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.

EARTHEN DAMS OF THE BOARDMAN AND MUSKEGON: DANGEROUS VENTURES

"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 localhistory.tadl.org
“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 localhistory.tadl.org

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.

LESSONS LEARNED ABOUT DAM CONSTRUCTION

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.

References:

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.

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6 thoughts on “When Earthen Dams Fail: Washouts Along Northern Michigan Rivers”

  1. Hi Andy – Nice article! I was always under the impression that in September of 1961 that the Mayfield Dam washed out leading to the washout of Keystone Dam. But according to a September 14, 1961 Record Eagle article Keystone Dam failed somewhere between 4:00 am – 7:00 am. Mayfield Dam failed at 11:00 am, several hours after Keystone Dam failed. I can send you the article.

    You also mention that 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.” That’s the first I heard that Boardman Dam had previously failed. Can you send me the article or information on where you found that information? It is my understanding that Boardman Dam was constructed in 1894 so that would mean that it was only 4-years old when it washed out…interesting!!

    Lastly, I would love to see you do an article on the “new”/relic river where Brown Bridge pond once occupied. As a former caretaker that lived on Brown Bridge pond, I loved the pond, but having the river flowing where it did for thousands of years prior to being dam, is pretty cool as well. Thanks again for an entertaining article.

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting, Steve! We will be sure to get your requests to Stewart. Considering your history with our watershed, it might be time for you to submit an article to the Grand Traverse Journal, right? *nudge nudge*

    2. Steve- This is from my original draft: August 24, 1898 “the Boardman River Electric Light & Power Co. the dam of the Weidenhammer pond gave way and a flood swept down the stream, carrying everything in its track before it. The greatest damage to private property was along the flat through which Mill creek runs, in the vicinity of North Cedar Street. The residence of Fred Schrader was completely flooded and the family were forced to escape through a second story in a boat. “ Kids Creek was once Mill Creek indicating that there had been a Mill with a dam and a pond. I am curious to know just where that was. The Morning Record, August 24, 1898

  2. Well, sketcy facts and a double standard. No lives lost in the supposed 1898 flood but newsworthy, oh my. Flash flood forward. No lives lost in man made flood of 2012 but not so much newsworthy.
    Unclear to me is were the Brown Bridge Dam, the Boardman Dam, and Sabin Dam earthen dams or not.
    No mention of Bill Love.
    Dams could produce a drop in the bucket of power? Like the Windmill, Solar Panels etc. Again, very slanted.
    I would like to see some proof of how much money the hydroelectric dams made over their recent 20 year life. TCLP can not produce any records as they were in a garage and the roof leaked and they were destroyed. Better than “I can not remember” but still lame.
    So 2 dams breach and flood and the other dams downstream remain strong and solid. Testament to their strength.
    No correction on cost to to remove Boardman Dam from earlier article.

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