At Play with the Water Bears

There are some animals that astound us by their oddity: the “duck-billed” platypus because it lays eggs, the sea horse because the male broods the young, the ant lion because it digs pits that entrap ants.   Tardigrades beat them all, different in so many respects scientists scarcely know where to fit them in on the evolutionary family tree.  They are like aliens, come from another galaxy far away.

Image courtesy of Schokraie E, Warnken U, Hotz-Wagenblatt A, Grohme MA, Hengherr S, et al. (2012) - Schokraie E, Warnken U, Hotz-Wagenblatt A, Grohme MA, Hengherr S, et al. (2012) Comparative proteome analysis of Milnesium tardigradum in early embryonic state versus adults in active and anhydrobiotic state. PLoS ONE 7(9): e45682. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0045682, CC BY 2.5,
Image courtesy of Schokraie E, Warnken U, Hotz-Wagenblatt A, Grohme MA, Hengherr S, et al. (2012) – Schokraie E, Warnken U, Hotz-Wagenblatt A, Grohme MA, Hengherr S, et al. (2012) Comparative proteome analysis of Milnesium tardigradum in early embryonic state versus adults in active and anhydrobiotic state. PLoS ONE 7(9): e45682. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0045682, CC BY 2.5,

Sometimes called water bears, they lumber about on eight clawed legs, looking ungainly and a bit loveable with their antics.  Possessing odd mouthparts with sharp stylets that pierce the plants upon which they feed, they suck out cell contents as if with a straw.  Did I mention that they love mosses and lichens—and that they require a microscope to be seen?

I have encountered them twice in my career.  First, long ago, I took a course in mosses.  Upon immersing those organisms in water to rehydrate them, tardigrades associated with them spring back to life, too: like instant coffee, you just add water to get the thing you want (in this case, a living being). 

The other time I saw them was at the beach when I would dig holes near the water’s edge and watch them fill up with water.  Upon examining that water under the microscope, I discovered enormous numbers of water bears.  My research tells me that, in addition to mosses, they eat algae and one-cell creatures, too.  If they can be found among the grains of sand at a beach, no doubt they can be found in many other unsuspected places all around us.

Image provided by Willow Gabriel, Goldstein Lab - Template:Uploader Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 2.5,
Image provided by Willow Gabriel, Goldstein Lab – Template:Uploader Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 2.5,

Besides being cute, tardigrades are known for their resilience.  They can be dehydrated and pop back to life after years in dormancy; they can be frozen to absolute zero, the temperature of outer space, and resume their normal lives without an iota of stress or worry; they can be boiled, scarcely feeling the heat.  In short, they appear to be super-animals.

If you wish to see water bears, do what I did: rinse a clump of moss with water, allow the washing water to settle and then use a medicine dropper to suck up some debris.  Surely, through your microscope  you will see the creatures lumbering about in search of food or a mate.  If you do not wish to take the trouble to corral your own animals, you may visit this web site to study them second-hand:

Radio Program Schedule, January 26, 1952

From the Traverse City Record-Eagle, January 26, 1952

430d3e3ad804d07897d83bcfae3b952_cropThe golden age of radio went from the 1920’s to the 1950’s, at which time television began to erode its popularity.  Scripted stories were read by famous actors, many with reputations from movies and the theater.  Quiz shows, operas, action drama, straight theater, popular music, and comedy could be found on the four main radio networks on Sunday afternoons and evenings.  Audiences looked forward to Jack Benny, Amos ‘n Andy, and Charlie McCarthy on CBS, as solid a line-up as any offered on television today.  Those of us who can remember those days feel a bit of nostalgia in seeing those names from the past.

When Earthen Dams Fail: Washouts Along Northern Michigan Rivers

By Stewart Allison McFerran

Ferris Glass at the Brown Bridge Dam, prior to demolition in  2012. Image provided by Mr. Glass.
Ferris Glass at the Brown Bridge Dam, prior to demolition in 2012. Image provided by Mr. Glass.

Ferris Glass was four years old in 1924 when his family moved into the house on the bank next to the Brown Bridge dam. The earthen dam had just been built to provide electric power for Traverse City, its backwaters forming Brown Bridge pond. His father was employed by the City of Traverse City to operate the dam, a job that was not without risk: Just ten years before, a dam operator in Mayfield had drowned when the earthen dam had washed out after a heavy rain.  Twenty-four years before that, the earthen dam above Johnstown Pennsylvania had been swept away, killing 2,209, a record number of deaths for a weather-related event in the United States at the time.

