the Bonaparte Dam
BY TACITUS HUSSEY.
Hussey, Tacitus. "The Story of the Bonaparte Dam." The Annals of Iowa 7
Available at: http://ir.uiowa.edu/annals-of-iowa/vol7/iss8/5
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A gentleman of prominence in the State who has been active in the
preservation of her institutions and history, gave utterance to a thought not
long ago which makes a very good foundation upon which to enlarge upon the
theory of equal rights for the humblest as well as the proudest in our good
commonwealth. The thought was something like this: 'Human food can in no way be
so cheaply produced as by fish culture. Our lakes and streams should therefore
be deemed, held and defended for this especial purpose, for the sole benefit of
the people. Obstructions or hindrances of any sort should be strictly prohibited
by law; and the law should be rigidly enforced.
With the countless millions of
tons of fish taken from the great oceans, lakes and streams of the world, there
is no perceptible diminution of the supply, for the reason that there is no
check put on their propagation, nor are there any obstructions to their going
and coming to their feeding and breeding grounds. They are beyond the power of
man to exterminate, as have been exterminated the buffalo on the plains, the
wild beasts of the forests and the game birds of our prairies. Fish in one form
or another furnishes a goodly portion of the food for the people of the world;
so the thought expressed by the liberal-minded gentleman at the beginning of
this paper has a wider and deeper meaning than appears on the surface.
any untoward event deprive the inhabitants of the World of this universal food
for a time, it would be a greater calamity than the destruction of any other
single article of food, for the same length of time. Portions of the earth, for
one cause or another, may refuse to reward the toil of the husbandman; but Old
Ocean, the lakes and rivers, never!
On a bright morning in the year 1888, the
writer, feeling that he had a mission to perform, and wishing to make a right
start, dropped into the law office of Judge George G.
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Wright, one of the best-hearted and most genial men that ever lived, and asked
him if there was any possible mode of procedure that would secure a fishway in
the Bonaparte dam across the Des Moines river in Van Buren county; telling him
that it had been determined by the fishermen and sportsmen of Iowa, especially
in the northern and western portions, to see what could be done in that
direction, as the Des Moines river and its tributaries were becoming depleted of
fish and all efforts to stock the rivers in an artificial way were unsuccessful.
The Judge heard the plea very patiently and drawing in his mouth in a way which
always preceded some humorous remark, said:
"Well, you have a big job on your hands!"
"Are you well acquainted with the Meek Brothers, then?" asked the writer.
"Yes", replied the Judge, his eyes twinkling with good humor, "I knew the
grandfather, William Meek, his son, Isaiah, and am very well acquainted with the
Meek Brothers of today. William Meek, the grandfather, was a very firm man,
Isaiah Meek was much firmer, bordering on obstinacy; and his sons, no doubt,
have a similar rich inheritance."
The richness and quality of this inheritance the fishermen of the State of Iowa
learned in later years.
The first "Bonaparte Dam" was a primitive one built of brush, by William Meek,
Sr., in 1840, for grist mill purposes. It was authorized by an act of the
legislature approved January 17, 1839. The first section reads as follows:
Be it enacted by the Council and the House of Representatives of the
Territory of Iowa, That William Meek and Sons be, and they are hereby
authorized, to construct a dam across the Des Moines river, in Van Buren County,
in said Territory, between sections 8 and 17, in township 68, north, range 8,
west of the 5th principal meridian; which said dam shall not exceed three feet
in height, above common low water mark, and shall contain a convenient lock, not
less than one hundred and thirty feet in length, and thirty-five in width, for
the passage of
steam, keel, and flat boats, rafts, and other water craft, provided said water
craft will bear two tons burden.
Then follows the stipulations for keeping the lock at all times in good order,
so that water craft may pass through without delay and free of charge. A penalty
also was at-
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tached for any injury to lock or dam. The Territory reserved to itself the
privilege of altering or amending the act with a view to the future navigation
of the river; the right of construction and maintaining said lock and dam was to
remain in force fifty years.
The Meek family at that time consisted of William Meek, Sr., William Meek, Jr.,
Isaiah, Robert and Joseph, sons of the first named. The grist mill they
established was not unlike the primitive mills for grinding corn. Occasionally,
in those territorial days, one could be found inland, run by horse power, where
men assembled each with a bag of corn and awaited their turns for grinding. The
meal thus ground was of very coarse quality, but when mixed with water and salt,
patted up by the hands of a skillful wife and baked in a skillet, especially if
eggs and bacon were added to the bill of fare, made the hearts of the hungry
pioneers glad. The Meeks had been millers in Michigan before coming to Iowa, so
the business was well known to them, and their mill became a popular resort for
the meager grists of the pioneers far and wide. The rights of a ferry had been
secured by them and later a large tract of land also, which gave them control of
the river front for a mile or so above the present location.
