The task of maintaining a navigation channel on the Mississippi is the responsibility of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which began as early as 1829 removing snags, closing off secondary channels and excavating rocks and sandbars. In 1829 the Corps surveyed the two major obstacles to navigation on the upper Mississippi, the Des Moines Rapids between Nauvoo, Illinois and Keokuk, Iowa and the Rock Island Rapids, where the river was shallow and the riverbed was rock. The Des Moines Rapids were about 11 miles long and just above the mouth of the Des Moines River at Keokuk. The Rock Island Rapids were between Rock Island and Moline. Both rapids were considered virtually impassable.
The Army Corps of Engineers took up the task of making the river navigable in 1837, and the assignment was given to a promising young engineer with excellent connections - Lieut. Robert E. Lee. Lee had recently married Mary Custis, a granddaughter of Martha Washington, and had became master of her Arlington estate. This was the first major project Lee would head in the army. His orders were to clear the channel and also divert certain waters on the river that were threatening the harbor at his base, St. Louis, Missouri. His principle assistant (and admirer) was Lieut. Montgomery Meigs, recently graduated from West Point. Their team went north from St. Louis on a steamboat. They surveyed and mapped the area, sounded depth of the water, took and recorded data, and developed plans to blast and excavate a path through the rapids. Lee and his party returned to St. Louis on October 8, 1837, and he planned to begin work the following spring. Then he headed home to Virginia for the winter. Lee commenced work on these projects in 1838, blasting, trying to create a sufficient channel, and attempting to secure St. Loius harbor; and he made some progress. However, his efforts were plagued by under-funding and lack of political support (this was an era when the idea that improvements should be undertaken by the central government was by no means universally accepted). So although his work continued until October 1840, it was never pursued to success. By the end, Lee was glad to move on to other pursuits.
Document Signed, St. Louis, 1837-40: “I certify that the service above charged for was received and necessary in conveying the U.S. steamboat from the Des Moines Rapids to St. Louis.” Because most of the transportation during the Des Moines Rapids project was by steamboat, it is hard to more precisely date the receipt.
Lee would soon make a name for himself in the Mexican War. In time he would be revered as the symbol of the Southern Confederacy. His friendship with Montgomery Meigs was frought with irony, as Meigs became Lincoln’s Quartermaster General. When his only son was killed in action during the Civil War, he turned Lee’s Arlington estate into a cemetery and buried his son by Lee’s door. That way, he knew, his former friend and now foe would never be able to live there again. As for the Des Moines Rapids, it remained an obstacle until a successful solution was found after the Civil War.