You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 6:40 a.m.

Argo Dam repairs have Ann Arbor council members questioning where funds should come from

By Ryan J. Stanton


The conceptual design for the reconstruction of the Argo Dam headrace approved by the Ann Arbor Park Advisory Commission is shown, including a $180,000 whitewater feature.

Ann Arbor City Council members have a week to ponder a $1.17 million proposal to reconstruct Argo Dam's headrace and earthen embankment.

Council members received a lengthy presentation from city staff and the contractor proposing to do the repairs at a work session Monday. It was the same presentation given last month at the Ann Arbor Park Advisory Commission meeting where PAC voted 7-1 in favor of the project.

Council members made no decisions, but the proposal is expected to come before them for formal consideration next Monday night.

It's apparent council members are planning to have a philosophical discussion on the appropriateness of taking $300,000 from the city's drinking water fund to cover a portion of the project costs. That has been a part of city staff's recommendation.

The city has been tapping the drinking water fund for years to help pay for the repair and maintenance of the Argo and Geddes dams, but some argue it's inappropriate — and possibly illegal — since the dams serve purely recreational purposes these days.

For more than a year, city officials have acknowledged a need to move funding for the dams to the parks budget, but that hasn't been done yet.

"We said sometime back we needed to take a look at that, and I guess this is going to be the time when we do that," Mayor John Hieftje said.

Hieftje noted the $300,000 from the drinking water fund already has been budgeted for repairs to Argo Dam. He said there's the option of using that money and then saying, "OK, no more use of the water fund for maintenance of the dams" — or simply not using it at all.

"So I think there's some variations in the decision that council could make and it depends on where they want to draw the line," he said.

Council Member Carsten Hohnke, D-5th Ward, asked Monday night if the $300,000 would have to come from the parks budget if the city chose not to tap the drinking water fund.

"If you wanted to bite off the whole proposal, we would figure out a way to get it done. And if you chose not to use the water money, we would figure out a way to get it done," said City Administrator Roger Fraser. "And the question is really a policy matter about whether or not you want to continue to use the water fund at this location, but I would hope that you would understand that, for the sake of $300,000 in the total scheme of things, you have an opportunity here to really change the nature of this amenity in a major way."

Gary Lacy, an engineer with Colorado-based Recreation Engineering and Planning, fielded several questions from council members Monday night.

The project his firm would take on not only addresses concerns about the safety of the dam's earthen embankment, which were raised by the state, but also adds whitewater amenities and removes a portage at the end of the headrace where people currently are forced to lift their canoes and kayaks out of the water to bypass Argo Dam.

Council Member Tony Derezinski, D-2nd Ward, asked whether there was a way to also improve and widen the entrance to the headrace that bypasses Argo Dam.

Lacy described the current entrance as "a cold, dark concrete tunnel," but said it would take another $150,000 or more to improve clearance and add an arched bridge there.

"We didn't include that at this time because it really wasn't necessary," he said. "I mean, the canoes are going through there now. Everything's working fine. It's a little ugly and it's a little cold, but it still works. So it wasn't a necessity, but it's certainly an option that's feasible."

Lacy reiterated a point he made at last month's PAC meeting — that many of the amenities and improvements being proposed still would be useful if Argo Dam were removed. That includes embankment improvements, trail connections, whitewater features and most of the headrace.

He said if the dam was removed, the only changes that would have to be made would be reconfiguring the upper portion of the headrace to accommodate the drop in water level.

"I see this as a giant water slide, which is a good thing," Council Member Sabra Briere, D-1st Ward, said at one point during the meeting to describe the proposed headrace redesign.

City officials said the improvements are estimated to increase canoe livery revenues by $25,000 to $30,000 per year, as well as decrease ongoing maintenance and monitoring costs.

The city’s Argo Canoe Livery sees about 16,000 river trips each paddling season, resulting in about $210,000 in annual revenue. It is estimated that another 4,000 private canoeists also use the headrace each season.

