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No Holding Back

Gull Lake Dam Association members, from left, Jim Rawsky, Jeff Price, Rollin Richman, Bill English and Sue Harrison, are working to raise money to replace the dam behind them. © 2019 Encore Publications/Brian Powers
Gull Lake group working to replace 140-year-old dam

You can hear the Gull Lake Dam well before you can see it, the water splashing down the spillway creating a kind of wet whisper in the woods.

Michael Brundage grew up in a house a stone’s throw from the dam, opening his window at night to let the gentle sound of cascading water lull him to sleep. Although he was very aware of the dam, many in the area “were totally unaware it even existed,” he says.

“When you are out on the main lake, most are simply oblivious to it. Unless you’ve heard about it, I doubt many people know it’s there,” Brundage says.

But it is, tucked behind thick foliage off R Avenue near Yorkville. And it’s old — almost 140 years old — and nearly past its useful life. And when one considers the important work it does maintaining consistent water levels on one of the state’s most beautiful lakes, on which some of the most valuable property in the region lies, well, you replace it when it needs replacing.

Making sure that job gets done falls to a group of individuals who comprise the Gull Lake Dam Association, which has launched a campaign to fund a new dam’s $700,000 price tag.

Historic structure

The dam was built in the early 1880s and powered a gristmill used by the Price Cereal Food Co. until the firm’s closure, in 1906. The dam sat unmaintained for 15 years, until the former Gull Lake Association was organized in 1921 to acquire the dam and provide maintenance for the historic structure, which acts as an outlet control measure for the lake.

The association, now renamed the Gull Lake Dam Association, commissioned a professional analysis of the dam in 2017. In the spring of 2018, the engineering firm Prein & Newhof determined the dam to be in fair condition, with a “low” hazard potential. And even though the report made no mention of the likelihood of the dam failing, it’s estimated Gull Lake’s water level would drop 4 to 8 feet if the dam were to collapse, says Jeff Price, vice president of the association.

He sees the wisdom in replacing a structure that the firm also found to have spalling — loss of chunks of concrete and large cracks in several areas, including one that’s nearly 2 inches wide.

“It’s not like the dam is going to burst tomorrow,” Price says. “But it is very old and wearing out. Once this new dam is built, there won’t be any concerns for another hundred years — at least four, five more generations.”

The structure, in a very real way, protects some of the most expensive inland lakeshore property in Southwest Michigan. And even though almost 40 percent of lake residents surveyed didn’t even know there was a dam and even though it would be easy to approach one of the lake’s several wealthy residents and simply ask for a large check, the association is seeking financial support for the new dam from all of the 750 households on Gull Lake.

“Everyone on the lake should feel responsible for maintaining the dam,” says Price, who moved to the Gull Lake area from New Jersey in 1977, after taking a job with the former Upjohn Co. “It (the dam) creates value for everyone, so it’s our opinion that everyone should contribute.”

Fundraising organizers are asking property owners to give $10 for every foot of lake frontage they have. As of mid-August, almost $520,000 of the $700,000 had been raised, with more than half of lakeshore households participating, including a dozen local businesses — ones that Price says stand to benefit from maintaining the lake’s water level. A Sept. 30 deadline has been established to raise the total. Construction would begin this fall and extend through the winter, with completion of the project expected by sometime next spring.

Keeping it level

Heavy spring rains saw water levels rise significantly on several Kalamazoo County lakes, causing extensive property damage and forcing many families to evacuate their homes. Gull Lake, fed by springs and two streams and considered by many travel publications to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the state for its pristine, clear water, is one of only a handful of lakes in the region whose water level is dam-regulated. The lake, which has a public boat launch on its north end and marinas that provide boat rentals, attracts non-resident lake users from across the area.

The lake’s water level is consistently monitored by a small cadre of volunteers, including Price, who regulate the level by raising or lowering a mechanical metal gate, controlling the flow of water that travels into Gull Creek, a tributary of the Kalamazoo River.

Price is confident the fundraising goal for a new dam will be met, but he says there has been another positive offshoot of the fundraising effort that can’t be measured in dollars and cents.

“Sometimes I felt like there was a lack of community out here,” he says. “This effort has really brought people together. There is a real sense of community growing now, and I think the common cause of all of us is saving that dam.”

Chris Killian

Chris is an award-winning freelance writer. He a frequent contributor to Encore.

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