Navigation on this stretch of the river in its natural state upstream from St. Paul to Minneapolis was hazardous. During high flows, the current was swift, and during low flows, huge boulders made navigation almost impossible. It wasn't until after development of the locks and dams here that transport of flour and grain from Minneapolis to the Gulf of Mexico, and coal and bulk products from downriver to Minneapolis, became possible.
Development began when a group of Minneapolis businessmen led by a territorial judge formed the Mississippi River Improvement and Manufacturing Company for the purpose of obtaining permission to construct a lock and dam below St. Anthony Falls, on Meeker Island. Legislation was passed for this purpose in 1857.
The project was surrounded by controversy for the next 30 years with opinions being divided over its future implications. When it appeared that the company was unable to settle internal strife, the project was turned over to the Corps of Engineers. Meeker Island Dam, the final official Lock & Dam No. 2, a couple of miles upstream from here, became operational in May, 1907.
By this time, authorization had already been received from Congress (in 1899) to construct Lock and Dam No. 1 which was to eventually submerge the recently completed Lock and Dam No. 2 at Meeker Island.
Through the vigorous efforts of Major Schunk, the District Engineer, and local supporters, approval was received from Congress to alter the structure and plans for Lock and Dam No. 1 to enable production of hydro-electric generation. The height of the lock was increased to 30 feet in 1910 to allow for this.
On July 3, 1917, Lock and Dam No. 1, with hydro-electric capability of 15,200 horsepower, was opened for navigation. Six years after completion, a lease was negotiated with the Ford Motor Corporation for utilization of the dam's power capabilities.
Between 1917 and 1925, the upper pool was used primarily by pleasure craft; the main reason being the lack of adequate terminals and turning basins.
All barge traffic was halted in August 1929 when the lower lock gate failed. To ensure against future interruptions and in anticipation of a 9-foot channel between Minneapolis and St. Louis, the decision was made to build twin lock chambers. The first lock — the riverward lock — was completed in 1930 and the second — the landward lock — was placed into operation in 1932.
Lock and Dam No. 1 continued to serve the needs of people using the river for navigation along with supplying the capability for hydro-electric power. As the years passed the need arose for major rehabilitation work to be done on the lock structure. Monies were appropriated and work began in 1976. Rehabilitation was completed in the summer of 1983.