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The North Avenue Dam is Gone But Not Forgotten

by Dan Gray, Urban Adventures Coordinator

Most people I have asked say, “Oh, it’s been at least ten years.” Or they say, “The dam’s been out since the early nineties.” Or in some cases, “I think it came out in the late seventies.” By looking at the land on both sides of the Milwaukee River above the North Avenue bridge, it is hard to know that the dam was removed in 1997. Barely five years ago! It is impossible to know the incredible story of this river and the transformations it has undergone just by looking at the touch-me-nots and Joe-Pye Weed along the banks of Gordon and Riverside Parks, following the lumbering flight of a great blue heron, or marveling at the immense salmon skimming through the shallows. However, take a leisurely walk along the bank by Riverside Park and under the North Avenue bridge and signs of recent change become readily apparent. There is a distinct change in vegetation from the line of mature trees to the floodplain prairie plants. The newer-looking cement on the remnants of the dam indicates recent activity. Looking down into the water, one can see thousands of interlocking concrete blocks covering the riverbed. And along the banks there are tons of broken rock held in place by what looks like chain link fence. This doesn’t look like a normal river at all. Why is it like this? The original dam was built in 1835 to provide water for a canal stretching from Milwaukee to the Rock River near present-day Janesville. The Erie Canal in New York had proven itself to be a very lucrative way to transport grain, lumber and other products. But the Milwaukee canal project was rather short-lived. It suffered from some bookkeeping discrepancies and the growing realization that the newer railroads were going to make canals too expensive and obsolete. Less than a mile of canal was dug and it has since been filled in and is now Commerce Street. After foreclosure on the canal, the City of Milwaukee took over the dam. It was used to provide power for flour mills, tanneries, and other industries below the dam. Above the dam, the impoundment area (the pool of water backed up behind the dam for almost two and a half miles) created a place where ice could be harvested in the winters. The ice was stored in large warehouses which were insulated with three feet of sawdust. The Hometown Ice Company on North Avenue was the major ice harvester on the Milwaukee River under an earlier name of Wisconsin Lakes Ice and Cartage Co. The impoundment also allowed for swimming, boating, and ice skating. There were two swimming schools located on the river, regular canoe races involving hundreds of craft and pavilions located in both Gordon and Riverside parks. This was the place to be outside in Milwaukee about 100 years ago. However, time marches on. Automobiles allowed the average family to get far away from the city. Industrial pollution and human sewage eventually took its toll on the water quality of the river. (Rumor has it that the river even smelled really bad.) The concentration of industrial and chemical pollutants in the silt behind the dam made the water extremely unhealthy. In 1990 there were only about six species of fish that lived in the impoundment area. These species are considered “tolerant to very tolerant of degraded environmental conditions,” fish that could live in very polluted water. The fish community at that time was dominated by carp and white sucker. Occasional fish kills were also documented. Needless to say, few people were fishing or canoeing in the river anymore, much less swimming. In 1992, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Milwaukee County, the City of Milwaukee, the Village of Shorewood, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, and the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission commenced a study to decide what to do about the dam and the miserable condition of the river. In 1994, it was recommended that the North Avenue Dam be partially removed, actions taken to control the sediment behind the dam, and the river banks managed to restore natural vegetation and habitat. To prevent the 750,000 cubic yards of sediment that was very contaminated with PCBs and heavy metals from rushing downstream into Lake Michigan, the riverbed was lined with concrete blocks to trap as much of the sediment as possible. This required shifting the channel of the river to one side while the new riverbed surface was installed. Rock was held in place with chain link retainers to protect the new riverbank from erosion. The short term results of this project are impressive. There are 32 acres of “new” wildlife habitat along the banks of the river where prairie and wetland plants are growing. There are paths meandering up both banks. One frequently sees canoes or kayaks gliding by and most noticeable are the people fishing. In 1999, two years after dam removal, there were thirty species of fish, including trout, salmon and smallmouth bass in the area of the river north of the dam. This is five times the number of species found in 1990. Perhaps the nicest thing about the riverbank is that you can sit and watch the fish jump, hear the birds calling, notice the animal tracks in the mud, and never realize that it wasn’t always this beautiful. To learn more about improving our rivers, see the following websites: www.wisconsinrivers.org www.riverrevival.org Friends of Milwaukee’s Rivers at: www.mkeriverkeeper.org Wisconsin DNR at: www.dnr.state.wi.us Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 10 – November 2002
by Dan Gray, Urban Adventures Coordinator