IndustryRedridge Dam


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.

the waste weir being inundated by floodwaters in 1941

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.

spring run-off flowing over the foundation of the dam

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 original crib dam, victim to liability concerns

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.

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  1. Geoff – Of course saying it should be preserved and getting it done is two completely different things. While I believe that preserving it should be done, I personally have no idea how that would be accomplished. The liability issue as well as the stream rehabilitation issue would both have to be addressed I think primarily. Building some sort of fish ladder around the dam might be needed, but that of course would cost money. And while the structure might no longer be able to support water, it probably is in no immediate danger of collapse. Still fencing would have to be placed around it to keep people out that would cost more money.

    There’s probably people out there with a little more experience in these matters that would have a better idea of what would be needed. My point with the article was to get people thinking more about the issue, and hopefully raise some awareness about the dam’s historical significance. I don’t want people to be taken off guard whenever the dam becomes in danger of being destroyed – like the case of the crib dam. At that point it might be too late to get people on board fast enough to make a difference.

  2. I would like to say how much I have enjoyed your series on the Redridge Dam. I also hope the the dam can be preserved. This a very unique structure. I would be a shame to see it destroyed. Also I would like to compliment you on the pictures you took.
    I build plastic models and do model railroading. I am thinking about trying to build section of the dam, not the whole thing, using plastic structural shapes or metal shapes for the bracing and use plaster of paris to represent the concrete portion. Notice I said thinking. Whether it gets beyond this I am not sure.

    I do have one question. If the gates on the discharge valves were removed, would these allow enough flow of water that the water would not flow through the cutouts in the dam. It would seem that this would the least expensive way to try to fix the water flow problem. If it did not fix the the problem it might at least help to some degree.

  3. Dave – From what I have read, Copper Range first attempted to use the dam’s own discharge valves to lower the reservoir but failed. It seems that even with the outer doors open, the valves controlling the flow rate inside the pipes were either frozen or broken and they couldn’t open them far enough. I have also read that the discharge pipes were clogged as well. But that was then..

    As far as now, water only flows through the holes at high water events – mostly just spring thaw. Most of the time the water level is well below the cut-outs. So its only a problem a few weeks of the year. Still a problem but not as constant of one.

    The model sounds like a great idea. You should check out the link to the article I put at the bottom of my post. It has some detailed plans of the dam’s structure and is how I drew my elevation plans. Since a trestle runs over the top of the dam, it would fit right in to a model railroad layout. And I can get any detail photos you need to help you out, I love going to the dam and any excuse is a good one for me.

  4. Environmental and civil engineers have to do sr. design projects too. submit the idea to the dept. at least then they will do research, my wife did a small project on it.

  5. Geoff – Thats a great idea! I remember doing a few local type projects for my senior work, I think I’ll look into it. The goal of preserving the structure while returning the river to its natural state would be an interesting challenge I’m sure, but I bet some enterprising college kids would gladly take up the challenge.

    Did your wife do a study on the dam’s themselves or the river and watershed components? Just curious. I wonder if she found anything that would be useful in this case.

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