Death at Pittsfield dam spurs debate over site's future


PITTSFIELD -- The apparent drowning of a young man in the west branch of the Housatonic River behind the Tel-Electric Dam last week has once again heightened efforts to determine the fate of the almost 100-year-old structure on Mill Street, a city official said.

Removing or lowering the 20-foot dam, named after a long-defunct company that made electric player pianos, has been discussed since the mid-1930s, often as a way to prevent flooding upstream at Wahconah Park and the surrounding area. But the latest project to determine the dam's fate, which involves the city and a subsidiary of the state Department of Fish and Game, has been in the works for only a few years and has been beset by funding issues.

"I think there's a sense of urgency to move that project along," said Jim McGrath, the city's open space manager. He said the drowning magnified the public safety hazard that the dam has become.

"The city and state are looking to redouble our efforts to move the project along," McGrath said.

The incident occurred on the morning of June 25 when the man went under water while swimming in a pool in the river located a few feet upstream of the dam. Police believe the victim is from outside the area; his acquaintances told reporters that the man was originally from California.

The man's body was taken to the state Medical Examiner's office after it was pulled from the river on June 26, but as of Wednesday authorities had yet to release his identity. Police said they were unable to locate an ID.

Following the incident, the water level behind the dam dropped significantly. Kevin Swail, Pittsfield's interim water superintendent, attributed the drop in the water level to the large amount of debris that rescuers removed from a pipe during recovery efforts.

A large tree has also been felled and currently lies directly behind the dam. Swail said the tree was cut down so rescue crews could bring a large aluminum plate and sandbags into the area. Rescuers used both those items to block the flow of water into the intake valve to recover the man's body.

The dam itself is 20 feet high, 40 feet wide and 30 feet long, and is made of masonry block overlaid with cement. It has been owned by the Nash family since the early 1950s, according to Seth Nash, who owns the Pittsfield gift manufacturer, Blue Q, with his brother, Mitchell. His grandfather, A. Leo Nash, purchased the dam and the surrounding mill complex from the Eaton Paper Corp., according to Eagle files.

Seth Nash would also like to see the dam removed at some point, but said the cost of removing the structure is expensive, and that funding for the project is unavailable.

The dam "serves no purpose," he said. "It was originally here to power the mill building that was here. But that era ended before I was born. I know the state wants to take the dam down because it's not serving any purpose. There were some people here from the state last summer poking around and doing testing."

McGrath said the city has been working with the Division of Ecological Restoration, a subsidiary of the state Department of Fish and Game, to determine what to do with the dam, and that they have been keeping the Nashs "up to speed" with the project's progress.

"The project requires an intensive investment in engineering," McGrath said.

A dam removal feasibility study was completed in 2006, but McGrath said the project is currently "hamstrung" by the significant cost needed to dispose the contaminated sediment that has built up behind the dam.

"We're figuring out how to fund that shortfall," he said.

Alex Hackman, a project manager for the Division of Ecological Restoration, said it would probably cost $500,000 to remove the dam, but at least $2 million to dispose of all the sediment. Hackman said preliminary studies indicated that 12,000 to 15,000 cubic yards of sediment were trapped behind the dam, but that "recent events" including storms indicate the sediment is actually around 4,500 cubic yards.

Nash said he believed the sediment behind the dam contains polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, the now-banned chemical that the General Electric Co. used to make power transformers in Pittsfield, and has been found in high concentrations in other parts of the Housatonic River.

But Hackman said studies show that the majority of the material trapped behind the dam consists of typical industrial waste like petroleum byproducts and heavy metals.

"There are very low levels of PCBs," he said.

In 1937, city officials discussed lowering the dam after heavy flooding occurred upstream from a series of storms that spring. But the Eaton Paper Corp. wasn't in favor of the proposal after spending $7,000 repairing the dam the previous fall, according to Eagle files.

In 1953, the city considered purchasing the dam from the Nash family as part of a project to clean up the west branch of the Housatonic. In 1955, the state Legislature even included $25,000 in a capital outlay budget toward the removal of the dam. But the city backed out of the project partly because then Public Works Commissioner John Daniels believed that in a time of emergency the dam could be used to generate electric power.

City officials also considered removing the dam in 1964. Twenty years later, then-Pittsfield Mayor Charles L. Smith suggested lowering the dam by three feet to alleviate the chronic flooding issues. In a telephone interview, Smith said the lowering of the dam was also contingent on the removal of a ledge on the river located near the Linden Street bridge.

"I couldn't find any engineers that would commit to saying that if we took it down it would make a difference," Smith said. "I guess they were also afraid that it might do some harm to the people who live on Pomeroy Avenue and cause some flooding down there."

To reach Tony Dobrowolski:,
or (413) 496-6224.


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