According to city staff, the city has nearly $1.2 million in available funding to pay for the project. That includes tapping into $683,000 in parks funds that were once allocated to pay for the removal of ash trees due to emerald ash borer. In addition, $195,000 is available in a river parks capital project fund, and $300,000 remains unspent from money the city previously allocated from its water fund to repair the toe drains.

The project also calls for transforming a portion of the border-to-border trail that runs along the embankment from a narrow dirt path into an 8-foot-wide paved trail. City officials hope the county might be willing to chip in money for that part of the project.

Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for Reach him at or 734-623-2529.


Michael Psarouthakis

Thu, Nov 11, 2010 : 1:30 a.m.

Davidian your comment regarding the headrace silting in, what information is this statement based on? The headrace has been in place for decades and has not had a silt in problem. What in this proposal would cause the millrace to silt in now? In my opinion this statement fits in with the other inaccuracies many dam out supporters keep throwing at this issue, "it will only cost $1.4 million to remove the dam" ignores the full costs of a dam removal such as permits, relandscaping, possible pollution and silt issues, river redirection issues etc. No one really knows the full cost of removing the dam but it is clearly much higher than the quoted structural removal costs of $1.4 million. The complete refusal by dam out supporters to acknowledge the most serious risk associated with the ground pollution on the DTE/Michcon property eroding into the river if the dam is removed or the costs to prevent this from happening if the dam is removed. The attempt to make the millrace toe drain issue into a "Argo Dam is failing." issue. The fact that there is no federal funding or federal support to pay for the removal of an urban dam that is sandwiched a short distance between two other urban dams. As I understand it HRWC has also come to this conclusion, but I dont really expect to hear confirmation of this from HRWC. The fact that Barton and Gallup dams are so close up and downstream from Argo, which makes the free running river, significant river health and fish migration benefits completely insignificant at best. Cant imagine that Gallup fish are much different than Argo fish, and dont think either body of water has trout or would magically be able to support trout if Argo was removed. "That Argo pond is stagnant or smells", I have spent literally hundreds of hours on Argo over the past three years and not once have I ever smelled anything bad, other than an occasional skunk or the smell emanating from the perfectly placed outhouses at the Bandermeer parking lot. Last but not least the fact that there would be significant periods of time during the summer when there would be little or no flowing river because there are times when no water is flowing over Barton Dam. Not a good situation for canoe livery rentals at Argo, and likely would make the "stagnant and smelly" statements come true. There is strong community wide support for the hybrid mill race proposal (even from many dam out supporters). I hope the board puts this to issue to bed and approves as recommended by PAC at their November 15th meeting.

Cedric Richner

Wed, Nov 10, 2010 : 9:50 p.m.

I don't know who Davidian is, but I like the way he thinks about the Dam issue.


Wed, Nov 10, 2010 : 3:01 p.m.

I happen to be a Dam Out person myself - thanks Davidian. Having a recreational playground vs. not is what got put into play for sometime now. So take out the play and we have nothing eh?, quite the opposite... Ann Arbor will gain so much more.

Laurel Erickson

Wed, Nov 10, 2010 : 8:21 a.m.

@Wystan, thanks so much for the great history of Argo pond -- it really has been a central part of Ann Arbor history going back almost to the founding of Ann Arbor!


Wed, Nov 10, 2010 : 6:27 a.m.

Isn't there some community member who would be pleased to donate the $300,000 to complete this project? With naming rights to the stretch I should think there would be a number of individuals who would be pleased to take on this community service.

Ryan J. Stanton

Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 11:14 p.m.

Two items that may be of interest: Letter to residents regarding Argo from Christopher Taylor Proposal images


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 9:55 p.m.

The proper classification in the budget is the "Water Supply Fund" (not Drinking Water) and includes expenses such as payroll, Miss Dig, vehicles, customer service and a variety of maintenance related expenses, including dams, which are serviced within this unit. The Public Art Fund is also expensed out of the Water Supply Fund at an amount that far exceeds the dam maintenance so if we are going to talk about the appropriate placement of expenses, let's take a fair look at each line item.

