The Night the Lights Went Out in Fergus Falls

The Night the Lights Went Out in Fergus Falls

In the early morning hours of September 24th, 1909, Ben Snyder was sleeping in the power house of the Fergus Falls City Light Station, a hydroelectric power station on the Ottertail River near Fergus Falls. On-duty was a second man, N.P. Johnson. At 4:20 in the morning, a rumble awakened Snyder, and he noticed the lights flickering and water splashing onto the platform of the dam, which was barely a year old. He immediately recognized that something was seriously wrong, alerted N.P. Johnson, and as the floor trembled, the two men fled up the riverbank.

An article published by the Little Falls Herald on October 1st, 1909 described what happened next:

The men “had just reached a point of safety when the huge dam was lifted bodily from it’s foundations and tipped over, together with the powerhouse and all of the electrical machinery.”

In an instant, the powerhouse and the 10-ton generator had vanished from sight and a torrent of water went rushing downriver toward Fergus Falls.

Broken Down Dam, Fergus Falls
Above: Fergus Falls City Light Station, before the disaster.

Snyder and Johnson raced to a nearby farm, where the property owner lent them a team of horses, and they set out for the city to warn the authorities of the approaching deluge. In the city, the electrical superintendent, J.W. Peterson, wanted to know why the lights had gone out and he set out for the dam, only to meet up with Snyder and Johnson who warned him of the danger, and the men put out the call.

The force of the water released when the dam collapsed wiped out a bridge and four more dams on its way downriver–Wright Dam, Kirk Dam, Red River Mill Dam, and Woolen Mill Dam–and flooded parts of Fergus Falls, but miraculously, the Dayton Hollow Dam south of Fergus Falls survived the flood. Vernon Wright, President of Ottertail Power Company and operator of the Dayton Hollow Dam, arrived in time to open the floodgates.

In the aftermath of the collapse, electrical service to Fergus Falls was interrupted. According to the Little Falls Herald:

Gasoline engines are being put in by a number of the mills, factories, and others who have been dependent on the city’s plant for power, to operate their respective businesses for the present, and the residents and business houses have been forced back to tallow candles and kerosene for lighting purposes.

The lights had gone out in Fergus Falls. By some miracle, nobody was killed in the outpouring.

Broken Down Dam, Fergus Falls

Today, the remains of the dam at the former Fergus Falls City Light Station are known as the Broken Down Dam, and the area has been turned into a park. At the end of a dead-end road there is a small turnaround/parking area, and we parked our car, grabbed our camera bags, and set out on a quarter mile hike to the site of the dam on a gray, misting day. We walked down to the river bank along a hiking trail on which some wooden stairways have been installed to make the descent a little less perilous, and after coming around a bend, we got our first glimpse of the dam, as shown in the photo above.

Broken Down Dam, Fergus Falls

The photos of this dam do not do justice to its size. It is three stories tall, and we were surprised at how big it is when we first saw it in person.

Broken Down Dam, Fergus Falls

A long earth and wood staircase leads to the top of the dam where you are afforded a magnificent view of the Ottertail as it flows through the collapsed dam. In the photo above, the powerhouse would have stood at the far end of the photo.

Broken Down Dam, Fergus Falls

For some years after the collapse, there was a conspiracy theory about the cause of the disaster. Ottertail Power Company reached an agreement to provide power to the city via the surviving Dayton Hollow Dam and some claimed Ottertail Power’s President, Vernon Wright, had intentionally undermined this dam by distributing quicksilver from a rowboat as part of a scheme to sell power to the city of Fergus Falls. In truth, the dam was weakened by natural springs under its foundation.

Broken Down Dam, Fergus Falls

There are countless natural wonders to see in Minnesota, but I personally have a weakness for man-made infrastructure that has been allowed to return to nature. I grew to love Quarry Park, in Waite Park, Minnesota, years ago when I lived in St. Cloud, and Broken Down Dam reminds me of that place very much. It’s an absolutely beautiful setting of stone and timber accompanied by the incessantly soothing sounds of flowing water.

