On the night of June 25, 1968, after about five inches of rain had fallen, Saline faced a crisis.
“The police went down the street with the flashing red lights and the loud speakers to ask the guys to come out and put their boots on and bring their shovels and their raincoat and come on down and help save Michigan Avenue from the broken dam,” said Joe Bernbeck, a Saline resident who answered the call back then.
The dam, built by Henry Ford, had lasted for several decades, but this time there was just too much water. Water from the millpond began flowing over the clay dike and eventually broke through just east of the dam.
The hastily recruited crew included many local volunteers, and their ranks were bolstered when the sheriff brought in prisoners from the county jail. The two groups worked side by side while armed guards oversaw the prisoners. Ladies from the community prepared sandwiches for the men who worked through the night.
According to Bernbeck, the crews originally worked on reducing the flow of water by preparing sandbags and piling them in the breach of the dam. After a few hours they moved south and built a wall of sandbags around the already flooded sewage plant. When the wall was complete, pumps were used to remove the floodwater from the facility.
After working all night, Bernbeck, went back to work at his regular job. No doubt many others did the same. A resolution from City Council was posted in the Saline Reporter one month later commending all the unnamed citizens who helped in Saline’s time of need.
Curtiss Park was inundated. Major damage to Michigan Avenue was averted, but it was still closed for several days. In the meantime, the millpond, considered to have been “Saline’s most outstanding beauty spot” according to the Reporter, was mostly gone. The empty pond area soon became overgrown with weeds.
In November of ’68, just months after the flood, local leaders put four pricey bond issues on the ballot. Two of these related to the flood area: An estimated $175,000 to repair the dam and $160,000 for an approximately one-acre swimming pool to be built in Curtiss Park. These proposals were voted down.
However, Saline council members and the mayor still wanted to rebuild the dam.
“We can’t leave it just as it is, because during high water periods, the water could undermine Michigan Avenue and the bridge, and we have a responsibility to see that this doesn’t happen,” said then mayor, George Johnson.
In the spring of 1969, the Jaycees proposed eliminating the dam because it served no practical purpose.
“Other than the beauty of the thing, we see no reason for having it, because the park floods every year and washes out the footbridge,” said Lee Decker, speaking for the Jaycees.
Over the next few years various proposals were considered and rejected by city council. Alternative sources of funding were explored with little success. City council was quite concerned about potential lawsuits if the dam was repaired on the cheap and then washed out again.
Early in 1970, an inexpensive solution championed by the Saline Reporter involved repairing the breach and lowering the spillway by about three feet. They said that State Highway department engineers had assured them that lowering the spillway would suitably increase runoff capacity. They said it could be could be done for only $30,000.
Water broke through the dike, just east of the dam in June 1968.
-Photo courtesy of the Saline Area Historical Society
In response to this proposal, City Council member Hubert Beach wrote a letter to the editor.
“We should not cut 3 ft. (or any) off the spillway and lower the pond level, although this would be a way of increasing the flow at all times. (So would removing the whole dam.) I feel that a lowered dam would not be scenic – it will be weedy – and will scum up and silt up rapidly,” Beach said.
Apparently Beach’s views struck a chord. He ran for mayor later that year, making restoration of the millpond the centerpiece of his campaign. He won.
In spring of 1971, Beach proposed a dam repair based loosely on what had been done in Tecumseh. Their dam had failed in the same storm. Beach, in consultation with an Ann Arbor engineer, said it could be done for around $50,000.
In November of 1971, a ballot proposal asked voters if they would be willing to accept a limited one mil increase in taxes that would raise $55,000 to repair the dam. The vote was only advisory, but citizens made clear they did want to restore the millpond.
In May of 1972, Beach suggested that the repair would cost a bit more; perhaps $60,000, not including any dredging of the existing pond. He convinced City Council to authorize $5,000 for engineering plans.
Jack Craigmile of the engineering firm, Ayres, Lewis, Norris and May drew up a plan that included two 11-foot wide radial gates. Beach, trying to reduce costs, suggested a single gate plan, but this was ultimately rejected.
By August, Craigmile was estimating a cost of $80,000 for the repair. When the work was put out for a bid, the lowest came in at over $98,000.
There was considerable tension within City Council at this time. So much so, that Council voted to censure the mayor. They sent a proclamation to government and business entities that interact with the city asserting that the mayor does not speak for the city.
In spite of all the drama, Beach was reelected. In the first meeting after his reelection, he moved that the censure be reversed, but there was no second, so the motion failed.
In early 1973, the city received preliminary approval of a revised dam design from the DNR. The DNR also specified that if the pond was to be stocked with fish it should be at least 8 feet deep. This suggested that dredging might be needed.
Costs continued to mount. Engineering costs increased to $16,000. Dredging over 125,000 yards of silt from the pond bottom ultimately cost $148,000. All this was in addition to the roughly $100,000 for dam repair.
In spite of mounting costs and other delays, work to repair the dam was completed in 1973. Dredging began in 1974. The city received $75,000 in federal revenue sharing and was able to get a low interest loan for the remaining debt.
In February of 1974, the millpond became know as Mill Pond. This was part of a larger project to name the parks in Saline.
By the end of 1974, the dredging and the legal hurdles were completed and the gates of the new dam were finally closed. By mid July of 1975, water once again began to flow over the spillway. However, the pond had to be lowered again to further stabilize the banks before it could be returned to full depth.
In the 1974 election, George Anderson was elected mayor, replacing Beach. Beach had been able to fulfill his campaign promise to rebuild the dam.
In 1975 a new project was announced. A group called The Valley and the Flats Foundation, headed by Mr. and Mrs. Frank Brittain proposed that a memorial area be built in the newly named Mill Pond Park.
The project would include a tribute to Saline citizens who made outstanding contributions to the community and a “walk of concrete” in which the names of graduating seniors would be inscribed each year. The plans also called for a fountain and a swimming pool.
The project failed because of excessive costs, inability to receive tax-exempt status and other factors. A year after its founding, the group was quietly dissolved.
Saline resident Mary Lirones remembers when the dam broke and the debate that ensued about whether to restore the millpond. She was a strong supporter of rebuilding the dam - back then.
Now she has a different view of dams. She says that they are destructive to the ecology of the river. Dams cause the impounded water to get too warm, encourage the growth of invasive species and cause silt to pile up behind the dam.
The drama of 1968 through 1974 is likely to be replayed again some day. Dams do not last forever and the pond will eventually become too full of silt. Time will tell how this will be resolved.
This rush of water over the dam following heavy rains in June 2015 gives a hint of conditions in June 1968. Note that the rotary gate at the left has been opened.