Why's That: Visiting A Historic Portage Dam Before It's Gone | WMUK

Why's That: Visiting A Historic Portage Dam Before It's Gone

Dec 4, 2020

Remnants of the Elijah Root dam on Portage Creek in February 2020.
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

We are so glad to bring you this new episode of “Why’s That?” It’s our first since the pandemic arrived in Michigan. We are ready to take your questions again, and we hope to hear from you!

A few years ago, the City of Portage moved a trail that runs along Portage Creek closer to the water. That’s how Mike Krischer, a longtime Portage resident and trail enthusiast, noticed an old dam near Milham Avenue and Lover's Lane.

Mike and I walked there together in February. The dam's concrete walls have crumbled in places , but they still form a pond and a spillway. 

“About a two-foot waterfall! that’s pretty good for Portage,” Mike said.

Mike wonders how old the dam was and what it was used for. We didn’t see any clues at the site. But soon discovered the City of Portage has been studying it, documenting the dam's varied roles in Portage’s early history. But the city also says the dam is harming the creek. Its long tenure is likely to end soon.

Kathleen Hoyle directs the Portage parks department. Mike and I asked her about the dam in a virtual meeting last month.

“What you saw out there was the remaining of the Elijah Root mill. It’s an earthen dam,” she explained.

Hoyle says Elijah Root was one of the township’s early leaders. He was born in Massachusetts and served in the War of 1812.

“He moved to Michigan Territory actually in 1832 and then two years later, built the sawmill,” she added.
Hoyle said the mill provided boards for many of the township’s early buildings.

“To actually have a sawmill was a big deal. That’s why, in other areas you see more log homes, where in Portage you see them more plank constructed instead of the log homes.”

Hoyle says Elijah Root’s mill may have also helped to build the wooden highway, the plank road, between Kalamazoo and Three Rivers.

“The plank road did go right by the mill,” she said. “The time period’s correct and the boards would have been sawmilled boards.”

But sawing boards wasn’t the mill’s only function.

Hoyle says at some point it began to mill flour as well. That may have started around the same time as the Civil War.

“Either it stayed a sawmill with the gristmill operation, or it was converted completely to a gristmill we’re not sure. But that’s when flour was in big demand as well so we can see why they would have started switching over.”

The city found a top-quality millstone at the site, which experts believe was imported from France.
“We actually have the stone in city hall, we’ve assembled what pieces were there,” Hoyle said.

You can also see a floorboard from the mill at city hall (though access limited right now due to the pandemic). 

Hoyle said the city’s still working out some details of the site’s history. At some point the mill seems to have moved from the west side of the creek to the east side, but it’s not clear why. In the early 20th century it became an apple cider mill, which closed around 1940.

Given the dam’s rich history, it may seem odd that the city wants to remove it. But Hoyle said sediment is building up behind the dam. That’s made it hard to canoe or kayak through the area. The silt also interferes with trout spawning. And dams cause other problems for wildlife. Kenny Kornheiser is the Vice President of the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council. He said it’s hard for animals like fish, turtles and mussels to move through them.

“The healthiest riverine habitats will have this connectivity so that these creatures can move about, find the best habitats, find the best places to spawn,” he explained.

The City of Portage believes concrete was layered over the dam's original, stone walls.
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

That’s why the state is working to remove old dams on the Kalamazoo River. Kornheiser those removals take careful planning.

“The dams on the Kalamazoo River have retained sediments which are contaminated,” he said. If you’re not careful when taking the dam out, “you mobilize the sediments, and the pollution moves and now you’ve lost control over it.”

Kathleen Hoyle of Portage says happily, the city hasn’t found pollutants behind the Elijah Root dam. But she agrees with Kornheiser that removing a dam properly takes a lot of planning. She says the earliest the Root dam is likely to come out is the spring of 2022.

Mike Krischer, who noticed the dam while walking the Portage Creek Bicentennial Trail, says he didn’t realize it was that old.

“I thought it might be more of a later industrial remnant,” he said. He adds he would like to see the creek flowing freely.

“I may even get on the water. I certainly haven’t done that, but would be tempted,” he said.

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