy out the company's stock and franchise at any time within two years.

All the next spring and summer Cooper and a group of engineers were busy surveying the proposed dam site.

Then the bottom dropped out of everything but the river.

Heavy losses in the San Francisco earthquake and the fire of April 18-19, 1906 rocked the insurance companies back on their heels. Then came the financial panic of 1907. The upshot was that in June, 1907 the Toronto financial people backed out.

This was enough to discourage almost anyone but Cooper. He bounced back. He asked for and received a contract giving him authority to represent the company and went seeking new money.

In two years, going back to people who had helped finance some of his earlier projects, he lined up representatives of capital from all over the world. Then, in late 1909, he sold the management firm of Stone and Webster on the idea of directing the financial end of the enterprise.

Meanwhile Cooper and the K. & H. Company had secured contracts to deliver 60,000 electrical horsepower to three customers in the St. Louis area. They were the Union Electric Light and Power Co., and Laclede Gas Light Co. and the United Railways Co., operators of the St. Louis street railway company.

On this basis the franchise was turned over to Cooper and Stone and Webster and work began January 10, 1910--just 30 days before the five-year franchise was to expire.

Work started immediately from both sides of the river, the plan being to meet near the Iowa bank.

Shops for Dam, Hamilton, Ill.

The work force was divided into an Illinois Division, to build the dam proper, and an Iowa Division, to build the power house, the lock and dry dock.

Mississippi River Power Development

Initial construction, looking from Hamilton side towards Iowa.

Since this challenging project was in many ways unique, it required considerable ingenuity. It was to be the longest concrete dam ever constructed. Whereas many dams go up on dry land until the final gap is plugged, 70 of the 119 arches of this one were to be in the existing stream. To overcome the difficulty this presented in getting materials to the point of installation, the dam itself was used as a railroad bed.

A giant cantilevered traveling crane was tailored to this particular job. Some 250 feet long, this crane was able to deposit coffer dam cribs at much as 125 feet beyond the end of the section completed. It then removed the rock blasted out of the river bed and moved in the concrete to fill the forms.

To avoid excessive water pressure on the completed section, which would have made the job increasingly difficult as the midchannel gap was narrowed, only the archways were built at first. As a section of the dam was completed, the coffer dam was removed and the river was allowed to flow through the arches.

Later, when all arches and the bridgeway on top were completed, spillways were constructed one by one and each a little at a time. Working on one archway at a time, a block of spillway five feet high was built all the way across the river. Then, starting over, another five feet of height was added, opening by opening. This process equalized water pressure on the dam throughout its length. As many as six or seven pours were made in some openings before the spillway was brought to its present height of 32 feet.

As of November 1, 1911, less than two years after work started, the dam was nearly half way across the river, with all dryland archways on the Illinois side completed. The power house was taking shape and the excavation for the big new lock was completed. This Lock, as many of you know, is among the largest in the world--400 feet long and 110 feet wide, the same width as the Panama Canal Locks. Those are inside dimensions .

 Of course progress was comparatively slow at the beginning as construction facilities were being set up.

It was just a few months later that the whole project came within a hair of disaster. The winter of 1911-1912 was the severest in 32 years. Average temperature for January was 12 degrees, which is still a record. Ice bridged the river above the dam to a thickness of up to 2 and one half feet.

Foreseeing trouble when the ice broke up, Cooper ordered the upstream coffer dam reinforced and heightened. Three steam shovels were kept in readiness to move rock and dirt where needed and tens of thousands of sandbags were prepared.

On Saturday, March 23, the ice began to break up. Large chunks lodged in the gap between coffer dam and power house. More ice floes, pushed by others behind them, were forced up the sloping face of the coffer dam and fell back in a jumbled mass. But the dam held.

Only loss was a small empty powder house at the end of a jetty. This casualty, incidentally, caused more comment than it justified--all because of a typographical error in the press. Instead of a powder house, readers were told the power house had been swept into the water. You can imagine what a start some people got on reading that.

As the ice managed to wriggle through the gap and tumble on down the river, the construction force breathed a sigh of relief.

Then, a few hours later, a new and unexpected threat arose. The huge chunks of ice formed a jam about five miles downstream and began to back up the water. The level soon rose against the downstream coffer dam far higher than had ever bee expected. Steam shovels went to work filling cars with dirt to heighten the coffer dam. Sand bags were added in a night-and-day battle. For four days construction was delayed as the work force was kept busy plugging leaks and strengthening the lower coffer dams. On Wednesday, March 26, 1912, the ice jam broke and the downstream flood subsided.

Again the construction crew relaxed. Their project had been assaulted from both sides and had held. Nothing more can happen, they felt. But the worst was yet to come.

As ice in the Mississippi's tributaries melted and rain added more volume to the river, it rose again against the upstream dam. More leaks occurred and over the next few days, earth would slide in great masses off the face of the coffer dam. Crews were kept in constant readiness and sand bags were stockpiled at strategic points.

Climax of the battle came Sunday morning, April 7, about 2 a.m. Fifty men were on duty plugging leaks and patrolling the dam when a storm arose on the lake. Waves began to top the sand bags and water was pouring down into the excavation.

An emergency call to the labor camp brought 100 more men to the dam. Working in the cold, driving rain the men managed to save the dam. In the morning the wind subsided and, in a short while, the water began to fall.

Work was resumed and, on May 1 the gap was nearly closed.

In good summer weather, the job moved quickly from here on.

On July 22 the last section of coffer dam went in. By August 28th upper and lower legs of the coffer dam were completed. Coffer construction was finished and ready to be pumped out.

Once there was a continuous roadway across the river on top of the dam, work went even faster. Materials could be brought to the power house from either side of the river.

