Tag Archives: Dams

Jack Robbins and the Tortured Landscape of the Boardman River Valley

Partial image of Jack Robbin’s copy of a 1915-1916 map of the Boardman River property owned by the Boardman River Electric Light & Power Company.

by S.A. McFerran, B.A. Environmental Studies, Antioch University

The new theology has borrowed, without credit, one of the fundamental planks in the old religion: despite his disclaimers, man stands at the center of the universe. It was made for him to use, and the best and wisest men are those who use it most lavishly. They destroy pine forests, dig copper from beneath the cold northern lakes, and run the open pits across the iron ranges, impoverishing themselves at the same time they are enriching themselves: creating wealth, in short by the act of destroying it, is one of the most baffling mysteries of the new gospel. ~Bruce Catton (1)

Boardman River Valley, November 2017. Image courtesy of the author.

From the front window of his farmhouse Jack Robbins has borne witness to the lavish use of the Boardman River. The Robbins farm is in the Boardman Valley on Cass road near the site of the Boardman dam.

Captain Harry Boardman first dammed the river for his mill before the turn of the last century, around 1847. Many subsequent dams have either washed out or been removed. The most recent dam removal is almost complete and is restoring the river to its natural state. The river restoration effort was aided by a historic map that Mr. Robbins had tucked away in his farmhouse.

Partial image of Jack Robbin’s copy of a 1915-1916 map of the Boardman River property owned by the Boardman River Electric Light & Power Company.

The map took two years to make (1915-1916) and was drawn on a special fabric by surveyor E.P. Waterman. The detail on the large map includes the location and elevation of bench marks that assisted in the removal of the original dam built  in 1894. The Sabin dam is also included on the map.

Over one hundred years later Mr. Robbins shared the map with the Army Corps of Engineers Manager Alec Higgins (2). The map was used to locate the historic channel of the Boardman River while the 1931 dam was removed this year.

Jack Robbins bought his farm in 1951 and fished the deep holes above the Boardman dam until October 1961 when the Keystone dam washed out and filled in the holes with sediment. He showed me the location of the original Boardman River Electric Light and Power dam from his front window. His map reveals the points of interest such as the grade of a carriage road that lead to a wooden bridge just across from his farm.

Photographic postcard of Boardman River Light & Power Plant Dam under construction, 1894. Image from the Local History Collection, Traverse Area District Library.

In November 1894 Boardman River Electric Light and Power completed construction of its first dam and turned on the electricity. This original dam was just downstream and twenty feet lower than the Boardman dam that was just removed. The powerhouse was right across the road from the Robbins farm.

Boardman River Electric Light and Power Company. Crew working on the Cass Street dam, 1903.

More power was needed and so the Sabin dam was built in 1907. The Keystone dam was built in 1909. In 1921 the Brown Bridge dam was built. The Boardman dam was rebuilt in 1931. Each of these actions represent major disruptions to the ecology of the Boardman River. Dams were also built on the upper reaches of the Boardman river in Kalkaska, South Boardman and Mayfield’s Swainston Creek. (3)

The dam on Swainston Creek washed out in 1961. That large slug of floodwater washed out the Keystone dam during a rainstorm. Jack Robbins remembers this event well and has stories to tell about how the dam operators attempted to avoid disaster.

Boardman River Valley. Image courtesy of the author, November 2017.

9.5 million dollars was spent in 1979 to renovate the dams on the Boardman River. It will cost $2,834,535.60 to remove the Boardman and Sabin dams, return the river to its original channel and restore the banks. (4)

River restoration is an art and a science. River restoration is taking place in watersheds across the country and represents a change in the “new gospel”. It would be approved by Bruce Catton. Mr. Robbins is well aware of the environmental destruction that has taken place in the Boardman Valley which began in the logging era, and he approves of the Boardman River restoration project.

Stewart. A. McFerran teaches a class on the Natural History of Michigan Rivers at NMC and is a frequent contributor to the Grand Traverse JournalMany of his contributions, including this piece, are written as a direct result of interviewing people with stories to tell.

References:

  1. Catton, Bruce. Waiting for the Morning Train: An American Boyhood.
  2. Higgins, Alec. Email interview with the author.
  3. Grand Traverse County Historical Society. Currents of the Boardman. 
  4. FINAL CONCEPT DESIGN REPORT, Boardman and Sabin Dam Removals, BOARDMAN RIVER DAMS IMPLEMENTATION TEAM December 2014; 301 S. Livingston St., Suite 200, Madison, WI 53703 | 608-441-0342 | interfluve.com; 10850 Traverse Highway, Suite 3365, Traverse City MI 49684 | 231-922-4290 | urs.com

Readers Flounder in Ruggs Pond

Ruggs Pond is formed by a dam originally intended to generate power for what Northern Michigan community?  (Hint: it forms at the junction of two tributaries of the Jordan River)

Regrettably, not one person recognized that the dam at Ruggs Pond provided hydroelectric power to Kalkaska, Michigan. We encourage you to visit the Pond.  It is a beautiful place.

