By KEN WYATT
November 27, 2019
Albion, Concord and Homer share a unique geographic profile: The three sit along stretches of Michigan’s 178-mile-long Kalamazoo River, which empties into Lake Michigan at Saugatuck.
The river towns also share great historic significance. In the decades before white settlers arrived in the late 1820s and early ‘30s, they were part of tribal lands of the Pottawatomi, who used the river for fishing, transportation and as sites for their own villages. Then, in the early years of white settlement, pioneering families capitalized on the river by creating mills, dams and the resulting mill ponds.
Albion takes pride annually in a Festival of the Forks, which highlights its pivotal position at the union of the two branches of the river. And whereas Concord sits along the north branch of the river, Homer sits astride the south branch – both roughly nine miles to the south of Albion, and about the same distance from each other. They are a triangle of Kalamazoo River towns, related by all kinds of shared experiences.
This is a look back at some of those events, which include natural catastrophe, flooding, court litigation – and continuing debate over how the river is being tamed and managed.
Concord and its Mill Pond.
In Concord, the early years saw the development of at least three mills. The original mills are long gone, but the dam and mill pond are a continuing presence in the village. And it is never far from local discussion.
With population of just over 1,000, Concord is in a sense defined by its mill pond. Without it, the village would lose its most prominent natural feature.
One of the issues periodically raised is the possibility of a dam failure. The facility, which sits beneath the Main Street causeway over the pond, is privately owned by the Joers family. That family operates the Joers Farm Center, which is a modern descendant of the old feed mills.
There are double gates holding back waters of the river, but they consist of little more than three-inch-thick wooden timbers held in place by iron channels.
Whenever such discussions take place, long-time residents speak of a legendary dam failure that emptied the Homer Mill Pond long ago and impacted Albion downstream.
The story of that catastrophic event can be read in the Homer Public Library. One library scrapbook tells of two black days in the history of the Homer Mill Pond.
The first was the day the dam collapsed – Saturday, March 7, 1908. Fifty-eight years later, coincidentally on another Saturday – July 16, 1966 – the mill pond was deliberately drained, vanishing into the archives of history.
Homer’s Dam Collapse.
An account of the dam’s collapse appears in a Homer newspaper article published in 1950. It was based on an interview with 80-year-old Lester Anderson. His birthday, he recalled, was just two days before the catastrophe, and he remembered it well.
At the time of the collapse, he was employed by the Cortright Milling Co., whose mill was on the banks of the Kalamazoo River.
It had been a severe winter, with 28 consecutive days allowing bob sleigh and cutter travel. In early March, however, a sudden thaw and balmy weather created dangerous conditions. The ice began breaking up rapidly in the mill pond and the water steadily rose.
Anderson said all day Friday and Saturday he worked with a crew of men filling and placing sandbags along the banks of the river to strengthen the dam. Its gates were lowered as far as possible.
“Tension ran high in the village as word spread that the dam might go out at any time, and a crowd of people gathered at the pond hoping to be on hand to witness the break when the dam gave way,” according to the article.
“It was known however, that the village itself, located on higher ground, was in no danger from the rising water.”
There were other fears, though. The New York Central railroad bridge was a short distance northwest of the pond. If the dam gave way, it was thought the railroad bridge would be swept away. Railroad crews switched two carloads of coal on the bridge to help secure it.
“Keen apprehension was also felt at Albion, eight miles to the northeast, for a flood could not be prevented there if the Homer dam failed to hold the Kalamazoo (river) ice and flood waters.”
All the efforts to secure the dam were futile. Anderson recalled that about 5 p.m. that Saturday evening the water began surging over the river bank north of the dam, which gave way shortly afterward.
“The railroad bridge withstood the torrent of ice and water, but a 60-foot bridge just west of M09, a mile north of Homer, was swept away. The bridge was carried high and dry on the banks of the river and came to rest against some trees.”
Albion suffered the greatest impact, however. In his 1989 article, “Remembering the Great Flood of 1908,” Albion historian Frank Passic described what happened to the city.
The river was already at flood levels when the Homer dam broke late in the afternoon of March 7.
As Passic put it, that sent an “additional five-foot wave of water and ice chunks headed towards downtown Albion. By midnight water over the Superior Street bridge was a foot deep, and eighteen inches over the Cass Street bridge. Dynamite was used to break up ice jams upstream and some water was diverted via the ‘black ditch’ which flowed through the southwestern portion of town.
“All was in vain, however, as six buildings on Superior Street collapsed, resulting in over $125,000 in damage.”
In addition, many cellars in Albion were flooded. The catastrophe was well documented, for many people took photographs of the flooded city and newspapers ran other photos and stories.
Passic posed an intriguing question at the close of his article: “Could ‘the Flood’ happen again? I doubt it. There is no Homer dam anymore to break, and our bridges are built much better than they were nearly a century ago. This is one case, however, in which we hope history does not repeat itself.”
But while the Homer Mill Pond was drained in 1966, there still is the Concord Mill Pond and a dam that holds back the waters of the North Branch of the Kalamazoo.
What would be the impact downriver if the Concord dam ever fails? It is hard to say. But it is a geographic fact that Albion is the recipient of waters from the two branches of the Kalamazoo. The forks of the river meet there and give the community its identity – just as so much of Concord’s identity is provided by its own mill pond.
Homer’s Final Dam.
After the devastating 1908 dam failure in Homer, a new dam was built that summer. Its gates were stronger and able to secure the mill pond from a similar dam failure. That dam held until 1966, when owners of the pond decided to drain it. That followed by nearly a decade a ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court, upholding a Jackson-Calhoun-Hillsdale intercounty drainage board proposal to eliminate the power dam and allow free flow of the river.
If you visit the site today, you can see some of the old machinery of the dam. But the river itself flows freely over a spillway and into the river at a slightly lower level to continue its flow toward Albion.
The River in the Future.
Concord’s vested interest in the river and its mill pond make the old dam there an item of obvious concern. A major concern is that, should the dam fail, the state is unlikely to permit any replacement, for it has a longstanding policy commitment to free-flowing rivers under the Natural Rivers Act of 1970. Many of the dams that once existed along the river have been removed. Thus, Concord would lose its defining natural resource, and the river would revert to a more natural course.
In Albion, the Victory Park dam was built in 1905 for purposes of electric power generation. The era of electric generation by such dams has passed, and the Victory Park dam has not generated electricity since before 1950. But the old concrete barrier continues to provide a lovely waterfall and a mill pond upstream from the forks along the south branch of the river.
Whatever happens in the future, the Kalamazoo River will continue linking those three towns in history and geography.
This story is reprinted with permission from The Recorder.
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