The Lake Winnibigoshish, Leech Lake, and Pokegama Falls Dams were built between 1881 and 1884. They were constructed as part of a plan to control flooding and water flow on the Mississippi River. The project was successful and began a new era of water regulation projects along the Mississippi Headwaters in Minnesota.
As the Twin Cities grew in the late 19th century, the irregular flow of the Mississippi River became an increasing problem. In 1869 there was a near collapse of St. Anthony Falls due to a combination of aggressive tunneling and rising water. After this near disaster, the U.S. Congress explored creation of reservoirs on the river's upper reaches. The reservoirs were intended to control water flow.
A preliminary survey was conducted by Franklin Cook in 1869 for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He recommended the construction of a dam at Pokegama Falls, roughly 170 miles to the north of Minneapolis. This site was targeted for two key reasons. First, the region is home to several lakes including Lake Winnibigoshish and Leech Lake. These two large bodies of water sit fifteen miles apart and often contributed to the Mississippi's seasonal swells. According to Cook's survey, the geography of the area allowed a single dam located at Pokegama Falls to control the flow of both major lakes. This dam would create a reservoir covering 523 square miles and capable of holding thirty nine billion cubic feet of water.
The second reason Franklin Cook selected Pokegama Falls for a dam site was economic. The area had plenty of timber and stone. These local raw materials could be used to build the dam. They could also be delivered cheaply via the Mississippi. Cook estimated in his 1870 report to the Corps that a dam could be built at Pokegama Falls for the cost of $52,000, a reasonable sum given the scope of the construction.
Over the next ten years the Corps of Engineers revised the dam plans. The goal of the construction expanded beyond flood control. The Corps now wanted to create a series of reservoirs throughout the Mississippi headwaters to guarantee a steady supply of water for river traffic. In order to gain control over the water flow, the Corps recommended the construction of two additional dams at Lake Winnibigoshish and Leech Lake. Captain Charles J. Allen completed a survey and a proposal was submitted to Congress.
Funding was approved on June 14th 1880. The construction phase of the project progressed quickly and soon three dams at Lake Winnibigoshish (1881–1884), Leech Lake (1882–1884), and Pokegama Falls (1882–1885) were completed. The three dams were capable of holding a collective twenty four billion cubic feet of water. They were made of local pine reinforced with earth and stone. The cost of this ambitious project quickly outpaced the original estimate, and by 1885 over $500,000 had been expended.
The dams' high cost was due in part to the size of the construction. The largest dam, located at Lake Winnibigoshish, needed over two million feet of pine timber and the work of 300 laborers. There were other complications. The proposed dam sites were on Ojibwe land, and the water in the reservoirs would flood it. The Corps planned to build future dams in the same area, so a comprehensive agreement was needed. The federal government offered $15,466.90, but the Ojibwe rejected it. Negotiations went on from 1881 to 1886. Faced with few alternatives, the Ojibwe finally agreed to relocate to western Minnesota's White Earth Reservation. As part of the agreement, they were promised the proceeds from the land sales and improvements to the Reservation.
Just fifteen years after the project's completion, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided to update the initial structures. Between 1899 and 1904, they replaced the wood components with reinforced concrete. The dams, along with later reservoir system structures, remained the principal Mississippi water control devices until the construction of the Nine Foot Channel Dam system in the 1930s. The structures remain in use to this day, for recreation and to help with flood control.
Carroll, Jane Lamm. "Dams and Damages: The Ojibway, The United States, and the Mississippi Headwaters Reservoirs." Minnesota History. 52, no. 1 (1990): 2–15.
———. The Library of Congress, "Lake Winnibigoshish Reservoir Dam: Photographs Written Historical and Descriptive Data."
———. The Library of Congress, "Lake Pokegama Reservoir Dam: Photographs Written Historical and Descriptive Data."
———. The Library of Congress, "Leech Lake Reservoir Dam: Photographs Written Historical and Descriptive Data."
Folwell, William. A History of Minnesota. Vol. 4. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1969: 209–219. First published in 1930.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, "Pokegama Lake and Dam."
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, "Leech lake." Last modified 11/1/10.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, "Winnibigoshish Lake and Dam." Last modified 9/6/11.
U.S. Congress. Two Houses of Congress. Secretary of War. Report of the Chief of Engineers U.S. Army: 1870. 41st Cong., 3rd sess., 1870. Volume 2, 285–289
U.S. Congress. House of Representatives. Secretary of War. Report of the Chief of Engineers U.S. Army: 1885. 49th Cong., 1st sess., 1885. Volume 2, 272–273
In 1869 there was a near collapse of St. Anthony Falls due to a combination of aggressive tunneling and rising water. After this near disaster, the U.S. Congress explored creation of reservoirs on the river's upper reaches.