On January 18, 1836, Representative William L. May of Illinois presented this petition to the House. It details the concerns of Hancock County, Illinois, residents related to the navigability of the Mississippi River at the point of the Des Moines Rapids and asks Congress for funds to solve the problem. It describes the dangers vessels faced in maneuvering through the shallow, rocky waters and proposes removal of rocks and construction of a series of dams as a possible solution.
In 1837, Congress commissioned the Army Corps of Engineers to study the area and draft a plan for improving navigation. Lieutenants Robert E. Lee and Montgomery C. Meigs, both of whom would go on to illustrious military careers, initially helmed the project. From 1838 to 1839, the Corps focused on “underwater blasting to create a 200-foot-wide and five-foot-deep channel through [the rapids]”. The work was difficult and time consuming. Progress on the channel stopped in 1856 and didn’t resume until after the Civil War. The work continued in fits and starts, culminating with the opening of a canal, complete with locks to manage ship traffic, in 1877.