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Forgey/My Turn: Dam removal revisited

As Greenfield’s first mayor, I found many challenges during my terms. Not all were solved and many things were left to challenge future mayors and town commissions. One of the items that should better have been left on the table was the fate of the Wiley-Russell Dam.

At the time, an agreement was reached to demolish two dams on the Green River, there was little discussion about the history of either dam. A report was issued in 1998 by the Army Corps of Engineers stating that the Wiley-Russell dam, in particular, posed a “significant” hazard. At the time, reviewing the documents that were provided to me, I found that a “significant” hazard dam, should it breach, meant potential loss of life, substantial loss of property plus probable destruction of roads and town infrastructure.

More recently, I was alerted to a newer study, by the respected engineering firm of Fuss and O’Neill, which strongly recommends that the Wiley-Russell dam be reclassified as a “Class III Low Hazard” dam. That 2005 study was substantiated in 2008 by an updated report with the same “Low Hazard” recommendation.

A “low hazard” designation presumes NO loss of life, little loss of property and only the slimmest chance of road or infrastructure damage. In 2010, a report stated that the abutments had shown some additional deterioration and, yet, the dam still stands.

Several of the recent articles and letters to the editor in The Recorder have stressed the historical importance of the Wiley-Russell dam in the development of the manufacturing industries and the industrial prominence for which Greenfield became famous. In fact, the products developed and perfected by Greenfield Tap and Die started in factories that were powered by this very dam. Much of the immigrant population of the mid-1800s came here to work in these historically important plants. They brought their skills from England, Germany and other countries that helped to perfect the products made right here on the Green River.

The Wiley-Russell dam has stood for approximately 177 years. It has withstood the ravages of the 1936, 1938 and recent Irene hurricanes. The abutments must have substantial repairs — of course. The abutments need urgent attention, trees and brush must be removed from the embankments but the dam, in its original design, continues to stand. In addition, I understand that the dam is qualified for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

The removal of the Wiley-Russell dam will NOT restore the river to the way it was in the late 1600s and early 1700s because the other dams on the Green River will NOT be removed. The other three dams help to supply our drinking water, provide recreation at the swimming pool and protect town infrastructure that runs in the area of the Mill Street Dam.

As Greenfield works on plans to create a walkway/bikeway along the Green River, running from the Mohawk Trail to Deerfield Street, it now seems ill advised to demolish the historic gem that gave the river and the town substantial prominence in the American Industrial Revolution. Coupled with the Museum of Our Industrial Heritage, the Wiley-Russell dam has great potential to increase industrial tourism and, thus, business potential for the entire town. I know that industrial tourism is a fast growing area and something Greenfield has always touted as a reason to enjoy our town. The walkway/bikeway, with historic information stations, plus the Museum and the Wiley-Russell dam will draw new tourism to Greenfield and the surrounding area.

For these and other reasons, I now think that the Wiley-Russell dam should be left as it is, with needed abutment repair and regular maintenance, to represent the industrial history and financial value that it has mean to Greenfield for close to 200 years.

Christine Forgey, Greenfield resident, was the mayor from 2003 to 2009.

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