A dam was the foundational piece of many early communities. Dams and water wheels provided the necessary power for important businesses such as grist mills and sawmills. A dam over the Flat River in Lowell was built by Cyprian Hooker to power his gristmill; he ground his first wheat on July 4, 1847. A water turbine was first used in Grand Rapids in 1880 to power arc lighting. From then on, dams began to be widely used to provide energy.
In 1894, the people of Lowell were tired of high electric rates so some of the members of the Common Council thought it would be advantageous to own their own plant. The next year Lowell developed a municipality owned utility company. Council members C. Bergin and Ed. Lee made many trips down the Flat River looking for a site. Finally the site was chosen, nearly 9 miles north of Lowell just upriver from White’s Bridge. The dam was built and wires and poles were strung to Lowell. Council member Ed. Lee, “Father of the Lighting Plant” gave a great deal of his time and energy to the securing of flowage rights, the planning and erecting of the dam, and he served for eight years as chairman of the committee, where he successfully directed the plant through the emergencies of its early years.
In 1892 Anton Killinger, from Austria, traveled to America to attend the Colombian Exposition at Chicago in order to study the progress made in electricity and the carrying of electrical power over long distances. The high power line between Lowell and Grand Rapids was at that time the longest in the world. After the exposition Mr. Kallinger was hired by Lowell Light and Power Company to manage the plant. Later he also managed the dam and plant built by the Grand Rapids Edison Company a mile north of the Lowell Light Dam. He married a local girl, Rosetta Wittenbach and also farmed on Vergennes Road.
The question of why was the municipal dam built so far north of Lowell may be partially answered based on a protest adopted by the Common Council in 1903, to the Grand Rapids Edison Company in response to the construction of the dam between Beckwith and Burroughs (called the Fallasburg Dam). “That inasmuch as the Grand Rapids Edison Company is about to construct a dam of large dimensions in Flat River, a short distance above the Village of Lowell, and that the lay of the land is such that should this dam ever give away the great quantity of water stored up would sweep through the village of Lowell, greatly endangering life and property, and further, that sudden rises of water in Flat River are common at certain seasons of the year, and that smaller dams in said Flat River have heretofore been washed away, causing the river to leave its banks and doing great damage to the Village of Lowell. Therefore the said village of Lowell, by H.W. Hakes, its President for the Common Council of said Village, protest against the building of said dam in Flat River, and should such dam every go out or be washed away the Village of Lowell will hold the Grand Rapids Edison company liable for all damages arising or resulting from the same.”
Natural disasters are a fact of life and provided huge obstacles for the Lowell Municipal Dam. In 1901 a flood devastated Lowell and communities along the rivers. As soon as the phone call came that the dam was wrecked, men and teams hurried to the Lowell Municipal Light Dam hoping to save it. In the end the flood had taken out the east bank. When it was replaced, a costly flood gate was installed. In the 1905 flood, the top was taken off the dam. It was replaced and both banks were raised. Fire in 1916 created problems, but quicksand under the powerhouse in 1917 was devastating as the powerhouse completely fell into the river. A new powerhouse of brick was built and upgrades were completed including a new generator, waterwheel and governor.
Upgrades were paid from profits of the plant. Eventually, in 1970, the city sold the dam and powerhouse to a private party. Today this is owned by White’s Bridge Hydro Company, and enough electricity to power over 300 homes is sold to Consumers Energy.
The Lowell Municipal Dam is no longer owned by Lowell, and the Fallasburg Dam is not currently being used to provide energy. However, right here in Lowell, the dam over the Flat River continues to provide a portion of the power necessary to operate King Milling Company.
Images: Lowell Edison Dam, 1935, Fallasburg power house and dam 1983, coffer dam 1901, King Milling dam 1909 and Lowell power dam.