As years rolled on, by dint of hard work and economical living, a more
pretentious grist mill was erected. Later still the firm introduced some much
needed carding machines, which were hailed with delight by the pioneer women who
had been compelled to card their wool by the slow hand-carding process. Cloth
was scare in those days, and money scarcer, so the raising of sheep for food and
clothing was a necessity. Men took the wool to the mill by the wagon-load after
it had been prepared for carding and waited their turns for the work to be done.
The waiting, however, was not always an irksome task. Here was a river well
supplied with fish which made an excellent addition to the corn bread, bacon and
eggs, to say nothing of the fun of fishing, cooking and eating in the open air,
in jolly company, which partook somewhat of the nature of a picnic. In order to
serve all as soon as possible, the mill wheels ceased not, day or night. The
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keepers of the little hamlet which had sprung up about the mill profited by
these prolonged visits, and quite a sum of the scanty supplies of cash was left
by the waiting farmers who had come from ten to one hundred miles away to have
grists ground and wool carded.
Later still, the manufacture of cloth was introduced by this enterprising firm,
the quality of which is not surpassed by that of any similar factory in Iowa.
The mill is the pride of the village of Bonaparte, affording, as it does, work
for many hands in the various departments. The large reservoir of water held
back by this immense dam when at its best is as pretty a lake as there is on the
Des Moines river with the exception, perhaps, of that near Ottumwa. Below the
dam in the spring of the year, when the fish were vainly striving to reach
headwaters to spawn, it was at one time a famous fishing place. There are men
still living who have experienced the exhilarating sensations which accompany
the pitching out of a wagon-load of struggling, helpless fish, in twenty-five
minutes with a manure fork!
Previous to the year 1850, the Des Moines River Improvement Company had entered
into a contract to improve the Des Moines river in consideration of a vast
quantity of land ceded to it by the government. The proposition was to make the
river navigable by the slack water system, for which locks and dams were
required at various points on the river. Already some work had been done at
Farmington, Croton, Bonaparte, Bentonsport, Keosauqua, and perhaps at other
points. The work was partly finished at some of these points but the great flood
of 1851 so badly damaged the poorly constructed work that the company did not
carry out the contract, and the improvements were disposed of at sheriff's sale,
after the manner of a bankrupt stock. The dam, locks and gates at Bonaparte had
cost $80,000. When offered for sale, the entire lot was knocked off to Isaiah
Meek for $200. There was one other bidder, George Manning, by name; but for some
reason his bid was not considered and the deed was made out in the name of Mr.
Meek. The following paragraph quoted from the Ottumwa Courier gives some
information not generally known to the public:
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A fact which is not generally known except to those who are acquainted with the
dam itself, is that behind, or up-stream from the dam now in question, which is
the newest and latest one built, there are two other and older dams, which,
strange to say, are said to be in fairly good repair. This is to be explained by
the fact that although they have stood longer they have been enlarged by the
addition of floating drift and mud and have been protected, too, by the newer
structure. The farthest one up stream is the old, original 'brush dam' built by
the Meeks over fifty years ago. About a yard from that is the second dam which
was built by the Meeks, under the direction of the government and which was
fitted with gates and locks to allow the passage of boats. These locks are now
closed and forgotten, and the newest dam of the three stands in front of the
second. At the present time only the latest dam is visible, as the others are
somewhat lower than it and are now covered with water. Just how they have stood
the force of the water cannot be learned until the water recedes more; but the
Meeks maintain that they are in good condition; so do other residents of
Bonaparte, who claim to have investigated.
It will be observed that Isaiah Meek bid in the $80,000 dam which he had helped
to build, for the pitiful sum of $200. This fact shows the thriftiness
characteristic of the Meek family. In the contract with the State Commissioners
who sold it by State authority, there was a covenant on the part of the Meeks "to forever preserve and maintain the dam, locks," etc., which was probably one
of the considerations of the purchase. For the supposed purpose of abrogating
this covenant, the following joint resolution, doubtless urged in the interests
of the Meeks, was introduced in the House by Representative Charles Dudley of
Wapello county during the session of 1866:
Whereas, by the facilities afforded by the Des Moines Valley Railroad for
travel and transportation, the Des Moines River is no longer used for purposes
Resolved, Therefore, By the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring),
That our Senators and Representatives in Congress be requested to use their
influence to have the said Des Moines River declared not a navigable stream, to
the end that the same may be more cheaply improved as a motive power for
The resolution was passed, and the river which had played such a noble part in
building up the Des Moines valley and central Iowa was thus pronounced a back
number by those who were intoxicated by the new found interest of a line of
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railroad which had reached the capital of Iowa only six months before. This
resolution was a libel on the Des Moines river and she resented it by "getting
her back up" sufficiently high to have floated a Mississippi steamboat from the
mouth of the river to the Raccoon Forks, in the years 1867, 1869, 1875, 1876,
1882, 1892, 1902 and 1903. In the same year (1866), in the effervescent
excitement over the new found mode of transportation, a bill was passed
disposing of the locks and draw bridges on the river, and it was understood that
Representative Joel Brown, of Van Buren county, was the introducer and champion.
