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Pine River Dam central to Whitefish Chain

Deb Griffith, head park ranger at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers campground in Crosslake, discusses the history of the Pine River Dam and how water levels are regulated in the Whitefish Chain on Wednesday, July 9. Griffith was the presenter at the monthly Chautauqua forum held at the Crosslake Community Center. Photo by Chelsey Perkins

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) campground in Crosslake serves an average of more than 40,000 campers per year at its 118 campsites, providing access to the Whitefish Chain and featuring boat ramps, playgrounds, picnic shelters and fishing docks.

Recreation was not always one of the primary goals of the USACE, however; the construction of the Pine River Dam around which the campground is situated was authorized by Congress in 1880 to assist with making the waters of the Mississippi River navigable for steamboat traffic. This purpose was rendered obsolete for the Pine River and other headwaters dams by the construction of the locks and dams system on the Mississippi in the 1930s.

It was not until 60 years ago, said head park ranger Deb Griffith, that recreation became a focus. Griffith spoke about the history of the Pine River Dam, Crosslake campgrounds and how water levels in the Whitefish Chain are regulated at the monthly Chautauqua program Wednesday, June 9, at the Crosslake Community Center.

"This is where we started, this is why we're here, is because of the dam," she said.

The Mississippi Valley Division (MVD), in which the Crosslake location is included, stretches from northern Minnesota to southern Louisiana, boasting 28 dams, 22 recreation areas and 12 campgrounds. The recreation areas and campgrounds account for 3.5 million visits and 36 million recreation visitor hours. Nearly 450,000 acres of surface water are managed in the MVD.

"Management of water resources is the corps' main mission as an agency," Griffith said. "The lands associated with these water management projects are where the bulk of the recreation and natural resource management take place."

A total of 422 projects in 43 states have a recreation component, making the USACE the largest provider of outdoor recreation in the nation.

The heart of most of these recreation areas are the dams they are built around. In Crosslake, it is the Pine River Dam, a unique structure deemed "the finest concrete structure" in the world in 1934 by the Portland Cement Association, due to its durability and distinctive archways.

Originally built from native timber in 1886, the Pine River Dam, situated about 15 miles north of where the Pine River joins the Mississippi, was the fourth of the six headwaters dams, following the Winnibigoshish, Leech Lake and Pokegama dams.

According to the Historic American Engineering Record found on the Library of Congress' website, the Pine River Dam was historically significant for its contribution to improving the commerce of the areas surrounding the Upper Mississippi River through improved navigability. Logs constantly moved through the dam's sluice gate as the booming lumber industry drew more people to the area.

"The dam site was also one of the earliest non-Indian settlements in the region and by the late 19th century was attracting some of the first tourists to the area," the record states.

Construction of the dam created the Whitefish Chain as residents and visitors know it today, raising the water level by 10 feet and creating the channels between what were once individual lakes. These included lakes known to the Ojibwe people as "Kadikomeg, the place of white fish" and "Sa-sub-a-gum-aw, the lake where the river flows directly across," now known as Whitefish Lake and Cross Lake, respectively. The Pine River enters the chain at the western edge of Upper Whitefish, exiting at the dam at the southeast corner of Cross Lake.

"People have told me stories about their (relatives') cattle grazing on some of the lands that are now under water," Griffith said.

Between 1905 and 1907, USACE reconstructed the dam, replacing the timber structure with a concrete one. No significant renovations were made to the dam until the major one completed between 1999 and 2003, fully automating the opening and closing of the gates.

Griffith said before the renovation, the gates were first operated with large wheels for each gate and later, she and other dam tenders used a very large drill they nicknamed "Big Bertha" to adjust water levels.

USACE strives to maintain a consistent water level on the chain, guided by an operational plan designed to make adjustments needed to keep the channels navigable for boaters, to assure the lakes have enough "storage space" for snow melt and to keep the river flowing neither too fast nor too slow.

Typically, the dam, which controls a 562-square-mile watershed area, will be placed on minimum flow during the late summer months, when rainfall is at its lowest. The dam cannot be entirely turned off; 32 cubic feet per second is the lowest flow possible. In October, USACE will begin to lower the water level to make room for the upcoming snowfall.

"In the winter, we will adjust the gates," Griffith said. "If there's lots of snow, we'll open gates to make it go lower."

One audience member noted that sometimes in the fall, the water levels seemed particularly low and that she'd heard of stranded boats on lifts. Griffith said that no matter how on top of adjustments the organization is, the amount of precipitation can still bring the water levels too high or too low.

She said that in 2012, excessive precipitation presented a challenge to maintaining standards. The water averaged 9 to 11 inches above the ideal water pool level, and they opened the gates to the point where 2,500 cubic feet of water per second were pushing through to the river on the other side.

"Down the river, water was coming up on people's lawns," she said. "It was just thundering through the dam."

Because the area received so much precipitation, water began to back up in the river system in Brainerd, and local authorities received instructions to decrease flow to 1,800 to 2,000 cubic feet per second. This high level of flow lasted for a few weeks.

For comparison, Griffith said the dam currently has 590 cubic feet per second flowing through its gates, and the flow has not reached more than 1,800 cubic feet per second so far this year.

"This is the reason why we're here, to make sure that dam is operational, that it's taken care of and that we're making the necessary adjustments," she said.

Chelsey Perkins

Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her bachelor's degree in professional journalism at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Perkins interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins, and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before becoming the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as the county government beat reporter at the Dispatch and a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.

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