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In Addition To Electricity, Stevenson Dam Generates Much Lore And A Few Myths



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In Addition To Electricity, Stevenson Dam Generates Much Lore And A Few Myths

By Dottie Evans

Nothing lasts forever.

But the 85-year-old Stevenson Dam, built in 1917 to span the Housatonic River and provide a source of hydropower, has confounded modern engineers. Despite its age, the 1,250-foot-long concrete gravity dam not only holds back thousands of tons of water to make Lake Zoar, it supports a major roadway –– two-lane Route 34 connecting Danbury and New Haven.

John Babina, Jr, is a Monroe historian and engineer, who worked in avionic systems at Sikorsky Aircraft until his retirement in 1999. On September 8, he gave an illustrated talk to the Newtown Historical Society about the building of the Stevenson Dam, which he said was “the most ambitious engineering feat of the East Coast in that time.”

“Stevenson Dam is only one of two dams in the country that has a public road over the top. [The Hoover Dam being the other.] But as we all know, that’s not going to last much longer.”

The Department of Transportation (DOT) is making plans to separate the dam from its function as a road across the river, by building a new vehicular bridge over Lake Zoar to be constructed upriver from the Stevenson Dam. The current road atop the dam is too narrow, the turns at either end are too tight for the long container trucks, and the dam itself is in need of repair.

“They feel the bridge has been used way beyond its life expectancy. It would not be a good idea to keep it on line,” Mr Babina said. The new bridge over Lake Zoar is still in the permit stage, he added.

The Stevenson Dam, itself, is going through another Federal Environmental Regulatory Commission (FERC) licensing hearing, because engineers “think they can get 40 more years out of it. In the 1970s, they drilled down into the dam and bolted it to the bedrock to beef it up, sort of like a root canal. They hope to get FERC approval by spring.”

Today, the dam is only used during peaking power needs. Fifteen percent of national power comes from hydropower, with Niagara Falls accounting for most of it, Mr Babina said.

Mr Babina’s narrative began with the Housatonic River in the middle of the 19th Century, and the need for travelers going between the towns of Oxford and Monroe to cross it. At first there were a series of wooden covered bridges, he said, but they were all wiped out by a succession of spring floods, breakups of ice on the river. Big chunks kept hitting the structures and carrying away whole sections.

As a remedy, the flexible Zoar suspension bridge, designed to take the pressure from the ice floes, was built in 1876. Old photographs of that picturesque bridge show its four fanciful end pillars and a long, one-way span across the river. The Zoar bridge lasted until 1917, when it was taken down to make way for the dam.

Construction Camp For 800 Workers

Images from the dam’s construction phase came to life through Mr Babina’s slides showing the site before it was flooded. Huge steam-powered cranes and pile drivers had been rolled into place, pulled along temporary narrow-gauge railroad tracks by the old workhorse engines.

“The trains did everything in those days. They even built things. They didn’t have bull-dozers then,” he noted.

Seen alongside heavy machinery were such incongruous things as horses and buggies, and a barracks style hotel for 800 immigrant Italian laborers who had moved in for the three years it took to complete the dam.

In closeup, the old photographs revealed glimpses of the lifestyle at what was known as “Camp Crisfield.” Long Johns were hung out to dry. Piles of wood and garbage lay off to the side. Telegraph poles loomed over the temporary railroad tracks. A dilapidated little structure might have been either a privy or a dynamite shack. The name of the contractor, Blakeslee & Son Construction Company, could be seen painted on the sides of the sturdy engines.

 “They hauled the dirt and rocks out by dragging buckets attached to cables, and the surveying was done by hanging steel lines from towers across the river. They didn’t have lasers in those days,” Mr Babina said. He added he wouldn’t have been surprised to spot a team of oxen pulled up alongside the tracks.

When the dam was completed and the floodgates were closed, on November 24, 1919, many local residents expected that Lake Zoar would fill up immediately. Instead, the process took several weeks, and when the Stevenson Dam bridge/roadway opened in 1920, only a few Model Ts went across.

When one thinks of the volume of traffic that travels Route 34 in both directions across the Stevenson Dam today –– container trucks, cars, and buses –– it is easy to see why engineers are amazed that the dam is still basically sound.

Buried In Cement, Attacked By Eels

 Poking holes in a few popular misconceptions about the dam was something Mr Babina clearly enjoyed doing, and his audience responded accordingly. The following are a few of the commonly held notions that he proceeded to debunk.

 Lots of people are employed at the Stevenson Dam power plant. –– Almost nobody works there. Nearly all the work of running the Stevenson Dam power plant is done by computers. Like most hydroelectric generating plants along the Housatonic River, the Stevenson Dam station is run by automation from the Rocky River pumping storage station in New Milford.

The 1,250-foot-long concrete dam was built all at one time, with no casualties. –– No. It was completed in sections over three years’ time.

 “And according to my sources [which include longtime Stevenson resident, historian, and newspaper writer Jean Loveland] a person actually did fall into the cement as it was being poured. Apparently, that person signed on to work one day, and then never signed off.”

The Stevenson Dam power plant is no longer profitable. –– “To the Town of Monroe, the Stevenson Dam is still the number one taxpayer. It has been their windfall, you could say. When they open those gates, the roar is unbelievable. They’re making electricity like mad, because it’s free.”

There is still a cemetery buried 60 feet beneath Lake Zoar. –– No. They moved all the graves before flooding the valley to create Riverside Cemetery on the Oxford side. It was a controversial undertaking that involved hiring a local Stevenson resident [contractor John B. Downs] to oversee the process and make sure that workers did not pillage jewelry and possessions from the dead.

Trash that accumulates on the upstream side of the dam is easily removed. –– Not always. Not long ago, divers went down to examine the trash racks built into the dam, and they were driven away by eels that had taken up residence nearby the underwater garbage.

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