Stephen Landes

Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 9:39 p.m.

If we're having trouble coming up with the money to fix the dam then where is the money going to come from to take the dam out? This will not be as simple as removing the dam itself. I have a feeling we are letting ourselves in for years of clean up and rebuilding of the river banks after the dam removal takes place. I would like to see a really complete comparison of costs for "dam in" versus "dam out" that includes the immediate charges and the projected costs fro the next 20 to 50 years. We should not make this decision on near term costs only or we will find ourselves years from now asking "what happened and why are we saddled with these expenses?"


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 8:56 p.m.

Tee, Argo Dam is *not* a water source. The water intake for the city is in Barton Pond. Argo Dam has no role in the Ann Arbor water supply, so funds dedicated to the water supply (and which come from the fees that residents pay for water service) should not be spent on it.


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 7:33 p.m.

Our local officials are not going to put a fence around a body of water, nor police every user. The organized users that already utilize this small stretch of urban water, already pay for facilities usage on land. Who will be the next target, cyclists or runners perhaps because they utilize bike paths? Will they be forced to buy a sticker that specifically funds path maintenance? Cities such as Grand Rapids, Columbus, Madison, Boston and scores of others, encourage users such as the rowing communities to utilize their urban waterways and welcome them with pride. We are so fortunate to have natural areas at every bend in our state and to target a small body of urban water that is enjoyed by many, is simply backwards thinking.


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 7:11 p.m.

Council members interested in where money is coming from? That's a first! Just tell them it's Ann Arbor's most vulnerable dam and they'll throw millions they don't have at it....then the dam will remain unchanged a decade after the money is wasted on it.


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 6:19 p.m.

dammed if you do and damned if you don't

Rork Kuick

Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 5:36 p.m.

@jcj: strawman. Correct comparison is the same reach with and without dam. Numbers of various types of users has been debated before, and I won't claim it's an easy calculation, or overwhelming.


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 5:03 p.m.

The expenses for the dams are being funded out of an account called the "Water Supply Fund" and not the "Drinking Water Fund", there is no such account in our city budget with such a name. It is much more appropriate for the Water Department who maintains the Dams to continue to pay for it's maintenance, and certainly more important to have the water fund pay for water sources such as Argo, than the Public Art Fund. I commend the city finance office and our elected officials who are not bowing to political pressure to change fund names or long standing financial policies for the mere purpose of appeasing a minor group of disgruntled folks. Ann Arbor is a unique town in that it does not provide a scenic entrance to the city and the Argo improvements are seen by many as a positive step in the right direction that may include additional revenue and visitors to our lovely city. This is a win-win situation, thanks to all who worked hard to see it this far and many look forward to it's completion.


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 4:47 p.m.

There will be excess funds once the 312 issue is addressed.


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 4:13 p.m.

"we are temporarily renting the artificial flat water for some people's benefit, and it's not that many people" Go to Delhi any day of the week and then tell me how many you saw utilizing the fast water or the park near it! If you can ever go to Delhi Park and find more than 5 cars there it is because of a party once a month.

Rork Kuick

Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 4:03 p.m.

The one cost that dam-stays folks fail to calculate at all in their plans is the cost of eventual removal. From that point of view we are temporarily renting the artificial flat water for some people's benefit, and it's not that many people, and later we still get to pay for removal.


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 4:03 p.m.

If you want to go back to natural then lets start walking again. And the next time there is a wild fire let it burn itself out! Whoops we tried that. They way things were is not always better is my point. I won't argue the monetary cost. There are not many ventures this city is involved in that don't lose money. But for some to say they don't care about those that want to enjoy a leisurely row on the pond. I say I don't care about golf get rid of any public owned golf course in the state. Or I don't care about sledding close down the sledding hill at vets.


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 3:48 p.m.

Oscar, My point is that a natural river is more historic than a man-made dam.

Oscar Lavista

Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 2:19 p.m.