On January 6, 1913 the governors of the two states visited the dam.

On the last day of May the last bucket of concrete was poured, topping off the final spillway. Quite a ceremony was made of the event.

Another gala event was the opening of the lock when on June 12, two excursion steamers passed through side by side. The lock was then turned over to the government and the old locks were abandoned. Federal authorities estimated cost of operating and maintaining the new lock at about one-fourth that for the 3 old ones. In addition, the new lock moved ships in one operation that took about 20 minutes. The old ones caused a delay of several hours and required careful navigation through the canal.

By this time the turbines had been in operation for more than a week, supplying power to the city of Keokuk. On June 30, the 110 KV line to St. Louis was energized.

While most of you are familiar with the dam and the powerhouse, let us take a few moments to emphasize the guts, clear thinking, and ingenuity that went into their design. As we think back today, it is almost inconceivable how an organization with so little outside engineering talent to draw from could have accomplished so much in so short a time.

The structures themselves represented one of the largest masses of concrete masonry placed in this country up to that time, and the very idea of a barrier of any kind across the Mississippi River as far down as Keokuk was challenging to say the least.

To illustrate some of the thinking in those days, we have the story of the young student civil engineer named Kiebaisch who attended Illinois University. In 1909, he wrote a thesis on a proposed dam across the Mississippi River at Keokuk. His professor accepted the thesis as an excellent piece of work, but assured him that the dam would never be built. Years later this same man's son wrote a thesis on the electrical features of Keokuk plant.

By masterful design and the use of generous safety factors, masses of concrete took shape that were to withstand the great pressure of this river and support the tremendous weight of the powerhouse and its equipment. Steel reinforcing was used in the superstructure only--no steel columns used at all. Even though these men were face with financial difficulties, nothing was spared in bulk or brawn to assure that the construction would be sturdy and permanent.

In light of today's knowledge, the art of making concrete was in its infancy. Nothing was known of the importance of maintaining optimum water to cement ratio which largely determines the strength and the ability of the concrete to withstand freezing and thawing. Yet, cored specimens of the main mass which were tested in recent years have shown remarkable strength for concrete produced under the conditions this material was made. This old girl is here to stay--all she needs is a new skirt now and then to restore the outer surfaces against the ravages of nature.

Typical Cross SectionIt is striking to find that even today we could not improve the design features of the water course through the turbines to gain more that 1.2 per cent efficiency. Even if the turbines themselves were redesigned on the basis of current knowledge not more than a total of 3 per cent additional efficiency could be obtained.

It has always been of interest to electrical engineers how Cooper and his associates accomplished certain electrical features of the high voltage 110,000 volt circuits. Since porcelain bushings were not yet fully developed to handle voltages of this magnitude, paper bushings were used. Each 110,000 volt transformer bushing was built up of many layers of paper stacked to the proper heights and with the center core around the conductor filled with resin.

But what tops them all is the arc extinguisher. It certainly was a unique idea. Not having circuit breakers available to interrupt faults at 110,000 volts did not daunt these fellows.

For the benefit of those of you who are not familiar with this gadget--when an arc strikes on the transmission line, a magnetic relay closes a switch which connects one of the fuses from the line to ground. The fuse blows, but during the short interval it has shorted the line, the voltage reduced sufficiently to break the arc. If the arc was not extinguished on the first fuse blowing, a weight rotated a switch to a second fuse and so on until the arc was extinguished. There are a total of five fuses. This is still in operation and is doing a good job.

Now, in closing let's go back to the men who got this project started.

Individually these men were not what you'd call great men. Collectively they accomplished much. Their thought, effort, foresightedness gave us this dam that has been serving man for 40 years. We have every expectation it will continue to serve us and our descendants for many more years.

What manner of men were these?

Major William Collins, an attorney and Civil War artilleryman.

David J. Ayres, a jeweler, Jim Dougherty, a whiskey distributor, Joseph Weil, clothier, and D. A. Collier, wholesale grocer.

Henry Huiskamp, shoe manufacturer; an attorney named Campbell from St. Louis; William Ballinger, who ran a cannery; Judge William Logan, banker and county judge of Schuyler County, Mo. (Judge Logan spoke at the official dedication of the dam and later was a director of the Mississippi River Power Co. This company operated the dam until it was acquired by Union Electric Co. in 1925.) W. J. Roberts, an attorney; Clyde R. Joy of the Baker Medicine Co., who died here just a year or so ago; Robert Wallace, a Hamilton banker; Lee A. Hamil, a wholesale grocer, and Mr. Cooper, the chief engineer.

On the "right wing" of the "team" were: John Cole, then superintendent of the Keokuk-Hamilton Bridge; Frank Davis, cashier of the Savings Bank; Geo. Cooper, Hugh Cooper's father, and Mr. William Sage.

While Keokuk Dam has changed little in these past 40 years, it has helped bring many changes. The power it produces has brought industry to this area, making it more prosperous and making that prosperity more stable.

The power has a remarkable record for reliability in our system. In the early days most of Keokuk's power went to St. Louis. As the load grew here, less and less had to be transmitted. Today we frequently must add power from other plants in order to satisfy the demand here.

All of which helps explain the dam's value in our integrated power system. It gives the Keokuk area power; at times it helps other communities over our three state service area; at other times the dam needs help itself to supply the demand.

It's a grand old dam. The affection that Keokuk residents have for this imposing mass of concrete is illustrated by the fellow who appeared on a recent Chicago radio show. Asked to give the name of his home town, he replied: "I'm from the best town in the Middle West by a dam site."

He explained immediately that he was from Keokuk.

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