Traverse City Record-Eagle

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April 3, 2012

2,000 watched Brown Bridge Dam begin

'They were all there, from old surrey to limousines'

Editor's Note: Last in a three-part series.

TRAVERSE CITY — The partial draining of Brown Bridge Dam Pond last year attracted its share of onlookers, but nothing like the crowds that gathered when the earthen dam's construction began 91 years ago.

An estimated 2,000 people visited the building site on Sept. 11, 1921, to watch the first loads of liquefied sand and clay tumble through the sluice works of a towering temporary trestle to form the 30-foot berm that served Traverse City from 1922 to 2005.

"It looked like a county fair or a railroad wreck or a baseball game at the Brown Bridge Sunday," the Record-Eagle reported the next day. Cars parked in two long lines and "old family sorrels hitched to carryalls were tied to poplars."

"They were all there, from the old surrey to limousine," the paper said. "This wholesale visitation of Sunday "¦ shows what healthy interest the people of Traverse City are taking in the municipal project. "

Construction of Traverse City Municipal Dam, as it was called then, was an important moment in the city's economic history.

Lumbering was all but dead. The automobile era had a strong grip on the state and nation. Local business leaders hoped to find a niche in Michigan's up-and-coming industry with the Napoleon Car Co., lured here from Ohio in 1917. It produced 300 cars and 600 trucks until it sputtered out in 1923, the victim of national recession, a severe steel shortage and the city's long distance from Detroit.

For years locals debated the need for Traverse City Municipal Dam at Brown Bridge. By 1920, insufficient energy shackled the city's business and economic growth.

"Traverse City is squarely up against the most serious problem that has ever confronted it," the Record-Eagle reported that year. "Today, A.W. Rickerd wants 20 horsepower for his plant. The Napoleon company wants 15 horsepower more and we cannot take care of them."

In January 1921, the city commission decided to construct a power dam and power plant on city-owned property at Brown Bridge.

Photographs and newspapers stories from 1921 and 1922 indicate the extent of the 18-month earth-moving effort.

Construction began in early August 1921 with clearing timber from the city's 960 acres and turning some lumber into 10,000 poles that "mostly Indian workers" erected into an extensive wooden trestle framework. It extended the full 1,900-foot length of the proposed dam and rose 50 to 120 feet.

"A tall spider webbing of trestle work is being raised," the Record-Eagle reported on Aug. 8. "Trestle workers, equipped with spurs and life belts, are at work 50 feet in the air."

"Sections of the trestle are joined down on the ground and then raised into place with block and tackle, while the aerial workers join them with cross stringers and guy them into place. On top of this will be placed the huge pipe through which the dirt will be washed into place "¦ ." Fargo, the Grand Rapids firm that built the dam, had developed new methods for constructing earth embankment dams on foundations of soft soils: hydraulic sluicing.

The sluicing operation began in mid-September when specialty engines and centrifugal pumps began pumping liquefied sand and clay into large "pans" at the top of the trestle. The mixture fell through lateral lines that extended down the trestle's sides to specified positions on the ground where workmen with grading equipment built dikes at the base that kept the sand in the center.

The bulk of the fill for the 30-foot high earthen dam was completed before cold weather arrived. The fill came from a hillside at the site, according to city reports.

The Record-Eagle reported on Sept. 18, 1921, the "sucking" was cutting 2,500 yards of earth from the hill daily, "with both engines working" and the night shift not yet started. The final fill was made around the power house and wing walls in March 1922

"Boardman in New Channel," a Record-Eagle headline reported on March 30, 1922.

"For the first time in many years the Boardman River is running in a new channel," the paper reported. "As soon as the river was turned, a big force of men were put to work filling up the old bed "¦ to complete the municipal dam."

March 30, 1922 had its tragedy, too.

George L. Kleczewski, 21, a sluicing gang foreman, fell 30 feet to the ground from scaffolding and fractured his skull. A son of Polish immigrants, he had grown up in Illinois and Indiana and worked a year at the Chevrolet Motor factory in Flint before moving to Bendon three years before with his parents. He died two days later.

Coming Sunday: A once and future "natural river."

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