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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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