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Friday, 21 April 2017 15:27

Farewell to Janesville's Monterey Dam

Written by 
Janesville's Monterey Dam Janesville's Monterey Dam Terry Mayer/staff

JANESVILLE MESSNEGER -- It may not be as partisan or polarizing as today’s political environment. However, the battle over the fate of the Monterey Dam in Janesville has featured plenty of politics.

Regardless of which side of the debate residents have stood on, they’ve done so with passion -- at least those in the vocal minority on either side who’ve expressed their opinions as the issue grabbed the spotlight during the past four or five months.

That point may be moot to some folks because on March 27, with the exception of Jens Jorgensen, the Janesville City Council voted to remove the Rock River landmark, built in 1846, below the Center Avenue Bridge.

Residents who supported removal have put their trust and faith in a beautification and restoration project of the Monterey Park area. Meanwhile, those who wanted to save the dam aren’t as optimistic about that vision for the future and lament the loss of another piece of the city’s historic past.

Jim Chesmore, Dennis Goodenough and Jean Zuvon belong to the latter group and are members of the Friends of Monterey Dam. They say the structure is a symbol of what Janesville is all about.

"There is just so much history with the dam ... I grew up on a farm north of the city and remember my father taking buckwheat down to the Blodgett mill," said Chesmore, who has lived on the river near East Racine and South Main streets for more than 20 years -- in a house built in 1890. "This dam ran all of the grist mills in the early days and then the woolen and linen mills in the late 1800s. Then in the 1920s it was converted to power our industry and homes.

"I have a hard time leaving history go like this," added Chesmore, who retired in 2003 after nearly 40 years at General Motors. "As they say, if you don’t learn from history and your mistakes, you’re bound to repeat them. By tearing it out, we’re losing our identity."

Goodenough, 71, agreed.

"I have three main reasons for wanting to save the dam, one being the historical significance," he said. "That dam is 171 years old, which predates everything else in Janesville and Wisconsin becoming a state. I grew up paddling my uncle’s rowboat around the river near his cabin by the Boy Scout camp, and my fondest memories include going to the fireworks every year at Monterey Park. The river is a great body of water, and anybody who’s been out on that stretch knows it’s a perfect urban setting."

Zuvon, 73, lives on Riverside Street overlooking the lagoon in the house where he was born and has spent his entire life. He hates to see the landmark changed, although he has resigned himself to the fact it’s inevitable.

"I grew up and have fished around this dam all of my life," said Zuvon, who retired in 2003 after 41 years with AT&T. "I remember the raceways that powered the feed mills, and the woolen mill’s big whistle blowing every noon. But not even considering the history involved, what I’m concerned about is what happens to and what it represents to everything above the dam?"

As with any such effort of this magnitude, besides opponents’ big fears about the narrowing of the river, lower water levels and lower property values, the cost is a huge factor. And these dam supporters simply don’t believe the city can follow through on its promises, at least not within its reported budget.

Throughout the process, estimates for repairing the dam have been around $700,000. Meanwhile, demolition of the dam, which isn’t scheduled to begin until mid-2018 (see accompanying timeline), and restoring the shoreline, etc., are estimated to cost $1.1 million.

However, the city is eligible for and supporters are confident they will receive up to $400,000 in the form of a municipal dam grant from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which in 2012 ordered Janesville to remove or repair the structure.

"The pictures they showed us look great, and if they do everything exactly as they plan to, this could end up really nice," Zuvon said. "But I don’t believe there’s any way in God’s creation that they’ll come up with the money to pay for it ... they’re broke now. I just don’t think their (cost) estimates are realistic. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but something’s going on here because no matter how many people talked against the project they found excuses to take the dam out. They could shock me and do it, and I’ll be the first one to apologize. But I don’t have many years left and I doubt that I’ll see the results in my lifetime."

Goodenough also doesn’t believe everything will work out as planned.

"To me, the cheapest and most economical answer is keeping the dam," he said. "In spite of the city’s intention of focusing on the river as a scenic destination, I don’t see them spending money on it because they’ve never put money into the river before. The city doesn’t have any money, and I don’t think they’ve estimated the expense of restoring an entire shoreline like that.

"All they care about is the downtown infrastructure plan," Goodenough added about the city’s Rock Renaissance Area Redevelopment and Implementation Strategy, or ARISE. "As an environmentalist, you don’t park cars along a river. Who wants to come downtown and sit in a parking lot or look across the river at a parking lot?"

The city council unanimously approved the ARISE revitalization plan in February 2015, and supporters are looking at dam removal as an extension of an effort that started in November with the demolition of the huge parking plaza between Milwaukee and Court streets.

A look to the future

Paul Williams was born in 1951 and has called Janesville home ever since. In his second stint with the city council, he didn’t decide for dam removal until the final vote because he wanted to hear as many opinions as possible.

"I grew up on East Racine Street and I took my kids fishing down at Monterey all of the time," Williams said. "Having lived here all of my life, I’m amazed that so many people still didn’t know that we have a second dam here; they only know about Centerway.

"People who are the strongest against removal, many who live on Main Street south of Racine, are afraid that the river will turn into a creek," Williams added. "But that’s not what the experts we talked to have said. It will be a process and take time for nature to come back and see where the river goes. But I believe that if things go according to how they’ve been designed, that taking the dam out will make things much better."

Former council member Kay Deupree agreed with Williams’ assessment.

"I go back to what Mr. Williams said, and what has become my sense of the whole issue, is that 10 percent of the people really, really have an emotional attachment to the dam and believe it’s vital to who we are and 10 percent see the value in restoring the river to its natural flow and landscaping," Deupree said. "The remaining 80 percent haven’t paid attention or could care less.

"But I appreciate people’s attachment to the dam and its history and understand that getting over the emotion of it is hard," she added. "My hope as this progresses is that people will see the possibilities and I encourage them to focus on the future."

That plan will include adding a kayak launch and multiple fishing access locations, enhancing the existing wetland, creating a storm water pond in the existing bay, which will be closed off from the river by a scenic berm with a footpath, and redesigning the recreational park area.

The effort moved forward after the Monterey Dam Citizen Advisory Committee, the Sustainable Janesville Committee and a Craig High School civil engineering class agreed with recommendations for removal from Inter-Fluve, the consulting firm hired by the city.

Still, people such as Jorgensen have remained staunch critics of the council’s and city’s final decision.

"As a councilman and somebody who’s lived along the Rock River all of my life, you can’t focus on the downtown or any one project because they’re all connected," Jorgensen said. "But the river has been the lifeblood of this community and the dam is a big part of who we are and why we became a production and manufacturing city. Say what you want, but the dam has had a huge impact."

In 2010, the city spent $300,000 to repair the dam’s overflow slide gates and cut off a downstream embankment that was once part of the dam; both had been damaged during the 2008 flooding.

But as they say, only time -- and money -- will tell whether the project proves successful.

"I believe there is a lot of potential for the park, and I hope we get everything that we’ve been promised," Jorgensen said.

"We know what we’ve got, so why go with the unknown?" Chesmore said. "You can’t always believe the so-called experts, so it could cost a lot more than they think. I believe the city is cutting off its nose to spite its face. My dad always said you have to maintain your equipment, but Janesville hasn’t maintained anything."

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