Yet notwithstanding all this, some of our leading lawyers were of the opinion
that it did not release the Meeks from the obligation to "forever maintain the
locks," etc., in the Des Moines river at Bonaparte.
Overtures were made to the
Meek Brothers in 1894 by the fishermen and sportsmen for permission to put in a fishway, to be paid for by popular subscription. There were promises from men of
prominence in various parts of the State to put up the necessary funds if a
fishway were allowed; but the Meek Brothers refused the request on account of
the weakening of the dam, which they alleged would be the effect. The
legislature which met in 1896 was asked by many petitioners to buy the dam for
the sum for which it was offered by the owners, $25,000, and which was thought
to be very reasonable. This was urged by Representative G. W. Crow of Wapello
county; but the effort was a failure from lack of votes, or lack of
interest -- probably both.
During the term intervening between this and the next session, the fishermen and
the Sportsmen's Club were very active in circulating petitions, praying the
legislature of 1898 to buy the dam and destroy it. This petition was numerously
signed throughout the State, and when it was presented it took two men to carry
it to the speaker's desk. It weighed fifty-four pounds, and had the sheets been
attached end to end, after the manner of most petitions, it would have reached
to a much greater distance than a "sabbath day's journey."
It was never opened nor were the names counted, probably; it may have been
destroyed with similar labors of love, when the Capitol was partially destroyed
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fire, January 4, 1904. There were two or three hearings before the Fish and Game Committee, at which times great pressure was brought to bear as to the feasibility of purchasing the dam; but all efforts were unavailing. Seeing the bitter disappointment of the fishermen, Senator L. C. Blanchard of Mahaska county came to their relief and drew up a bill authorizing the State of Iowa to pay the expense of a fishway in the dam and appropriating the sum of two thousand dollars for the payment of the same. This bill passed the Senate without a dissenting voice; but when it got into the House the chairman of the Fish and Game Committee lost, or pigeon-holed it, until near the close of the session. Representatives Eaton and Merriam, who had pledged themselves to its passage, hunted it up, however, and were going to call it up on the floor of the House on next to the last night of the session; but being delayed a few minutes on that evening in reaching the House, one who was probably in the employ of the Meeks, seeing his opportunity for killing the bill, had it called up by the representative of Van Buren county, and it was '\"indefinitely postponed."
During the next two years, or between legislatures, a suit was brought by the State of Iowa, assisted by W. L. Read, who represented the interests of the sportsmen and fishermen, for the purpose of compelling the Meek Brothers to put a fishway in their dam; but the suit was lost on the grounds that the Meeks claimed, among other things, an
"adjudication," in that some years before Fish Commissioner Griggs had brought suit against them for maintaining a nuisance, in that they had no fishway in their dam. The justice of the peace decided in favor of the defendants, and as the Fish Commissioner did not appeal the case as he should have done, but allowed it to so remain until too late, the case was considered as adjudicated and was so held by the court. An appeal was taken to the Supreme Court and the decision of the lower court was affirmed, notwithstanding some of the leading lawyers of the State declared that the
"decision was badly strained." Yet law is law, and if the Supreme Judges were convinced that there had been an
"adjudication," nothing more was to be said; and the fishermen, while bitterly disappointed, bided their time.
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When the legislature assembled in 1902, a new and somewhat novel departure was
taken. Early in the session at the request of a representative of the fishermen,
Senator Blanchard of Mahaska, in the kindness of his heart, introduced a bill
condemning such portion of the Bonaparte dam as was necessary for a fishway, the
expense of which was to be borne by the State of Iowa, the work to be done under
the supervision of the Fish and Game Warden and approved by the Governor. After
the bill had been submitted to the Attorney
General for his approval, it was introduced in the Senate. At one of the morning
sessions, when petitions were in order
the ''Senator from Mahaska," without the semblance of a smile, arose and said:
"Mr. Speaker: I have here a petition from some of my constituents living below
the Bonaparte dam which I would like to introduce and have read," and he very
gravely handed the following to a waiting page, who took it to the reading
clerk's desk, where it was read while the 'grave and reverend seigniors' smiled
Said the Pickerel to the Catfish:
"I heard rare news today;
That the dam down
here at Bonaparte
Will have a good fish-way!
