Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 11, 2012

Saving a resource: One man's love for the Boardman


— TRAVERSE CITY - The story of Chester Olson is a tale of one man's willingness to fight for the Boardman River.

By day, Olson was a salesman for Rick & Son Grocer local jobbers in Traverse City in 1940. It was a time when a new car cost $800, a gallon of gas was 18 cents, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller ruled the radio and innocence was still the order of the day.

On nights and weekends, though, Olson was perhaps the Boardman's greatest advocate. He spent his spare time fly fishing the river below the Brown Bridge Dam.

For Olson, it was a place of peace. He wrote of the river's excellence and allure, calling it "one of the most beautiful rivers, and one of the finest brown trout streams in the state."

Olson noticed something was wrong with the river below the dam in early 1940. Sometimes the water raged out of the base of the dam and flooded the entire river. In other instances, the water flowed through the dam like drips from a leaky faucet, leaving a dried-up riverbed and dead fish.

An alarmed Olson committed to doing something about the huge fluctuations in the river flow he saw from day to day. He maintained a diary, taking photos and meticulously recording measurements.

His 1940 letters were kept in a "trophy book" that ended up in the hands of  local outdoor writer Dave Richey.

"He knew something was wrong with the Brown Bridge Dam," said Richey. "I'm not sure he knew exactly what part of the dam was defective, but he knew something was wrong."

Letter-writing campaign

Olson commenced a letter writing campaign to Michigan power brokers and newspapers in an attempt to get the dam fixed and the river flowing at a more normal rate. His letters are typed, in blue ink, on old-fashioned, see-through, yellow and white typing paper that still crinkles to the touch.

They tell the story of his passion for the river. In one letter, from January 1940, he documented the river's fluctuating water flow below the dam for Ben East, the Grand Rapids Press outdoors editor.

"The Boardman River, a very valuable asset to any region is, I believe, being gradually ruined," Olson wrote. "I believe serious damage is being done to the spawning beds and eggs during spawning season, to the small fish, to the fish cover, and also to the supply of natural fish food in this stream due to the fact that there is a tremendous fluctuation in the amount of water flowing between two of the four electric power dams in the river."

A sharp critic of the dam, Olson questioned why man was messing with nature for power.

"It is true that man cannot control the high water in this river because GOD and the rains and the snow determine that," Olson wrote. "The banks have always held the surplus water pretty well but the sad thing for the past several years is man has held up the water in a power dam until, from one quarter to one half, and in some spots three quarters of the river bottom, lay bone dry under the hot sun.

"During July and August, it was hot to the touch, then the gates at the dam were opened and a raging torrent of water poured downstream to the next pond."

Olson was convinced the fluctuations in water levels had nothing to do with weather, believing they were instead caused by the dam. He and other sportsmen went to the Traverse City Commission and Traverse City Light & Power to demand a fix, but didn't like what they heard from the utility's chief executive.

"We were referred (by city officials to) the superintendent of the electric light and power department who met with us," Olson wrote in his diary. "After listening, (he) said he was compelled to operate both dams in that manner in order to extract the most power at the least possible cost.

"We as citizens and taxpayers feel this municipal utility should be a profit-paying unit and operated at as low a cost as possible, but NOT TO THE DEGREE that it practically ruins something else to make its gain," Olson wrote.

Saving the river

Olson sent letters to newspaper editors across the state, chambers of commerce and state wildlife regulators in the early months of 1940. By spring, the campaign had gained traction, with the Record-Eagle, Grand Rapids Press, The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press picking up the story. The Detroit News headline said, "River Ruined by Low Water."

The head of Light & Power, C.L. Mosher, went to the City Commission and suggested a smaller water wheel in the dam. At $7,000, the new wheel would allow for a consistent flow of water through the dam.

"Mr. Mosher stated operation of the smaller wheel at this rate would do away to a great extent with the large fluctuations in water level and would undoubtedly go far towards alleviating the existing conditions," the Record-Eagle reported.

After Traverse City Light & Power purchased the smaller wheel and installed it in the dam, the problem was quickly fixed. A sportswriter for the Grand Rapids Herald reported that Mr. Olson and the city's action "saved a resource."

"We take our battered hat off to (the) Traverse City Commission and the sportsmen, as led by Mr. Olson," the paper wrote.

Olson made clear in his letters he felt something special was accomplished. He then moved on to his next mission, which was increasing plantings of brown trout to help the Boardman River recover.

"It might be of interest, that on making inspections of the river almost daily and at different hours during the day and night, I have found that since about the middle of May, the city has been very considerate of the river and kept the flowage at a very satisfactory level," Olson wrote. "This campaign for an even flow in the Boardman has been very interesting to me, and very pleasant, the results are certainly most gratifying."