@braggslaw, does your non sequitur have a point with regard to the Argo Dam? Wystan's information about the pond's importance to and interconnectedness with A2's history is extremely relevant and convincing. Too bad he has to keep re-telling the story every couple weeks to counter the "dam out" folks when they get yet another chance to lobby for their position.


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 1:13 p.m.

It's wrong to use drinking water funds to do work on Argo Dam. Those funds should be reserved for building and maintaining the water and sewer infrastructure, not building recreational features. Also, Barton Pond is our "urban waterfront"? Come on. Maybe in the Truman administration, when there was a swimming beach, but not since then.

Top Cat

Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 1:08 p.m.

Perhaps they should raise the money by selling naming rights to the dam. Imagine....Zingerman Dam....Le Dog Dam....Grizley Peak Dam.


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 1:02 p.m.

@Davidian "The river would be much better (and fun) if it was in a free flowing state." As an intermediate to advanced paddler myself (love the Sturgeon River @ Wolverine), I would generally agree with such a statement. However, I have the following concerns over it's application for this stretch of the river: 1.) Barton Dam's regulation of down stream water levels. What engineering assurances are there of adequate water levels - spring through fall? Will we have a Dexter Mill creek marsh result versus a Delhi rapids? 2.) Widely fluctuating water levels due to storm runoff. Just look upstream from Hudson Mills to Barton Pond. Every year paddlers need to be rescued and the river essentially gets temporarily closed down for liability reasons. How would this stretch be any different? 3.) From what I have seen, a large number of the city's rentals are to less experienced paddlers who enjoy the stretch from Barton to Argo or Argo down to Geddes. Unfortunately, these novice paddlers would then be left with only one choice of an already overcrowded Geddes Pond. So in addition to many other reasons (rowing community, scenery, preserving recent history, etc.) I am rightly skeptical about the claims of no negative impacts to the 20,000 paddlers currently using this stretch of the river. If I want free flowing, I still have options, I can go to Hudson Mills or Delhi or better yet Wolverine.


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 12:58 p.m.

@Wystan Stevens: Great post! I always enjoy your historical perspective. I agree completely. Let's not throw away our history just to gain a short stretch of "natural river" that in fact will never return to the state it once was despite what the HRWC claims. And I agree that the Argo Pond region can be further enhanced to take advantage of the natural beauty views in that area.


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 12:52 p.m.

Ok - Dam out - costs: 1) Permits - they may take as much as 3 to 5 years to get from the EPA and others, result, you may have to fix the dam before you can tear it down. 2) Contamination testing and localization of contaminates 3) Contamination mitigation plan 4) Dam Removal and removal of dam materials and foundations 5) Relocation of facilities costs (bridges, boat houses, livery, etc) 6) Silt removal and hauling 7) Stream bed design and reconstruction 8) Silt catchment during the silt removal and stream bed reconstruction and permits for the release of silt during this time period 9) Site testing on an ongoing basis for new contamination sources 10) landscaping the pond area and rebuilding usable land (silt typically makes very poor ground by itself) 11) Access and walkways into the new park land 12) Redrawing land boundries for any land owners who's deeds pre-date the pond creation 13) Any lawsuits from smell, truck routing, stream bed location, deed boundry issues, OSHA, injury, etc. 14) Other costs that could be associated with the removal In most cases a dam with the size pond this one has, will cost in the neighborhood of $3 to 8 million dollars to remove and that assumes little or no contamination that is considered hazardous waste. We know that at one time there was a paint mixing facility near the pond and they used both Lead and pigments, many of which are toxic. I don't know how much mitigation was done or how much might have gotten into the pond or if there is a problem. But a good research librarian should go back thru the records and figure out what businesses were where, and when and what the possible contamination is. This is not a simple wash in cost. The engineering and permits alone to remove the dam could easily top $500,000 and the testing prior to removal could top that. You may get down the path and be into for a million or more, and then realize how much it will really cost to remove the dam, only to find that the city can not afford it, but that they are too far along to not remove it. Be careful what you ask for, you may get it.


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 12:51 p.m.

