Remembering an old river town
Discover Vintage America June 2011
Back in Vaudeville days, a common put-down was to accuse someone of being from Keokuk, IA. This inferred the fellow was a country rube and lacked the sophistication of high and mighty Easterners. I guess that would apply to me, because I was born in Keokuk, home of many of my ancestors.
The town got its start through a quirk in geography. A rapids on the Mississippi prevented riverboats from traveling upriver. The barrier made the area a natural port and a jumping-off place for overland pioneers.
In 1820, Dr. Samuel Muir, an army surgeon, resigned his commission rather than leave his Indian wife when the U.S. Army prohibited troops from marrying Native American women. He built a cabin at the base of a bluff, and became the area’s first settler.
More settlement followed, and in 1827 John Jacob Astor chose the site as an outpost for his American Fur Company. By the end of the decade, 20 families lived nearby. By 1832, the settlers named their village Keokuk, after the chief of the Sauk tribe. The town was incorporated in 1847.
My family first came to Keokuk in the 1850s, when my great-great-uncle Henry moved there from Philadelphia, where he had emigrated from Germany. In the 1870s, he invited his nephew Will to live with him. Will (my grandfather) began a grocery business, and in 1880 married a down-river girl, Mollie, whom he had courted by riverboat. Mollie died in 1897, and Will died three years later, leaving eight children orphans.
In a promotional book published by the fledgling Kansas City Chamber of Commerce in 1856, the town bragged it was "as large as Keokuk, Iowa." Keokuk boasted a population of 12,000, and would peak at 15,000 in the 1930s. Today it stands at 10,800.
In his autobiography, Samuel Clemens wrote that in 1853 his brother, Orion, moved to Keokuk because his wife "wanted to be near her relatives." Orion bought a small job printing shop in Keokuk "on credit, of course, and at once put prices down to where not even the apprentices could make a living out of it," he continued. "I worked in that little job office in Keokuk as much as two years – without ever collecting a cent of wages."
Sam supported Orion until 1861 when Orion was appointed secretary of the new Territory of Nevada. Then the brothers "cleared for that country on the overland stage-coach, I paying the fares." It was in Nevada that Sam began using his famous pen name, Mark Twain.
Orion eventually returned to Keokuk, where he spent his final years, passing away in 1897.
While the rapids above the town were both key to Keokuk’s founding, they were also a problem. In the early 1800s, merchants upriver paid more for river freight that had to be unloaded at Keokuk and hauled overland to other ports. Steamboat companies shared their frustration.
According to Jack Smith, writing in the Confluence, a quarterly newsletter of the Keokuk Cultural and Entertainment District, the first plan was to blast a channel through the limestone rapids. This was tried in the early 1850s, but abandoned because it was too slow. Then another plan was agreed to: a canal around the rapids between Keokuk and Montrose, IA.
Delayed by the Civil War, construction of the nine-mile "Government Canal" started in 1867 and was completed a decade later, at a cost of more than $4 million. The New York Times reported the "improvement is of incalculable importance to the navigation of the Mississippi River as it removes the only obstruction remaining between New Orleans and St. Paul." Two locks raised the water level 18.5 feet.
The canal was used 35 years. The end came in October 1912, with the completion of Keokuk Lock and Dam No. 19, which flooded the old canal and locks.
Building the dam meant that hundreds of workers poured into the area. My Aunt Ruth, then a high-school student living on the Illinois side in the small town of Hamilton, wrote to her siblings in 1911 that "all the boarding-houses are filled with workers." In February 1912, she wrote "the river is in a flood. Most of the workers are idle, and there is worry that the water will wash away the coffer dams." But the flood subsided, and work resumed, allowing Ruth and her friends to ruffle the feathers of pious locals by calling their village a "dam town."
Officially opened in 1913, the new lock and dam incorporated a hydroelectric power plant -- the largest single powerhouse electric generating plant in the world. Visitors to Keokuk can watch riverboats and barges passing through the lock.
The original lock was large enough to handle barges of the day, and would serve until 1957 when a larger one was built.
Keokuk was once a point of embarkation for Union troops, the site of Civil War hospitals and a national military cemetery. Today, the city hosts a Civil War Reenactment each spring.
Stately homes, some built before 1900, can be found on Keokuk’s river bluff and tree-lined streets. Antique shops and two museums attract collectors and history buffs.
For events and other info, visit www.keokukiowatourism.org.
Ken Weyand can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org