The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, January 08, 2020 1:00 am

Work begins to remove Whitley dam

Eel River structure latest to go - they're outdated and risky


A deteriorating Whitley County dam that was the site of a fatal kayaking accident in 2017 is being removed beginning today.

Demolition of the Collamer Dam on the Eel River will make for 95 miles of open waterway, promoting both safer recreation and ecological health, said Jerry Sweeten, a retired Manchester University biology professor, now an environmental consultant.

Sweeten has led studies of Eel River and advocated for dam removals for several years. Removal of the low-head Collamer Dam near South Whitley is the fourth Eel River dam to be demolished, he said.

“This is a remarkable thing, to open up this much of the river,” Sweeten said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “With this removal, the river is open all the way from Logansport to the top of the watershed, which begins just west of Fort Wayne.”

That means there will be no barrier to migrating fish, including small-mouth bass and several species of suckers, including the great red horse sucker, an endangered species in Indiana, Sweeten said.

The river has 52 fish species, 43 of which migrate upstream, he said.

Sweeten explained that the dams along the Eel were originally placed in the 19th century by early settlers to aid the development of grist mills driven by water power.

Collamer Dam served that purpose and later aided in generation of electric power.

But the structure has not served those uses for decades and does not serve any flood-control purpose, he said.

However, the dam remains a potent hazard to humans.

“One thing we didn't know (during scientific studies) was how deadly these (dams) are to people,” Sweeten said. “Most people don't know that they all have recirculators at the bottom of them. People go over the dam and get sucked in underwater and can't get out.”

That's what happened in June 2017, when Richard V. Wilson, 31, of Warsaw was kayaking and went over the dam. He was able to get out of the kayak and a friend pulled him out of the water, but he died after being helicoptered to a hospital, according to police reports.

In 2015, Sean Hiebel, 24, of Fort Wayne died after taking his kayak over the Hosey Dam on the Maumee River in Fort Wayne. His family has started an organization to warn others about the danger of dams.

The only dams that will remain on the Eel River will be at Stockdale, near Roann, where a fish ladder opens the river to fish, and at Logansport, Sweeten said.

He said Logansport may be the next target for dam removal; dams have been removed at Liberty Mills, North Manchester and Mexico.

At Collamer, the removal of the dam was hastened by damage that occurred in October, Sweeten added.

The 115-year-old concrete dam developed a breach that caused water to pour through the hole, further weakening the structure.

The dam's owners and volunteers tried to block the hole with sandbags but were unsuccessful. The dam was posted as hazardous and blocked off.

The dam's removal will include construction of a boat launch, Sweeten said. Funding through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Ohio River Basin Fish Habitat Partnership and a private donation is allowing removal at a cost of around $50,000, he said.

The job will be done by Troy Eads Excavating of Lagro and should take about five days.

Mary Bookwalter, an Indianapolis resident and a partner in the removal effort, said more old dams in Indiana should be demolished to promote river use.

“You know, a lot of people from Fort Wayne come down here and enjoy the river for fishing and boating,” she said. “A dam is a danger to people and an obstacle for wildlife.

“And a free-flowing river is a healthier river.”

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