Yes, Wystan is right. Every few weeks or so, the 'dam out' contingent gets a fresh platform to renew the venting yet again. Yawn. The upside, though, is that the continued venting and rehashing is all they have left in their arsenel. Dam removal was on the table at one point, but politically they have lost. One of the best features of the plan being discussed by council is as follows: "[Gary] Lacy reiterated... that many of the amenities and improvements being proposed still would be useful if Argo Dam were removed." That's thinking ahead, because one day the city will remove Argo Dam. There's no hurry at all, however. The dam construction itself remains in good shape, and most of the locals prefer the recreational and scenic benefits that it bestows. The contemporary preservation of Argo Dam involves a lot more than just the lobbying of those, ahem, evil and obstructionist student rowing teams. The HRWC needlessly damaged its reputation when it slyly tried to conflate the city's willful neglect of the embankment — off to the side of the dam — with the peril of imagined failure in the actual steel and concrete structure. But that attempted scare, accompanied by its call for immediate dam removal (Emergency! No time to discuss!), didn't work. As for the $300,000 funding portion which has become somewhat controversial, the city this year had no problem with dropping an additional, unbudgeted, cool million or two into finishing its new courts building. Using those decisions as a standard or yardstick, why any controversy here?


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 12:47 p.m.

@Davidian: "Ann Arbor will be spending millions on Argo for years to come". Yeah, you're right if you're looking decades into the future. According to city figures, the yearly maintenance/insurance costs for Argo Dam (including annualized major expenditures occurring every 5 and 15 years) is only $69,000. To me that's a drop in the bucket compared to all the recreational opportunities the pond and surrounding parkland offers. Having a sizable, slower-moving body of water for families to canoe right in town is a benefit. Plus many younger people swim there in the summer. It's not as "smelly" as you think it is apparently. And maybe the rowers who are "of no concern to me" certainly aren't to the families of hundreds of high school athletes, youth rowers, and college students who use the pond to better themselves and the community. And I'm not even mentioning the hundreds of adult rowers who also benefit from using the pond. Now if you want to talk about spending millions, that's what it will cost in the SHORT TERM to remove the dam, rebuild the pedestrian bridge, clean up and restore the 28 acres of land that would be reclaimed, and re-construct docks, walking areas, and infrastructure near the river. Spending money is a good thing if you get a lot of benefit from it. Investing money in a recreational and historical jewel like the Argo Pond area is money WELL SPENT. I'm all in favor of the city spending the $1.17 million on improving the dam and headrace. This will provide even greater recreational opportunities for thousands of Ann Arbor-ites for many years to come.

Buster W.

Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 12:36 p.m.

Why didn't City Council contact Dingell prior to the mid-term election on this? He'd Gidder Done.


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 11:50 a.m.

Headline: Argo Dam repairs have Ann Arbor council members questioning where funds should come from... Dear council, All funds that you work with come from taxpayers... You, know, the parties that you owe fiduciary responsibility... public interest, public protection, public trust, (blah, blah, blah)... So, here's what you do... In your next budget preparation, use fiscal discretion (do you need to hire a consultant to explain it?) to develop a plan to pay for essential city elements such as infrastructure maintenance, repair, and replacement. Pay for essentials. Then, go home and compost your leaves. Unless you live in the township and burn your leaves like you burn through our cash.; )


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 11:37 a.m.

Davidian: "... the bottom line is money, and the appropriate use of money. Argo is an albatross." Agree with this comment... except replace the word "Argo" with "City Council." Revised: "... the bottom line is money, and the appropriate use of money. City Council is an albatross." Key phrase? "... appropriate use of money..." There is none left to do the things a city is supposed to do. So we enter our new fiscal phase, "We must raise taxes to pay for essential services and infrastructure, because we filled (and continue to fill) a pond bigger than Argo with our frolicking fiscal folly frittering." Except, even with the "more taxes" the flaming floundering fiscal folly-ites will continue to spend on fiscal folly. Tree town = folly town. Get used to it. Thanks mayor (little "m"), thanks council (little "c"), thanks dda (little "dda"). And we'll continue to hear the dark side of fiscal folly crying, "We have no money for juror furniture (maybe we should use the porch ban couches). We have no money for infrastructure repair... We have no money for leaf pickup... We have no money for ordinance enforcement... We have no money for employees... We have no money for pensions..." Yawn Yawn Yawn. I guess this might mean that the rowers will just have to enjoy paddling in the City's folly fountain. Woo hoo. Regatta anyone? : )


