Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 2, 2012

Boardman River dams helped city grow

Dam-building era lasted a half century


Editor's note: Second in a three-part series.

TRAVERSE CITY — Dams along the Boardman River helped make Traverse City what it is today.

The city's dam-building era started in 1867 with the completion of Union Street Dam. Next came the Boardman in 1894, Sabin in 1907, Keystone in 1909 and Brown Bridge Dam in 1922.

Boardman, the first hydroelectric dam, helped power the second decade of the city's phenomenal 1880s-1900 boom that transformed a remote sawmill village of 1,897 people in 1881 into the "Queen City of the North," with a brick-built downtown and a population of 9,000 by 1900. Grand Traverse County's headcount, meanwhile, rose from 8,479 to 20,479.

Traverse City became a regional manufacturing center during that 20-year span. Three railroad lines, a telegraph and telephones connected the area to neighboring towns and big-city markets. A variety of boats crisscrossed Grand Traverse Bay from Traverse City to Suttons Bay, Omena, Northport and Elk Rapids. Great Lakes steamers connected it to Chicago and other large cities.

Annual building reports listed in the Grand Traverse Herald from 1891 to 1893 totaled 722 new buildings and improvements. A survey taken by the local Business Men's Association in January 1893 showed that Traverse City's mills and factories employed 1,167 people.

The time was ripe. Traverse City needed more electric power to light the growing number of businesses, homes and city streets.


Here's a brief chronology of Traverse City's dam-building era.

• 1866: Hannah, Lay & Co. constructed Union Street Dam between Cass and Union streets to power a gristmill that produced "Turkey Red" and "Best" brand flours until the mill burned on Jan. 26, 1926. Renovated various times, the dam's job is to maintain Boardman Lake levels and block sea lamprey entry up the river.

• 1889: H.D. Campbell Sons Water Works & Electric Co. built the city's first steam-generated electric plant along the shore of Grand Traverse Bay. It outgrew its capacity within two years.

• 1894: Mayfield lumberman L.K. Gibbs and other area entrepreneurs involved in the new Boardman Electric Light and Power constructed Boardman Dam, Grand Traverse County's first hydropower dam. It supplied power to several commercial buildings, a few homes and city streets.

• 1900: H.D. Campbell & Sons sold the waterworks to Traverse City and the electric plant to Boardman River Electric Light & Power, the sole supplier of electricity at that time.

• 1907: Sabin Dam started operations south of Traverse City. A Grand Rapids firm bought Boardman Electric Light & Power Co. Meanwhile, L.K. Gibbs purchased property along the river for the new Queen Electric Co. The property included 40 acres around Brown Bridge.

• 1909: Queen City Electric built Keystone Dam six miles south of Traverse City in 1908 and turned on power in October 1909. The dam washed out in 1961 after heavy rains took out Mayfield's dam on Swainston Creek, a Boardman River tributary. Boardman Dam held.

• 1912: Traverse City bought Queen City Electric Co., which owned Keystone Dam and the property around Brown Bridge Dam. The $150,000 transaction included 60 acres at Keystone and property and flowage rights seven miles upstream at Brown Bridge. That transaction gave birth to Traverse City Municipal Light & Power. Boardman River Electric Light & Power owned Boardman and Sabin dams.

• 1918: Municipal Light & Power recommended the city purchase Boardman River Electric for maximum power input. Traverse City voters turned down the merger.

• 1919: Keystone Dam was shut down and the pond drained to repair log damage to the dam. Boardman River Electric Light & Power supplied the city's power needs and convinced city officials that a backup source of electric power was necessary.

• 1921: City commissioners passed a resolution to borrow $250,000 to build the Brown Bridge Dam and a power plant. Voters overwhelmingly approved in a 1,832 to 384 vote in April 1921. Construction began in August and the dam was completed in 1922 for $250,000, or about $3.4 million today.

COMING TUESDAY: Brown Bridge Dam — "A tall spider webbing of trestle."