Early river dams were wooden
For over two hundred years people have been building dams on the Muskingum River. Later more substantial dams with locks and canals were added. There will be three articles covering these marvelous engineering achievements. The first part discusses privately built dams during the early 1800’s and the state sponsored improvements during the late 1830’s and early 1840’s. The second part will continue the discussion to about 1890. The last part will trace river improvements to the present.
While going up and down Route 60 above Beverly, travelers often get a majestic view of the roaring water going over the dam. Parts of the canal that go around the dam are also visible from the road. In Lowell the canal is even more visible. On the west side the dam is in view from the River Road. They are seen as indestructible, nearly maintenance free parts of the landscape. The Muskingum River Water Trails website announces that the river is 112 miles long and is “the longest navigable river lying wholly within Ohio.” As these articles point out, the locks and canals were often in need of repair and they were not navigable for long periods of time. Even today the river only has limited navigation because of low lying bridges and piers that remain hidden under the water.
The earliest dams on the Muskingum River were privately built. Luke Emerson constructed a dam from an island to the Waterford Township side at Luke Chute as early as 1815. Emerson’s dam, notes Jerry Devol in a postal history of the township, “made swift water for the efficient operation of his mill.” This explains one of the possible origins for the name Luke Chute. (Reflections, April-June 1990, p. 5) According to Williams’ History of Washington County (p. 538), soon after 1810 “Andres Powers threw a dam diagonally nearly across the river at the head of Dana’s island, and built a grist- and saw mill at the mouth of Congress run.” This dam was a success, another mill was built, and a little community grew up called Federal Bottom. The larger wooden dams built in the late 1830’s and early 1840’s increased the depth of water. Williams (p. 540) states, “The completion of slack-water navigation rendered the dam and the mills useless, and the hamlet gradually went down. Daniel Gage received from the State nine hundred and fifty-dollars as compensation, and James Bowen, one thousand dollars.”
In order to provide more capital and organize the construction of dams, the Ohio General Assembly passed “An Act to incorporate the Muskingum Navigation Company” in 1828. This company, which was made up of private stockholders, had only limited success. John Mills, David Putnam, Joseph Holden and John P. Mayberry were members of the company from Washington County.
The State of Ohio decided as early as 1836 that the construction of dams, locks and canals on the Muskingum River was necessary in order to make steamboat navigation possible year around, except when the river flooded or was covered with ice. By 1837 the surveyors were on the river and by 1842 the great task was completed. The eleven original wooden dams were eventually replaced with concrete and ten remain today. Only Beverly, Lowell and a couple other ones are mentioned in these articles.
To give some idea of the size of the dams, the Lowell concrete dam raises the water 14.5 feet, which makes it the highest navigation dam on the Muskingum River. It is also the longest with a length of 840.5 feet, or nearly three football fields!
An engineer on the Muskingum River during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s was Lowell and Marietta resident Harley E. Frye, great grandson of Lt. Joseph Frye, designer and proponent of Fort Frye. Harley left notes describing the construction of the wooden dams. (Reflections, Vol. 39, No. 2) “All gravel and silt was [sic] first cleared from the river bottom down to bed rock,” he noted. “Huge trees were then felled from the forest and dragged by yokes of oxen to the river,” he added. These timbers were carefully shaped, each one notched to secure it to the pieces at each end. They were stacked on top of each other across the river and the spaces between them were filled with large rocks. The strongest timbers were used to build cribs about ten feet long. These cribs were filled with rocks and tightly secured to hold the longer timbers in place. The layers continued until the dam was high enough to create slack water that backed up to remove the shallow places in the river. The final step was hauling large amounts of small stones and gravel above the dam. They were unloaded and the current carried them to embed against the larger rocks, forming a nearly watertight barrier. The canals required the removal of huge amounts of dirt. And the lock walls are lined with hand cut stones that are still in place today. Considering the primitive machinery and tools that were used to make the improvements, the construction of the dams, locks and canals is one of the most spectator projects ever undertaken on the Muskingum River.
Phillip L. Crane, a Waterford resident and Marietta history teacher for 32 years, will share stories of historical events that occurred in the Lower Muskingum Valley.