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 10:58 a.m.

history: This is about as relevant as the history of the dam that is repeatedly posted. Immense prehistoric GLOFs, known as the Missoula Floods, occurred in North American's Columbia River watershed towards the end of the last ice age. They were the result of periodic breaches of ice dams in present day Montana, resulting in the draining of a body of water now known as Glacial Lake Missoula. Glacial River Warren drained Glacial Lake Agassiz during the Wisconsinian glaciation, in whose bed the now mild Minnesota River flows. This river seasonably drained glacial meltwater into what is now the Upper Mississippi River. The region now termed the Driftless Area of North America was contemporaneously also subject to glacial outburst floods from Glacial Lake Grantsburg, and Glacial Lake Duluth during all three phase of the last ice age. Between 6 and 10 September 2003, a GLOF occurred from Grasshopper Glacier in the Wind River Mountains, Wyoming. A proglacial lake at the head of the glacier burst through a glacial dam, and water from the lake carved a trench down the center of the glacier for more than 0.8 kilometres (0.5 mi). An estimated 2,460,000 cubic metres (650,000,000 US gal) gallons of water were released in four days, raising the flow level of Dinwoody Creek from 5.66 cubic metres (200 cu ft) per second to 25.4 cubic metres (900 cu ft) per second, as recorded at a gauging station 27 kilometres (17 mi) downstream. Debris from the flood was deposited more than 32 kilometres (20 mi) along the creek. The GLOF has been attributed to the rapid retreat of the glacier, which has been ongoing since the glacier was first accurately measured in the 1960s.[5][6]


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 10:54 a.m.

@blah: "So the estimated 20,000 "paddlers" each season don't exist?" Never said they didn't. The river would be much better (and fun) if it was in a free flowing state. I've paddled it, fished it, and even swam in it. Argo pond is pretty from a distance, but up close, it is murky, and it literally stinks. The rowers are of no concern to me. Misappropriation of taxpayer money, filthy water, and a dam that is potentially dangerous and extremely expensive is what matters.


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 10:54 a.m.

@ Davidian, consider running for council? Damn Out NOW!


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 10:27 a.m.

@Davidian "The pond is pretty, but as far as recreation goes, it's really only good for the rowers." Yet the article states "The citys Argo Canoe Livery sees about 16,000 river trips each paddling season, resulting in about $210,000 in annual revenue. It is estimated that another 4,000 private canoeists also use the headrace each season." So the estimated 20,000 "paddlers" each season don't exist? I am getting tired of the "dam out" crowd trying to reduce this to a rowers only issue.


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 10:17 a.m.

Using the drinking water fund to pay for the dam is not just a misappropriation of money. It keeps us from providing essential services. Years ago the city committed to a Source Water Protection Plan, which would make sure we have safe, clean drinking water. Yet they have not put a penny toward actually implementing the plan. Dams are being torn down across the country because just like this one, they're bad for the environment, they cost too much, and they are not essential services. Argo Dam doesn't provide electrical power (another study just found that trying to install power would be a massive money loser). It doesn't prevent flooding. It doesn't provide drinking water. The DNRE lists it as Top 3 for removal on the Huron. And only NOW has the city begun to try figuring out how it will legitimately pay for this thing.


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 9:57 a.m.

Davidian "Imagine another Delhi. If the dam is removed properly, in stages, that's what it will look like." I agree that Delhi is a great place. We have been taking our kids and grandkids there for 35 years. It only takes a few minutes to get there. But for 35 years we have been able to go there without being crowded. If that is what you want, take a ten minute drive! "However, the bottom line is money, and the appropriate use of money." I don't think EVERYTHING should come down to money.


