Dam Tough Black River Falls
To the Heartland. The Black River Falls dam project is a planned stop on the Dire States tour as Mrs. Martin, the Dire States’s 1949 Hudson, rolls out of Madison, Wisconsin. When Mrs. Martin motors along the Big Road of I-94 towards the Twin Cities of Minnesota on the week of November 4th, she’ll roll through the a village that was once civilization’s edge.
Wisconsin’s Black River cuts through an area of granite called the Driftless Area. The falling river first created an energy opportunity in an area blessed with a bounty of pine trees in the mid 1800s. Lumberman Jacob Spaulding founded Black River Falls, a town on the edge of the water running mad. river and dense forest. Starting in 1839, Spaulding and other lumbermen built mills to harvest the dense forest. When harnessed, restless river powered the mills. When not, the river over ran the town.
In 1847 the Black River swept them away. A robust cycle of building, flooding and rebuilding began. Hydro powered surges continually swept though the town taking wooden buildings down river. A fire joined the follies of floods burning the town to the ground in 1860. In 1911, another surge flooded Main Street taking the town’s wooden structures with it. Again the town rebuilt. Instead of felling trees, a modern material called concrete was mixed, poured and formed to rebuild buildings proudly standing today.
Even the one main concrete structure in the town fell victim to the 1911 flood. Built a few years before in 1908, the then super structure stood strong during the storm’s surge – too strong. Built without flood gates water building behind the dam became overwhelming. Desperate town folk dynamited the dam to release water pressure. Water swept parts of the dam and the town – once again – down river.
Needless to say, the designer of the 1908 dam was not invited back. A new engineer was hired to design a new dam when it was rebuilt in 1911. The job went to a man named Daniel W. Mead, a professor of engineering at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Mead designed an early Art Deco dam that withstood a century of torrents from the Back River.
Today the Black River Fall’s dam is so critical to the town’s existence the townspeople taxed themselves millions to fund its rebuilding. This project is remarkable for what it is not. It’s not a federal project – although the loan to pay the bill was floated by the United States Department of Agriculture. It is not a state undertaking although it was built to state specifications. It’s all local. Built and paid for by town folk.