Good Bye Dam

Written by JJ Mish

Photos © JJ Mish, unless otherwise noted.

Joe Mish has always lived in sight of New Jersey’s Raritan River. His early years were spent roaming clay banks, streams, tidal creeks and swamps of the Lower Raritan near Crab Island. Now living upstream on the Raritan’s South Branch, he photographs New Jersey’s natural treasures hidden in plain view, sharing them in his column “Along the South Branch” in The Branchburg News, blog, the Lower Raritan River Partnership blog. Many of his photos (along with NWNL photos) appear in Judy Auer Shaw’s The Raritan River: Our Landscape, Our Legacy. Joe also has images published in Northeast Sporting Journal, Maine Outdoors and History of Willowood. A graduate of Rutgers Cook College, Joe has also been a regular on Super Aging Today radio program as a nature photojournalist. Retired from Johnson and Johnson where he worked in Clinical Research and Pharmacology, Joe paddles local rivers throughout the year to see what surprises nature has to offer when no one else is looking.  

(Joe’s previous blog for NWNL is entitled, “Along the South Branch.” This April, Joe joined NWNL for a day of aerial photography over the entire Raritan River Basin, courtesy of flights provided by Lighthawk.org.)

The large letters written in white chalk on the old concrete dam in central New Jersey simply said: “Good Bye Dam.” That sentiment was accompanied by other names and sketches, like a farewell card signed for a departing fellow co-worker.

The dam on New Jersey’s Lamington River at Burnt Mills was about to be removed, after several iterations of mills there, beginning in early colonial times circa 1754. The Lamington River is a headwaters tributary to the North Branch of the Raritan River.

Dams and mills hace come and gone along New Jersey rivers and streams. Some were destroyed by floods, fire or angry upstream neighbors deprived of migrating fish. British troops did their part by burning the mill on the Lamington, which was henceforth named Burnt Mill. These days, older Raritan River dams are being removed by private organizations and groups in cooperation with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. These organizations are dedicated to river restoration and the downstream benefits to native wildlife and soil stability. 

The Burnt Mills dam captures the character of the Lamington and South Rockaway Rivers. Mature trees lock in the soil and a heavy canopy shades the shallow water. 

Hundreds of dams across the country have been removed or are scheduled for removal. The results are, for the most part, shockingly positive. From California to Maine, documentation includes stories of returning fisheries, reduction in sediment accumulation, reduced flooding and a greater diversity of wildlife.

Every dam is its own story, dependent on location. Downstream of the Lamington, on the main stem of the Lower Raritan, dam removals have allowed anadromous fish to return upstream. In colonial times, netting alewives and shad, generated profitable commercial fishing as far upstream as the town of Raritan. Mills and dams put an end to that business.  

Most early mills were situated on smaller feeder streams to avoid seasonal floods and raging currents. The Lamington River dam was perfectly situated in that regard. Mature trees lined the banks to stabilize the soil and keep the water cool. Streambeds remained narrow as a result and water volume was minimized due to runoff during periods of seasonal flooding.   

The low concrete dam across the Lamington at Burnt Mills was previously breached in the early 1950’s. This misdirected the stream’s flow into the opposite shore, causing severe erosion. A comparison of a 1953 view with the mill still intact to a 1956 view after the dam’s first breach shows the resulting erosion. An aerial view from today, compared to 1956, is even more dramatic. Though development in this watershed has exploded, the streambed of the upper Lamington, also referred to as the Black River and the Rockaway, remains mostly sand and gravel. 

The Lamington River, also referred to as the Black River and the Rockaway, is the recipient of water released from Cushetunk Lake and Round Valley Reservoir via South Rockaway Creek, as well as residential runoff from extensive upstream development. These added flows into the lower Lamington have hastened its meandering, as directed by impervious shale cliffs and the Burnt Mills concrete dam. Concrete walls, designed to prevent erosion, speed the streamflow that would otherwise be slowed by natural shorelines. In this case, concrete walls line an upstream golf course. Another wall lines an outside curve along the road about a half-mile above the dam. 

During times of planned water release and seasonal storms, the Lamington’s water volume and speed create a high-pressure nozzle at the point of the breached dam. A few hundred yards above the dam, the sum of upstream water that is the Lamington flows around a sharp bend. It then careens off the high straight wall of red shale; slams into a concrete barrier perpendicular to its flow; and then heads left into a bank of unstable soil.      

Free-flowing rivers represent pure energy, as it is energy and movement that define life. Science aside, we embrace the magic of perpetual motion and endless flow. Flowing water is a magic carpet which requires no effort to travel, whether it be by vessel or imagination.

Any interruption in unimpeded flow is representative of a progressive pathology, and thus presents an existential threat. The damnation of rivers and streams represents stasis, blockages and clots; their removal, a life-saving intervention. 

Before and after images show the progress of the dam removal. This work three days. On the 6th day the project was completed and the stream flowed free for the first time since the 1700’s.

So it was, the landmark Burnt Mill dam came down with mixed feelings for those whose youthful memories were cast into the concrete substructure. The removal was well planned and orchestrated, as opposed to the popular misconception that removing a dam involves a charge of dynamite and a yell of, ‘Fire in the hole.’

The course of the river needed to be shifted and so large boulders were strategically placed to form the foundation of a left bank. A 323 Caterpillar excavator, fitted with tracks, moved into the river above the dam. It began to scoop riverbed gravel to line the upstream length of the concrete dam. Apparently, this prevented water from flooding the work area during removal.

 

With boulders in place on the downstream side, a second 323 “Cat,” fitted with a ram-driven spike, began to break up the concrete, starting midstream and working toward the right shore. It appeared the first foot-and-a-half was easily penetrated. The second and third pass strained the hydraulic ram. The concrete’s resistance was futile. After each session with the spike, the front-end loader scooped up the rubble and dumped it in line with the boulders to form a new shoreline. The effort continued and half the dam was broken up and redistributed in about four hours. See the video of the first day of dam removal.

Work continues, as the removal of the dam was just the first step in restoring the Lamington River to its original pre-1754 course. A new generation will know a different river, just as the last generation knew only a river interrupted by a dam.

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