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 9:46 a.m.

Wystan, that was a great and accurate summary. In fact, my Senior Thesis was on the history of the seven dams surrounding Ann Arbor, so I too appreciate the historical significance and share your sentiments. However, the bottom line is money, and the appropriate use of money. Argo is an albatross. I will also take the historical significance argument a step further: what about the 10000 (or so) years of history before the dam was put in? If you put in that historical context, Argo is sand, and the wind blows...

Wystan Stevens

Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 9:35 a.m.

I notice that has been giving the "dam out" folks a fresh platform for their rash exhortations, every few weeks lately. But before the comment floodgates burst open again, let's put the situation calmly, in historical perspective. The pond now called Argo has been a fixture of the local landscape since 1832, when Anson Brown erected a grist mill beside an early wooden version of the Broadway Bridge, and built the first dam to hold water back to power the mill. (Born a New Yorker, Brown started the settlement known as Lower Town Ann Arbor, calling Broadway and Wall Street after thoroughfares in New York City. Brown owned the mill, but was not the miller, and he died in the cholera epidemic of 1834.) An internet search wont find early 19th-century references to Argo, because the pond didnt have that name until 1892, when a group of Ann Arbor businessmen, investors in the Michigan Milling Company, took over the operation (then known as the Sinclair Mills) and rebuilt the structure that they named the Argo Flouring Mills. The dam and pond took their name from the mills, but no one knows where that name came from. Did the mills golden grain suggest a comparison to the brave ship Argo of Greek myth, which bore Jason and his men in search of the Golden Fleece? (The Michigan Milling Company had its offices at the Central Mills on First Street, where the Blind Pig is now and where, Im told, a certain golden liquid flows a beverage made from grain.) Through the decades, the dam was rebuilt a few times (and probably made a little higher, after the Eastern Michigan Edison Company acquired the water rights). But in a freak calamity that drew a crowd of spectators, the Argo mill exploded and burned on January 4, 1904. Firemen came, and the water that doused the flames left a white pall of icicles on the tall buildings ruined skeleton, a scene captured in dramatic photographs. The companys plutocrat investors decided not to rebuild, and a picturesque milling era we might call it the Flouring of Ann Arbor came to an end. From Argos ashes rose the Phoenix of a new era of power generation. Within a few years, the company later known as Detroit Edison had erected a power generating station on the mill site, running its turbines and generators with water from the millrace. Three weeks after the mill disaster, on January 27, 1904, the Ann Arbor Railroads trestle collapsed, dropping a heavy freight train and its cargo onto the ice of Argo Pond. In the days that followed, parties of gawkers turned out for that spectacle too, including small boys like the late Ray Spokes, who went out onto the ice and looted water-soaked crates of Beemans Pepsin Gum. The inadequate early trestle which stood close to the dam got replaced months later with another of thick steel, on massive concrete piers, a landmark still in place. (That year, 1904, was a bad one at both ends: a winter with snow so deep that travelers in the countryside saw no farm fences -- all were buried in snow. And on the last day of December, the Ann Arbor High School burned to the ground.) Throughout the 19th century, and early decades of the 20th, winter ice was harvested on Argo Pond, and stored in great blocks in straw-lined ice houses on the Main Street riverbank. Some of the ice buildings were owned by downtown caterers like Jacob Hangsterfer, whose big emporium depended on a steady supply of ice to preserve meats and other perishables, and to refresh thirsty customers at his ballroom, year round. Another enterprising German immigrant was Paul G. Tessmer, who in 1898 sold his grocery business and opened a boat livery the U. of M. Boat House on the ponds Main Street side. By 1906, Tessmer had a stock of 160 canoes and 40 rowboats, all built by himself. He and his big family lived in a house on Sunset hill, overlooking the pond a building that became the Elks Pratt Lodge. Tessmers docks and boathouse later were moved across the pond, to the foot of Longshore Drive, and became William J. Saunders canoe livery, then Jack Wirths, until 1969, when the Ann Arbor parks department took over. On moonlit evenings in June, the pond was jammed with U-M students in canoes, boys in blazers treating their sweethearts to a mandolin serenade. Around 1900, these romantics began calling the path along the headrace embankment Lovers Lane. (In the 1930s and 40s, the embankment became part of Ann Arbors hobo jungle.) One of the citys public works projects during the Depression years was the building of a public bathing beach at the foot of Longshore Drive, where the canoe livery is now. Tons and tons of Lake Michigan white sand were hauled in and spread around, to make the beach comfortable and pretty. Repeated summer polio scares in the 1940s eventually led to its closing. The pond was drained in 1930, when Edison built a new dam, and again in the early 1970s, when Joe ONeals construction company built the present dam for the city a project completed in 1972. Treasure hunters prowled the muck for artifacts, and collectors found old Ann Arbor bottles for their collections. Construction workers pulled a particularly heavy souvenir out of the mud: a set of ribbed steel wheels, from one of the boxcars that fell off the old railroad trestle in 1904! Argo Pond is an essential element of the history of Ann Arbor; it helps define our citys character. In historical terms, Ann Arbor has always had that pond, has grown up around it, and would not be the same without it. Some folks have called it stagnant, but of course that is absurd. It is a dynamic body, as dynamic as the city itself. The waters of the Huron have flowed since time began, and they have been flowing through the pond and over the dam, ever since Ann Arbor was a tiny village in the wilderness west of Detroit. By all means let us maintain momentum, improve the ponds surroundings, clear out shabby factory buildings on North Main Street, and replace them with an attractive multi-use facility, one which includes cafes and a dining terrace that overlooks trees and water. It is a view to be enjoyed in every season. But let us not rashly sacrifice our beloved Argo Pond, Ann Arbors urban waterfront. Argo is an asset, an amenity of the type that other communities long for. We should consider every means of enhancing access to it, and keeping its shining surface intact. Dont pull the plug on Argo dont let it go down the drain. My enjoyment of the river has been passive. I havent been out in a boat, havent stopped to watch the oarsmen, never even dipped a toe in Argo Pond but I appreciate Argos contribution to the quality of life in this place, and I like to see it now and then, and know that it is there. I hope that it will forever remain in the heart of our city, where it has been bubbling and rippling for 178 years.


