Traverse City Record-Eagle


August 18, 2010

Celebrate Archibald Jones' magnificent mistake

Residents celebrate when Jones pulled the plug on Crystal Lake

Hero or goat, Archibald Jones left his mark on Crystal Lake.

Fifteen feet, that is, drained from the "bathtub on the hill."

In 1873, Jones' Benzie County River Improvement Company began dredging a channel between the Betsie River and Crystal Lake. In the wee hours of Aug. 23, ten days after the project began, a storm blew up. High waves demolished a temporary dam and water began gushing through the outlet.

The plug had been pulled on the elevated lake.

Six inches of depth were gone by 9 a.m. and 11 feet by the next day with the flow continuing, if slowing. In 1906, Crystal Lake was measured at 595 feet, compared to the initial level of 615 feet.

Unlike some lakes that vanished during that optimistic era of canals and tinkering with nature, Crystal Lake did stabilize. By 1911 the first concrete dam went in; some of that original concrete is still visible around the current structure built in the mid-1970s.

As of 2010, the lake stands at 600 feet and change.

The upshot of the Crystal Lake channel is miles of sandy beaches — over the first three weeks of the 1873 incident, a quarter mile of sandy beaches surfaced. Now very valuable real estate surrounds the 8.1-mile long and 2.5-mile wide (formerly 8.5 miles long and 3 miles wide) Crystal Lake.

"I would say it was one of the defining incidents for the whole region," said Louis Yock, director of the Benzie Area Historical Museum. "It's basically what created the west end of Benzie County as a resort area."

Archibald Jones' twist of fate sparked an avid interest in the man, the watershed and the history for Stacy Daniels. The retired environmental engineer and passionate amateur historian deems the whole incident a "tragedy/comedy," acknowledging both the good and the bad.

The story of Jones is just part of the tapestry of an environmental history book he is writing about the unique Crystal Lake watershed. Daniels hopes his book and research will update the generally accepted narrative about Jones: that his project was a tragic folly.

"It's my opinion that Archibald Jones, my alter ego, is a hero, not a goat," Daniels asserts, his conclusion the fruit of extensive historical delving and high-tech research covering multiples states, centuries and families.

"It was not even his original idea," Daniels added, noting both the Army Corps of Engineers and locals had bandied about a similar thought.

The Frankfort native and Crystal Lake resident — Daniels has Benzie County "in his blood" — was captivated by the Jones story from the outset. He is determined to find and share the truth about the man, a "bootstrap engineer" who his research has shown had worked on the Erie Canal.

Daniels' interest was sparked in the early 1990s while an adjunct professor at the University of Michigan: the Bentley Historical Library was right across the street from the engineering building. He discovered an original survey map there and later found survey notes in Benzie County.

"I got them transcribed and put two and two together," said Daniels, who tackles historical research with an engineer's methodical approach.

"At that point in time I had been doing water quality studies up here for 30 years," he said of his growing interest in the watershed's history.

Daniels has become Jones' alter-ego, portraying him in a long white beard, complete with a mock-up of the fateful moment, in parades.

Daniels also gives historical lectures about the man "who pulled the plug on Crystal Lake" and will reprise his character at the upcoming Archibald Jones Day celebration on Saturday, Aug. 28, in Beulah. The event will feature fun and games from the 1870s as well as entertainment, music and food. Of course, Daniels will re-enact the fateful moment.

"Archibald Jones is an unsung hero," Daniels said.

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