By the early 20th century, the goals for the Mississippi Headwaters dam building had expanded beyond flood prevention and navigation. Electric power production was central to the new goals. This led to the construction of several hydroelectric dams throughout Minnesota. These dams were intended to encourage population growth and industry. Among these was the Coon Rapids Dam. Between 1914 and 1966 this dam offered an important source of energy for communities north of the Twin Cities.
Both practical and political motivations drove the hydroelectric movement. The introduction of electric power in the late 19th century prompted the construction of hydroelectric dams in Minnesota’s urban areas. In 1882 the Minnesota Brush Electrical Company opened an early dam at St. Anthony Falls. It provided power to a limited number of local clients. In time, political forces such as the Progressive Movement demanded the expansion of power to rural sections of the state. Business leaders were also interested in population growth and modernization and supported dams north of St Anthony Falls.
Coon Rapids in Anoka County was one such site. In August 1898, private businesses began to develop initial plans for a dam near this town, twelve miles north of Minneapolis. Eventually, the project became a joint effort between business and the government. In 1911 Congress approved federal funding for a dam at the site. Over the next two years the government worked with the Northern Mississippi Power Company to realize this goal. Construction began in 1913. It took 42,000 cubic yards of concrete and the work of one thousand men, but by 1914 the dam and outbuildings were complete. The dam was now ready to bring power to the region.
The construction of the Coon Rapids Dam had a great impact on Anoka County. At the outset of the project Coon Rapids was a small rural town. The arrival of the dam workers bolstered the local economy. This led to new schools, stores, and other development. Although the end of construction caused a small slump, the county rebounded. Between 1920 and 1960 its population steadily increased from 15,626 to 85,196. This growth was due in part to the availability of electricity. Local businesses such as merchants and flour millers also benefited from this power source and contributed to local expansion.
By 1966 the Coon Rapids Dam was no longer cost effective. This was largely due to rising maintenance costs and the advantages of energy sources such as coal. Northern States Power Company shut down the facility and donated it to the Hennepin County Park Reserve in 1969. The dam ceased to function as a power source and the structure and surrounding area were turned into a public park in 1978. This transition proved to be detrimental. By 1995 the dam had fallen into severe disrepair. In 1997, the upper portion of the structure had to be completely replaced. Repairs continued to be made through the early 2000s.
After years of disuse, the Coon Rapids Dam became involved in Minnesota’s river policy again in 2010. Asian carp, an invasive fish species, had been moving up the Mississippi for several years. The carp were threatening to disrupt the headwaters’ ecosystems. In 2010 the legislature moved to address this issue. They appointed the Coon Rapids Dam Commission to study it. By the next year the Commission recommended that the Coon Rapids Dam be modified to serve as a barrier to the carp. In 2012 improvements to the dam began under the direction of Stanley Consultants. This project includes upgrades to the structure’s gates, hydraulic mechanism, and spillways. It is slated for completion by 2014.
Stanley Consultants, "Coon Rapids Dam Fish Barrier and Improvements Preliminary Design,” Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Feb. 17, 2011 (FINAL).
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, "Coon Rapids Dam Rehabilitation Project."
Anfinson, John O., National Park Service, “River of History: A Historic Resources Study of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area,” Ch. 5: "Transforming the River II: Commerce, Navigation Improvements and Hydroelectric Power, 1907–1963." http://www.nps.gov/miss/learn/historyculture/upload/River_Ch_5.pdf (St. Paul District, Corps of Engineers, 2003).
National Park Service, "East Coon Rapids Dam."
National Park Service, "West Coon Rapids Dam."
United States Census Bureau, "Minnesota Population of Counties by Decennial Census: 1900 to 1990."
In 1914 construction of a hydroelectric dam located at Coon Rapids in Anoka County is completed. This dam provides a much needed source of power for the region until its closure in 1966.
St. Anthony Falls hydroelectric dam begins operation
Early plans for a dam at Coon Rapids are developed by private businesses
Congress approves funding for a hydroelectric dam at Coon Rapids
Coon Rapids Dam construction begins
Coon Rapids Dam construction is complete
Coon Rapids Dam is shut down
Northern States Power Company donates the dam to Hennepin County Park Reserve
Coon Rapids Dam undergoes renovations
Modifications to turn the dam into an Asian carp barrier begin