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 8:44 a.m.

Dam out. Stop wasting money.


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 8:28 a.m.

Raise the rent on our parkland for the new UM parking garage... or cancel the folly fountain... Instead maybe we should design a new budget line item: "1% for failing infrastructure." : )


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 8:20 a.m.

Cheers @Davidian! City Council: "tear it down."


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 8:07 a.m.

Ann Arbor will be spending millions on Argo for years to come. The headrace will quickly silt in and the dam itself has required major repairs every 20-30 years. The drains will continue to be a nuisance. Where will this money come from? The pond is pretty, but as far as recreation goes, it's really only good for the rowers. There are no game fish to speak of. Its water is stagnant and not very healthy. The bottom is thick muck over contaminated debris from early manufacturing on the site. Imagine another Delhi. If the dam is removed properly, in stages, that's what it will look like. Comparisons to Dexter Dam are not appropriate. Argo is built on some of the river's best gradient. Removal is a permanent solution. Federal funding to remove the contaminated silt and help with the dam removal is likely available, as it has been for other similar projects. It really is the only responsible option. I'm not a HRWC slappie. In fact, I'm fascinated with dams, their history, and their beauty. But I don't think endless repairs to a structure that has long outlived its usefulness is appropriate.


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 6:38 a.m.

That setup looks like it is going to cost millions (now matter what estimate the city gives) The HRWC is right when it objects to using drinking water money to fund a water slide.


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 6:31 a.m.

Steal it from the Green Belt slush fund OR have a county wide tax and stick to the Townships.


Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 6:16 a.m.

"I see this as a giant water slide, which is a good thing," Council Member Sabra Briere You can't make this stuff up!