Postcard of Rugg Pond, Rapid River, 1905-1906. Image courtesy of Traverse Area District Library, 953.031910.13-2
Postcard of Rugg Pond, Rapid River, 1905-1906. Image courtesy of Traverse Area District Library, 953.031910.13-2

 

 

 

Image courtesy of GroundSpeak, http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMF022_Rugg_Pond_Dam
Image courtesy of GroundSpeak, http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMF022_Rugg_Pond_Dam

Portage Lake, a Hotbed for Land Use Controversy, 1866-2016

by Stewart A. McFerran

Before high water and before low water, the bank was stable for many years. It was shady with huge hemlocks, white pine and cedars overhanging the water. Before fire and development, impenetrable thickets lined the shores and teemed with fish and fur. Breezes cooled by patches of snow rippled Portage Lake until June. A winding creek emerged as the forest gave way to dunes. All the spring water from the Lake and uplands were contained in that fast flowing creek. The shifting sand of the dunes, currents and waves mixed with the flow of Portage Creek always.

On Sunday, May 7th, 1871, the neighbors of Portage Lake gathered in the morning. The night before they had a big party and dance on Portage Point. The farmers had completed a narrow ditch that ran from Portage Lake to Lake Michigan. They did not know what would happen when the water started to flow. An ox moved a log that held the water of Portage Lake back.  They were shocked at what they had done on that Sunday morning.

New channel of Portage Lake to Lake Michigan. Image courtesy of the author, August 2016.
New channel of Portage Lake to Lake Michigan. Image courtesy of the author, August 2016.

The flow grew and grew. Soon the power and weight of the water became apparent. An entire forest was swept out into the big lake. Some worried that Portage Lake would drain away completely. It did not, but hundreds of fish were left on the wide new shore flopping about. Many witnessed a forest of trees floating miles out in Lake Michigan. Just what this event would mean for the farmers around Portage Lake and the mill on Portage Creek would soon become apparent and is still talked about.

The controversy over land use on Portage Lake continues today. At a recent Onekama Township town hall meeting, plans for the historic Portage Point Inn were presented by the Inn’s new owners. The Inn has stood on dunes of sand between Portage Lake and Lake Michigan since 1903.  The survival of the historic hotel is certainly a major concern, as well as the results of unchecked development.

The development of Portage Point began with a survey of the dunes between Portage Lake and Lake Michigan in 1837. At that time, the level of Portage Lake was much higher. Joseph Stronach started building the dam and mill at Portage Creek in 1845. Thick cedar groves covered the main street of Onekama before there was a main street. As the population grew, land use changed from logging to farming, causing strife among neighbors. Things came to a head in 1871.

A Mr. James Francis Hannah (cousin of Perry Hannah) purchased the Mill at Portage Park in 1857. He would pay farmers for the flooding of their lands when the gates of the dam closed to build a “head” of water to power the sawing of logs. The water in Portage Lake would rise as much as six feet and logs could be floated up to the mill.  Farmers all around Portage Lake objected to the high water levels that flooded their “improved land.”

The mill was sold to Porter Bates in 1866.

General Grant, Speed, Sea Gem and Dall were schooners that stopped at the Portage Pier. Porter and Company controlled the pier which was at the mouth of “Portage Creek.” Access to the vessels that sailed along the coast of Lake Michigan was key to trade. Porter charged a heavy toll to anyone wanting to ship lumber, tanbark (bark from trees used to tan leather, usually oak or hemlock), or farm produce to the wider market.

Amos Pierce, who owned sixty acres on the South end of Portage Lake, would not take payment for the flooding of his land. In March of 1867 Pierce told Bates: “a lot of us would come down and tear his dam down and he said if we did he would shoot us.” (Chaney, Story of Portage).

Map from "Story of Portage," showing the location of the old and new channels to Lake Michigan.
Map from “Story of Portage,” showing the location of the old and new channels to Lake Michigan.

Pierce and other rogue farmers were jailed for digging a new channel from Portage Lake to Lake Michigan. While Pierce was in jail others took over. When they were put in jail and Pierce was released, he carried on digging the channel. What they dug was narrow and was held back by one log… the log that was pulled away by one ox on Sunday, May 7, 1871. This controversy over land use was solved by collective action after the dance that Sunday.