I can't be pious here below:
staying where I am
I bump against that structure
And invariably say 'Dam!".
Then the game fish fell to shouting
At the good news they had heard
The Catfish opened wide his mouth,
But never gasped a word!
Said the Quillback to the Sucker:
"I hate to be confined
To this one spot forever --
I'm afraid I'll lose my mind;
This dam roaring makes my head ache''--
''Say, look here," said the Bass:
''Ask the Fish and Game Committees
To give us all a pass!"
Then the Quillback took the bandage
From off his aching head
"You're a scaly lot of fellows!"
The big-mouthed Catfish said.
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Said the Salmon to the Goggle Eye:
"When this fish-way is in place,
I'll strike out for headwaters
At a good two-forty pace
The dam roaring and head-thumping
Will me'er again be mine --
And perhaps our friends, the fishermen,
Will be dropping us a line!"
Then the game fish burst out laughing,
Nodding each expectant head
"Meeks will roar much louder than the dam!"
The grinning Catfish said.
Said the Mullet to the Catfish:
"I've just heard something new;
That the Fish Clubs and Game Warden
Have been making 'game' of you;
That the 'Sucker Tribe' you've shaken
And you're classed with Pike and Bass!"
Then said the smiling Catfish:
"Yes, I'm swimming in that class!"
Then the Eel began to grumble
About this new-found preference
"'Well, a big mouth,' said the Mullet,
"Often stands in stead of sense!"
When the fish-way had been finished,
And the Meeks had shed their tears,
There was the biggest ''Fish Convention''
That had been held for years;
With their loins now firmly girded,
And in each fin a staff,
They prepared to give "Old Bonaparte"
The "Grand Razzle-Dazzle" laugh!
As they climbed the road to freedom
Everybody had to smile;
For the glad flip-flapping of their tails
Could be heard for half a mile!
The bill passed the Senate without a dissenting vote on March 8th. When it reached the House the
"Petition" happened to strike the "funny bone" of Representative Marlin J. Sweeley of Woodbury county, who had a genius for humorous rhyming, and who wrote a reply to it, which, in turn, was responded to by the author of the "Petition," and before the fun terminated there had been written six
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as they were called. The
house passed the bill unanimously, on the 22d of March, upon which the Des Moines correspondent of The
Chicago Tribune announced, that for the first time in the history of lowa legislation an act had been passed because of arguments in doggerel! The bill was duly signed by the Governor and became a law in the regular way.
When the sheriff of Van Buren county called the jury together for condemnatory proceedings, he must have selected those of great wisdom and especially well qualified in the valuing of water power property, as they brought in a verdict of $10,000 for the space to be occupied by the proposed fish way. No doubt the Meek Brothers were justified in asking this
price if they believed the proposed fishway would ruin their dam. They are honest men and the property was their own; yet there is some inconsistency in their offering the entire structure a few years before for $25,000 and later asking $40,000 for a few feet of it
In the mean time the never-tiring elements were at work. The summer flood of 1902 evidently injured the dam to some extent. Then the heavy ice of the spring of 1903 gave it a severe battering; this was followed closely by the almost unprecedented flood of the same year, which finished what the heavy ice gorge had begun earlier in the season, riddling the fine structure with numerous holes and finally sweeping out the main part of it, leaving the two ends only in their natural positions.
Surely, '"the Lord tempers the wind to the shorn lamb." Had the fishway been forced into place before the last two floods, the loss of the dam would have been attributed to that, by interested parties; and there would probably have been a suit for damages, and ''good money thrown away on both sides, besides any amount of bitter feeling engendered.
Thus it will be seen that the elements and the "gnawing tooth of Time" have done more in two years than the combined forces of legislatures, courts and sportsmen, in the last sixteen years. There has been no undue hot blood in this long fight. It has cost considerable time and money for both parties. On the part of the fishermen there have been no threats of violence,
had there been, they would have been
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quickly suppressed. The fishermen have fought the battle for the good of the people, patiently and hopefully. On the other hand, there has been a dogged determination to fight the legal battle to the bitter end, no matter what the cost. What the end of it all will be, no man has the
wisdom to forecast. But of this we feel confident, that if the dam is rebuilt by the Meek Brothers, or any one else, there will go in it a fishway approved by the Governor, and the Fish and Game Warden of the State of Iowa.
If such a contest was worth entering into, it is believed to be worth
recording and that is why the writer, at the request of a friend, dips his pen
in ink once more, and it is hoped for the last time, on this subject. He is in
no wise ashamed of the prolonged part he has taken in this contest. If good has
come of his efforts, well. If not, let the axiom of more than two thousand years
ago be remembered: It. is expedient that one man should die for the people.
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