Image provided by the author, May 2016.
Image provided by the author, May 2016.

I recently talked with Mr. Glass at his home in East Bay Township. Judging from the piles of newspaper clippings on his kitchen table, he has been following developments on the Boardman River ever since the early days. The most recent flurry of activity, the washout associated with the removal of the Brown Bridge dam, has been of particular interest to Mr. Glass. The current removal of the earthen dam on Cass Road (known as the Boardman Dam) has not escaped his notice, either.

His memories of the early years tell us of the duties of a dam operator.  One of them was to watch the big dial on the wall of the powerhouse that indicated electrical output. Ferris helped his dad make sure the one hand on the dial pointed up, that signaling optimum current flow. After a heavy rain, the Brown Bridge Pond rose, allowing more water to enter the spillway, causing the generators to turn faster. With dry weather, the pond fell, slowing the generators. By opening or closing the water gates, the operator could rectify the electric power and keep all of Traverse City’s electric clocks on time.

For his childhood and beyond, the Brown Bridge dam was Ferris’s playground. He climbed all over the powerhouse and helped his dad when logs floated down and struck the dam. At the time the Brown Bridge dam was built, the powerhouse had two electric generators.  Later, when he was fifteen, Ferris watched as a new water wheel was installed. The new design increased the amount of power generated, but even with that increase, the Brown Bridge dam could not keep up with demand.


"Road bridge north of power plant", Mayfield Dam Washout, 24 March 1913. Image courtesy of Tom Olds. Olds' Historical Postcard Collection has been digitized and is available at
“Road bridge north of power plant”, Mayfield Dam Washout, 24 March 1913. Image courtesy of Tom Olds. Olds’ Historical Postcard Collection has been digitized and is available at

Early in 1866, George Neal and Lucas Knight built a dam across the Mayfield Creek, its waterpower first used for sawing wood and grinding grain for flour.  In keeping with the times, J.D.Gibbs converted it to a hydroelectric plant at a later date, but its future was short and catastrophic as it washed out in 1913, killing dam operator John Hawthorne.

On August 24, 1898 the Boardman River Electric Light & Power Co. dam (now called the Boardman dam at Cass Road) gave way, the subsequent flood sweeping downstream, carrying everything before it. The same rain event triggered enormous damage to private property in Traverse City along the flat through which Mill creek (now called Kids Creek) in the vicinity of North Cedar Street. According to the Morning Record, the residence of Fred Schrader was completely flooded, his family forced to escape through a second story in a boat.

Boardman Lake near Boardman Dam, after the Image provided by the author.
Boardman River near Boardman Dam, after drawdown activities, May 2016. Image provided by the author.

Since the Keystone dam was downstream of the Brown Bridge dam, water levels in the Keystone pond would get low, and the operator of the Keystone Dam would call Ferris’s father to release water from the Brown Bridge pond to fill the Keystone impoundment.  It took seven hours for the surge to travel from Brown Bridge Dam through the river to reach Keystone pond. As the Keystone pond rose, the operator could resume producing electric power at normal levels.   

The dependence of one dam upon another explains sequential washouts under heavy rains. First, Mayfield creek washed out in a 1961 rainstorm, that washout on the east end of the earthen dam at Mayfield adding to flood waters of the Boardman River and triggering the Keystone dam failure.  The community fearing another washout, Elmer’s construction company was contracted to stabilize the earthen dam in Mayfield Park in 1987.

There are 80 earthen dams in the Muskegon River watershed, two of them creating Houghton and Higgins Lakes. In September of 1986 fourteen inches of rain fell within a forty-eight hour period, the deluge swelling the Muskegon River to eleven times its average flow. Operators of the earthen Hardy dam sounded the alarm on September 11th as water washed over the top of the earthen dam and sand squirted out the seams on the concrete spillway. Operator Charles Smith worried that the emergency spillway at the Hardy dam would fail. If it did, a wall of water would rush down the river and destroy Croton dam downstream on the Muskegon.  If that had happened, river communities in Newaygo County would have been wiped out and the level of Muskegon Lake would have risen by twenty-two feet (Alexander, The Muskegon). As with the Mayfield and Keystone dams, one failure leads to the next.