The rogue farmers opened a channel from Portage Lake to Lake Michigan about a mile south of Porter Mill. The water of Portage Lake rushed into Lake Michigan creating a channel 300 feet wide and 18 feet deep. Fish from the inland lake mixed with their big lake cousins that they had not seen for centuries. Some were left stranded and were scooped up in buckets.

Porter Mill was left high and dry as Portage Lake fell to the level of Lake Michigan. The dam was no longer able to control the waters of Portage Lake. With no falling water the mechanism of the mill could not operate. The farmers had won by guaranteeing low water levels in Portage Lake. In addition, trade was no longer restricted to the small Portage Creek and the pier on the Lake Michigan shore. In fact, “Portage Creek” ceased to exist.

The tug Williams made the first entrance into Portage Lake. She was hailed by the waving of hats and handkerchiefs, and loud hurrahs and firing of guns. The original settlement at Portage Park was largely abandoned.  The new Post Office was moved to the Northeast section of the lake because many points along the shore of Portage Lake were open to trade. The flow of development was redirected to the East end of the Lake when the flow of Portage Creek was redirected to the South end of the Lake.

More Change Coming to Portage Point Inn, 1902-Present

Portgage Point Inn. Image courtesy of the author, August 2016.
Portgage Point Inn. Image courtesy of the author, August 2016.

It was standing room only July 7th, 2016, at the Onekama fire house as plans for the historic Portage Point Inn were presented by the Inn’s new owners. The Inn has stood on dunes of sand between Portage Lake and Lake Michigan since 1903.  Many Portage Point cottagers worried about the preservation of the historic hotel, others that they would all be swept away by a rush of development. Opinions were expressed to Onekama Township officials regarding developments on the sleepy Portage Point.

The Onekama Township Planning Commission considered amendments to a special use permit this summer.  The amendments would accommodate changes to the Portage Point Inn and surroundings, as the new owner would like to reopen the historic Inn, which has fallen into disrepair. The Inn was last open in 2012.

The Portage Point Assembly was originally incorporated in 1902 under State Legislation that encouraged the building of hotels and clubhouses. The Assembly was also charged with “preventing and probation of vice and immorality”.

The Casino at Portage Point Inn sits behind the Inn proper, and has fallen into disrepair. Image courtesy of the author, August 2016.
The Casino at Portage Point Inn sits behind the Inn proper, and has fallen into disrepair. Image courtesy of the author, August 2016.

Construction on the Portage Point Inn began in 1902. The Inn and the “casino” were the centers of activity for cottagers for many years. Vacationers traveled on the Puritan which passed through the channel once a week and stopped at the dock in front of the Inn. Fond memories abound.

In addition to obvious renovations, there needs to be an upgrade to the sewer capacity. Other requested changes include plans for forty additional boat slips and a gas dock. There would be capacity to haul large boats and store them nearby.  Changes would be made to public access to Portage Lake, and a public fishing dock would be built.

From the Author: I cannot exaggerate what a big deal THE "Sunset House" is to the cottagers at Portage Point. ANYONE with a history ON THE POINT knows where the Sunset house is. Even though as you can see it is a simple cheap building it is maintained be the PP Association. They also maintain the signs with family names posted on the roads. They publish a book of members. They have a meeting. It IS a big deal!
The Sunset House marks the place where the pier once stood. Image courtesy of the author, August 2016.

The historic stream bed of Portage Creek winds through the lively ghost town of Old Portage. The Sunset house at the end of Lake Isle marks the place the pier once bustled with activity. The “boat house” is on the bank that overlooks a tiny pond that was once Portage Creek. Cottagers have a long history with each other as well as the place.

Boat House at Portage Point. Image courtesy of the author, August 2016.
The “Boat House” is on Lake Isle Street and rests on the bank of what once was Portage Creek which was the original outlet of Portage Lake to Lake Michigan. Image courtesy of the author, August 2016.

Amos Pierce and his rogue bands of militant farmers are long gone, but the channel they created from Lake Michigan to Portage Lake remains. The concrete walls stabilize the shifting sand but currents and high energy waves deposit sand during the long winter. The water of the “freshet” called Portage Creek now flows through the navigation channel and still mixes with the waves of Lake Michigan.

Current residents of Old Portage have been isolated. With hundreds of square miles of open water to the west and thousands of acres of National Forest to the east, Portage Point is on the way to nowhere. Not like it used to be. It was a destination and origin of raspberries and pickles that made the overnight trip to Chicago market on the Puritan.

Like the controversy of 1871, changes facing the community on the dune between Lake Michigan and Portage Lake came to a head… but this time, there were no threats of violence and all firearms were concealed.

Thanks to Portage Point resident Tom Gerhardt for sharing his knowledge with us, and providing details and dates.

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.

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.