THE POTOSI CANAL
From the day in 1829 that Thomas Hymer started building his cabin near what is now Potosi it was certain that the town would be unusual. Crammed into a narrow hollow that ran down to the flats of the Mississippi it presented both handicaps such as flooding and great opportunities in the lead contained in loose mineral (float) lying about. As miners rushed in followed by merchant establishments, saloons and boarding houses it became more apparent that access to the mighty river below was essential. The lead must be transported, and the Mississippi was the most convenient pathway. As the town grew it was necessary to bring supplies in by means of Mississippi riverboats. Ferry boats were also needed to cross the Mississippi in those days before bridges. The earliest reported ferry service near Potosi was that of J.P. Cox and Justis Parsons. Parsons Landing was ten miles above Dubuque in Iowa. Cox held a landing in Osceola, about a mile from Potosi. In 1844 James F. Chapman, was granted the right to operate a ferry from Potosi across the Mississippi probably to Specht’s Ferry.
In the earliest days it was possible to navigate the Grant river slough. Ferry boats and shallow draft steam boats could unload at Osceola or a landing built at the village of Lafayette below Potosi. As the years passed silt built up making it difficult to bring the boats up. This was probably due to lumber cutting and farming that caused greater runoff from the surrounding land into the Grant river. In the age of the steamboat the forest land along the river was stripped of its lumber to fire the boilers of the steam engines that propelled the vessels upriver. By the end of the 1840’s there were over 1,200 steamboats using the Mississippi and side and rear paddle wheelers were becoming ever larger.
Potosi was growing by leaps and bounds. The Merchants and miners of the town needed to keep the water deep enough for mineral to be shipped out and goods for the growing town to be shipped in. The Territorial Legislature, wanting ports to compete with Dubuque and Galena were sympathetic. In June of 1844 Congress passed legislation providing for the sale of a section of land to fund improvements of the Grant River to allow better access to the Mississippi. In January of 1845 the Legislature named James F. Chapman (the same man who had been given the right to operate a ferry in 1844) to lead a commission to organize the sale of lots. Joel Allen Barber was named Receiver to take funds from the sales and disburse payments for costs incurred.
The engineer of the Port of Dubuque, Joshua Bryant, was called upon to study the problem and make a report. In that report, submitted November 15, 1845 he wrote:
The harbor at present, situated as it is on one of the collateral branches, or channels, of the Mississippi, appears to be approachable only by the tortuous sinuosities of Grant River Slough, or, by the shorter and little less objectionable meanderings of Swift Slough. The channel of the former is obstructed at numerous points by shoals or bars formed by de posits of silt. The removal of this would require a great amount of dredging to make it navigable at low water, and the annual operations of a dredge boat would, in all probability, be indispensable to keep it at a proper depth. In a channel so long and crooked, it is difﬁcult to form a correct idea of what the result might be in case it should be so improved. The removal of the bars as they now stand might cause the accumulation of deposits in other places; and the work of one season might be counteracted and rendered useless by the result of the succeeding one.”
The best plan according to his report was to build a canal of sufficient depth and width across the low flats and wetlands directly to the Grant river bend at Lafayette. His opinion was that “The canal from the Mississippi will he approachable at any stage of water, for boats ascending or descending the river. The current of the river impinges against the bank with its full force, and the water being deep, little apprehension may be entertained of the formation of any bars contiguous to the entrance of the canal.” He recommended that a canal 100 feet wide be excavated and the Harbor deepened. He estimated the cost to be $20,041.45.
The lots were sold throughout the year 1845, and with the engineers report the Commissioners submitted the report of Barber. The section given by Congress had yielded $4,130.64. After expenses of $1350.40, only $2780.24 remained for the project.
Despite the severe shortfall the work went on, first grubbing the trees, shrubs and other obstacles in the line the canal would follow and then commencing the excavation. In those days there were no steam powered dredgers and shovels available on the frontier, so the grubbing was done by men with shovels, grubbing hoes, and bars. The rocks and wood were then thrown mule pulled wagons for removal. The Story told by old timers later in the century was that the contractor went to
An Early mule drawn scraper in Missouri to buy mules. These were not normal mules, but rather large mules from draft horse mares. There are Percheron, Belgian and Clydesdale mares that are very large, but those breeds were not brought to the United States until the later 19th Century. The large mules obtained were used in the excavation of the canal. The greatest part of the earth removal was done by “scrapers”, large shovel like implements pulled behind four mules. Men behind the scraper would lift handles to cause the device to dig in, removing shallow layers. The earth filled scrapers were hauled up an embankment at An early mule drawn scraper the end of a one or two hundred yard pull.
In addition to the income from the sale of lots, the Legislature granted the town the right borrow $5,000.00 per year to finance the work on the canal. They were further authorized to levy a tax of not more than $3,000.00 per year for the purpose of repaying the loans. This should have enabled the ongoing work to continue to its conclusion. The people of Potosi in a town meeting voted to construct a canal of 50 feet width and sufficiently deep to give a six feet clearance which would suffice for most of the Shoal draft (aha shallow draft) riverboats of those days.
The work was still in progress in 1849 when several calamities struck Potosi and the area.
The first was a cholera epidemic. The hollow and the river land had never been a paradise of health. Rev Matthew Dinsdale, minister of the Methodist Church at Potosi wrote to his family in 1845 “There has been much sickness in this part this summer, and several deaths. I have had a funeral to attend almost every day I have been here.” The year 1849 is remembered as one of three epidemics of Cholera that hit the middle of America. It was worst along the rivers which were the highways of commerce and settlement. “If it be the Divine will that I should live a little longer God can shield me… All places in the vicinity of rivers are subject more or less to ague (probably malaria) and bilious fever (typhus)” Cholera is a disease that attacks the walls of the intestine. The bacillus Vibrio Cholerae destroys the lining of the intestine causing uncontrollable diarrhea that leads quickly, sometimes in hours, to dehydration and death. Bad sanitation in disposing of fecal wastes and poorly lined, shallow wells allowed those wastes teeming with bacteria to pollute drinking water wells, spreading the dreaded death dealer. Of course no one knew the cause, and the treatment was not only ineffective but harmful. Bleeding, withholding fluids, and noxious nostrums sped the work of the killer. People fled Potosi, thereby spreading the disease.
The second event was the discovery of gold in California. Through 1852 many miners left for the New Eldorado, depopulating Potosi and many other Grant county Towns. With depletion of the population many of the merchants packed up and left. Although Potosi was authorized to borrow and expend $5,000.00 annually and tax its citizens $3,000.00 additionally per year it was not possible with the greatly reduced tax base. Some histories say the canal was never completed, but I believe it was done on a very modest scale not sufficient to serve the riverboat traffic it had known. Lafayette Landing did receive steamboats for years including the Teal owned by the Specht family, which later became the Potosi. In the late 1920’s one writer made the following comment about the canal in his article on the Grant River: “The old diggings can easily be traced across the bottoms and fields although it is more than 80 years since the big ditch was dug.”
So the canal, begun by industrious men wishing prosperity, wilted and died. It is no longer to be seen, for as the map shows, the construction of the Zebulon Pike Lock and Dam #11 at Dubuque in the 1930’s lead to the flooding of what was farmland and meandering channels. According to one source the pool behind lock and dam #11 raised the water as much as 15 feet at Potosi (9 Feet seems more correct). The map shows the shoreline as it was before the Lock and Dam pool. The red line drawn shows the present shoreline. None of that flatland of meandering river branches and sloughs will ever be seen again.
Approximate location of Lafayette Landing
At the present Boat Landing
Panoramic view from the present day Boat Landing