Earthen dyke for river at Boardman Dam, above where the new bridge is being constructed, May 2016. Image provided by the author.

The flood that wiped out Johnstown and killed 2,209 people taught dam builders important lessons.  One of them was the importance of a core wall, a sturdy concrete or rock center to the structure. Proving that Brown Bridge followed modern dam construction specifications, Ferris Glass can show pictures of the core wall that stabilized the Brown Bridge dam as it was being built in 1921.

There was no loss of life when Brown Bridge dam was removed in 2012—or, for that matter, during the entire 92 years it held back the waters of the Boardman River. The normal headwater elevation of the Brown Bridge Reservoir was 796.7 feet, about two hundred feet above the Grand Traverse Bay. By contrast, the dam above Johnstown PA was almost five hundred feet above the town. Watchful dam operators like Ferris Glass’s father explain why washouts of earthen dams on the Boardman above Traverse City did not cause more destruction, though the gentler topography of Northern Michigan may have had more to do with it.

As we were talking, Glass repeated several times that the Army Corps of Engineers is afraid of earthen dams, that fear perhaps deriving from the disaster at Johnstown and elsewhere. That is another lesson of Johnstown: Dams are a danger if poorly maintained. That is why the Corps required dams all across the state to be inspected on a regular basis. Based on those inspections, action must be taken to improve deficiencies discovered in the dam–or else it must be removed.

Deconstruction activities at Boardman Dam, May 2016. Image provided by the author.
Construction of new bridge at Boardman Dam, directly below the dyke. We believe the channel pictured left is where the river used to flow (the historic channel, before the pond was impounded), May 2016. Image provided by the author.

When Ferris Glass was asked how he felt about the removal of the Brown Bridge Dam he said: “I hated to see it go, but I can understand why [they did it].  It came down to a decision based on money–the cost of repairing the dam could not be offset by the power generated. Back in the 1920s and 30s the power from the Brown Bridge Dam did not meet the demand. Since then the demand for electric power has grown so that the power from the dam on the Boardman River would be just “a drop in the bucket,” “not enough to run the mall.”  However, like many residents, Ferris Glass hated to see the Brown Bridge dam go: he saw it as a successful community project that not only produced electric power but also added a beautiful lake for people to enjoy.

Stewart. A. McFerran teaches a class on the Natural History of Michigan Rivers at NMC and is a frequent contributor to the Grand Traverse Journal.


Alexander, Jeff. The Muskegon. Michigan State University Press.

Brown Bridge Dam – Temporary Dewatering Structure, Root Cause Analysis of the October 6, 2012, Failure Incident. Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

McCullough, David. The Johnstown Flood. Simon and Schuster.

The Morning Record, August 24, 1898

Williams, A.V, editor. Currents of the Boardman. Grand Traverse Historical Society.

Ferris Glass at the Brown Bridge Dam, prior to demolition in  2012. Image provided by Mr. Glass.
Ferris Glass at the Brown Bridge Dam, prior to demolition in 2012. Image provided by Mr. Glass.

What, When, Where? The Traverse City Sewage Treatment Plant

We have a few questions of increasing difficulty concerning this month’s mystery photo, all about the Traverse City Sewage Treatment Plant!

Where is this facility located?

In what decade was it built–20’s, 30’s, or 40’s?

What was done with city sewage before it was built?

City residents rejected bonds to pay for the plant twice before the state ordered it to be completed.  What were the reasons for those rejections?

From Sea to Cemetery: History is Happening in Leelanau County, Picnic in Grand Traverse

This month’s “News from the Societies” features our wonderful neighbor to the north, Leelanau County! Whether you’re looking for a fun exhibit for all ages, or you’re looking to do some hands-on history conservation, June in the “LC” is where it’s at! Special thanks to Stef Staley, Director of Grand Traverse Lighthouse, and Kim Kelderhouse of Port Oneida Community Alliance, for keeping us informed through their newsletters and Facebook pages. You, dear reader, can also stay informed directly at their respective online presences, linked below for your pleasure.

Also, join the newly re-named Traverse Area Historical Society at their first summer picnic! See below for details.

Grand Traverse Lighthouse

Image courtesy of Grand Traverse Lighthouse.