Broken Down Dam, Fergus Falls

Broken Down Dam, Fergus Falls

What do you know about Broken Down Dam? Please leave a comment below.

Photos by Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp, copyright © 2017 Sonic Tremor Media

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16 thoughts on “The Night the Lights Went Out in Fergus Falls

  1. I grew up 45 miles from there, and have never heard of it. Now I will have to make a visit next time I am in the area.

    I am with you, Troy. I love to see old man-made infrastructure being worn back into the elements. Old roads and bridges, dams, buildings, whatever.

  2. When I was in high school, Broken Down Dam was a party destination. In a sense, it was a fun idea, but given the fact that the park sat at a dead end, I had the good sense not to hang out there.

    Instead, friends and I chose to visit during the daytime, jumping off the dam and into the water when the river wasn’t too high. I also recall tubing on the river and shooting through the opening in the dam. Good times, assuming you were a good swimmer.

  3. I grew up about 3/4 mile from there, and half the distance could be covered by boat. Used to slide down the “unbroken” spillway on the seat of my pants at age 12; tried at age 20 and ~three times heavier tore the buns out of my jeans first try.
    You can see from your pictures what really caused the dam to fail, something my father, an engineer, noticed right away. The is essentially zero reinforcing steel in that dam. It ought to have probably 1.5 inch diameter re-bar about every 12-18 inches across the broken face, both up and down. The water pressure from the high side would still have undermined it by blowing out the sand, but it would bridged the gap with steel in it, and it might have been salvaged. Big lump of concrete does not a dam make.

  4. I’ve been swimming there from the late 80’s through today! It was the one place I could go and just get away. Onetime I spent the night on it, we had bonfires on the frozen water in front of it, and even rescued some Ottertail Power executives stuck in a canoe on a photo shoot. In fact after we rescued those executives the photographer they had along took our picture. Only to find out later that the annual stock magazine or investor thing that they publish featured our picture after the heroic rescue.

    1. Interesting. It’s been said that the bidder that was selected to build the dam had NO experience with building dams – a classic “low bidder” situation.

  5. I grew up on the farm you walk past on your way to the dam. My brother and I spent countless hours playing in the river and climbing on the dam. Sledding in the winter was really fun too. So many great memories memories! When I brought my youngest daughter for a visit, I was sad to see all the graffiti. Still a beautiful and relaxing place.

  6. When I was a kid, I and a friend who lived on Hoot Lake went over to Broken Down Dam. We either walked or canoed over — I can’t remember which. I just remember, when we got there, we climbed up a side of the dam that was like very tall steps. The broken wall was leaning forward, so the “stairs” were closer to vertical than I liked, and I was a bit nervious climbing up, but we both made it unscathed. I’ve thought about that adventure a few times since, but doubt I’d ever be able to find my way in there again.

  7. I’m wondering about the reference to the “Little Falls Herald”??? Should it be the Fergus Falls Journal?

  8. Troy, enjoyed your story about Broken Down Dam. If u decide to return for another visit to the dam, we live about /4 mile to the east of the dam on the other side of the river. if you would like to see the am from the other side let us know and we could take you down there. theres no general public access to the dam from our side but we can access it from our property and the old railroad tracks going to the dam were removed and left a great trail to get down there on. If your interested u can call Leroy Merz at 218-731-4216 . I also adopt the park on the other side in Memory of my son Trever Moen although cleanup there is been difficult due to it being difficult to get down the hill to the dam until recent improvements have been being made by the city to the Broken Down Dam Park. Great story Thanks.

  9. I grew up less than a mile away from Broken Down Dam.. used to drive 4-wheeler around back there as a kid and we’d take tubes down the river and through the dam.. well all the dams actually.. I think there’s five or six – Broken Down, Dayton Hallow, Friberg, Holt Lake.. hmm that’s all I can come up with right now. Never knew people who aren’t from the area actually seeked this place out.. it is pretty neat must say!

  10. I grew up in FF, but never even wondered why it was called broken down dam! It was just the name of a place to me. I never once wondered about the backstory. Thanks for sharing this!

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