The steel dam at Redridge was completed in November of 1901, and became only the second steel dam in the United States. It was preceded by the Ash Fork Dam in 1898 and followed by the larger Hauser Lake dam in 1907. The Hauser Lake dam was subsequently destroyed by a catastrophic failure one year later. No other steel dam was ever built again, making the Redridge dam the largest dam of its type in North America.
The dam’s 150 acre reservoir served the Atlantic and Baltic mills until the closing of the last mill in 1922. While the dam no longer served any real purpose, the reservoir it created remained. It wasn’t until a near disastrous flood in 1941 that the dam’s longevity came into question. During the flood, a breached beaver dam upstream had resulted in the blockage of the dam’s waste wier with debris. Without any means for water to exit the reservoir, it became large enough to over-top the steel dam flowing over its top and crashing down 74 feet to the river below. Worse still, the blocked waste weir soon gave way and was subsequently destroyed by the wave of water.
Although the dam survived the incident without any damage, the owners of the dam at the time – Copper Range – looked into washing their hands of a potential liability. After offering the dam and reservoir to various local agencies for public use – and those agencies refusal to take on responsibility for the dam – the company worked up plans for its dismantling. Fortunately for the dam, however, the cost of removing the dam became too prohibitive. The dam remained untouched for another 30 years.
By the ’70s, Copper Range’s stake in the Copper Country was waning. With all their mines and mills in the area closed and the railroad working on borrowed time, the company was concentrating its efforts on the profitable White Pine Mine near Ontonagon. The liability of the Redridge dam came to center stage again, and the company decided to act. In 1979 four large openings (4×8 ft each) were cut into the steel plating just above the concrete foundation. This relieved pressure on the dam, lowering the reservoir significantly. Escaping execution, the Redridge dam continued to stand, and remains standing till today.
The Redridge dam may still stand, but it’s future is in doubt. After a span of a century – half of that without any maintenance – the dam is on borrowed time. Compounding the problem is the spring thaws which continue to flow unabated through the superstructure slowly eroding away the foundation. Then there’s the modern attitude towards river rehabilitation and dam removal, which have succeeded in removing most unused dams in the country. Add to all that the liability problems the current owners have inherited and you have a recipe for the dam’s demise.
Historical preservation is important, but should always be applied discriminately. Not everything can be saved – or even should be. There is a certain significance to mankind and human evolution that must be taken into consideration. There also must be an inherited uniqueness to the structure – something that makes it irreplaceable. The Redridge dam, I believe, meets all these requirements. Its unique place in engineering history and dam construction makes it a prime candidate to survive another century or more – if at all possible.
This is, of course, much easier said then done. The recent experience with the old crib dam upstream of the steel dam makes that painfully clear. The crib dam was built in 1894 and was submerged when the steel dam was built. After Copper Range compromised the steel dam and the reservoir level lowered, the crib dam was revealed. The original dam took up the job of impounding the river for the next 20 years, but after being submerged for over 70 years it was in no shape to do so. An order to repair, remove, or replace the dam was ordered by the DEQ. Even with a local effort to save the dam, the township followed the order and removed the top portion of the dam – destroying it. Preservation gave way to liability.
The differences between the original crib dam and the steel dam are important however and give hope for the steel dam’s future. First is the issue of historical significance. While the crib dam was locally significant, its far reaching importance to human development is questionable. Primarily the dam’s role as a dam is historically unremarkable. There are a lot of wood crib dams in existence, some much older then the one at Redridge and many used for purposes more interesting or historically important. There is also a pragmatic issue. The crib dam at Redridge was in bad shape, and its destruction was cheaper and easier then its replacement. The amount of effort and resources needed to save the dam would have been prohibitive. The steel dam, in comparison, would be much more difficult and expansive to remove (which is what has saved it up to this point) then to simply leave standing. Finally there is the issue of the dam’s failure. The crib dam was significantly damaged and in danger of failure. Since being compromised, the steel dam is no longer holding back the reservoir ( besides a few feet ) and its failure is less certain.
This isn’t to say that the crib dam should not have been saved, only that it was much more difficult to do so. The steel dam, however, provides an arguably better case for preservation. Its unique role in engineering history, its status as the largest dam of its type, and it’s structural integrity, all provide ample ammunition towards its preservation. It is my hope the local citizens take up the issue of the dam’s future and attempt to save it – long before the issue is forced upon them. Much like the crib dam, waiting until the dam is in danger may be too late. Working to save it should begin today.