The Lake Michigan Aircraft Carrier Exhibit has been wildly popular for the Grand Traverse Lighthouse, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you are seriously overdue! But, lucky you, the Lighthouse plans to continue the exhibit for the 2016 season (“with key additions,” teases their website). The exhibit features the history of the USS Sable (IX-81) and USS Wolverine (IX-64). Both were converted to freshwater training aircraft carriers, used on the Great Lakes between 1943 and 1945. 20,000 pilots and landing signal officers were qualified on those vessels. There are awesome stories, sweet replicas, and whole myriad of photographs and histories to look at. Don’t wait, get on up there in June!

Port Oneida Community Alliance

For hands-on fun, look to the Gravestone Preservation Workshop, hosted by the Port Oneida Community Alliance, in partnership with Cleveland Township, Leelanau County. A number of local cemeteries could use a little help in preserving their headstones, so consider getting trained at this event, and Your Editors will be glad to point you where your expertise is needed!

Cemetery Flyer

Traverse Area Historical Society

Blackman School Picnic, 1903.
Blackman School Picnic, 1903. Image courtesy of the Floyd Webster Historical Photograph Collection, Kingsley Branch Library, Kingsley (Mich.)

Join the Traverse Area Historical Society at our first social picnic of the year, at the  Civic Center Pavilion on Sunday, June 26, 2016, from 12-4p.  The Society is hosting this favorite event of years past, to bring their members together and reminisce about the simpler times. Your presence will make the picnic a success! Please bring your stories and a dish to pass! Place settings and beverages provided.

In Memoriam: Arthur Hulkonen, 1923-2016

by Karen Hilliard, daughter of Arthur Hulkonen

Mr. Hulkonen was instrumental in assisting regular contributor Stewart A. McFerran with his history on The Saunas of Kaleva. We are indebted to him for sharing his family’s stories.

Arthur Hulkonen seved in the United States Army during World War II. Image provided by Karen Hilliard.
Arthur Hulkonen served in the United States Army during World War II. Image provided by Karen Hilliard.

Arthur Hulkonen, 93, of Kaleva died on April 25, 2016.  He was born in the Upper Penninsula in Nisula, Michigan on April 13, 1923.  He was 1 of 12 children born to Henry and Hilda (Juntunen) Hullkonen who immigrated to the United States from Suomussalmi, Finland in the early 1900s.

Art served in the U.S. Army during WWII and was captured during the Battle of the Bulge on 12/19/1944.  He spent 5 months as a POW in a labor camp near Dresden, Germany.

After discharge from the army, Art arrived in Kaleva on June 29, 1945 where his older brother was living.  He met his wife (Mildred) and was married for 65 years before her death in 2012.

Arthur (right) and Alan Hulkonen, of Kaleva, Michigan.
Arthur (right) and Alan Hulkonen, of Kaleva, Michigan. Image courtesy of Stewart A. McFerran, 2016.

Art was a local farmer and businessman.  Along with his brother Gunnard they started Kaleva Poultry Farm and Hatchery in 1945 and operated this until 1978.  The two brothers grew strawberries from 1945 to 1978 and also, in 1945 they started planting Christmas trees and went on to sell these for 50 years across the country.  Art went on to work for International Chemical Company and later Agrico Chemical Company.  At that time Kaleva was a central hub for farmers and he operated the local fertilizer plant in Kaleva for 30 years until his retirement in 1985.

Arthur Hulkonen. Image courtesy of Karen Hilliard.
Arthur Hulkonen at the Sculpture Tree at the Kaleva Centennial Walkway in Kaleva, MI, September 2015. Image courtesy of Karen Hilliard.

He was an active member of Bethany Lutheran Church in Kaleva since 1945. He was a charter member of the Kaleva Lions Club.  He was proud of his Finnish heritage and served on the Finnish Council at Finlandia University in Hancock, Michigan for many years.  At the time of his death he was the last Finnish speaking member in the community of Kaleva.

He loved Kaleva and spent 70 years actively involved in his community.  In September 2015 the Village of Kaleva and Kaleva Historical Society honored him for his community service and business contributions to Kaleva by placing his name on the Sculpture Tree at the Kaleva Centennial Walkway.

The Bear Club of Kaleva. Image courtesy of the author.
The Bear Club of Kaleva. Image courtesy of  Stewart A. McFerran, 2016.

Art was the eternal optimist.  He loved jokes and reciting poetry.  He had a great appreciation for life and plenty of “Sisu” the Finnish word for perseverance and determination. Being surrounded by his family was his greatest joy.   He is survived by his three children, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.