By Dannel McCollum
As a longtime local canoer, co-author of a book about the Big Vermilion, and landowner downstream from Danville, I cannot avoid the urge to enter the discussion regarding the dam removal question. There is common agreement that low head dams are extremely dangerous to fishermen and boaters alike. Drownings have occurred at both the dam on the North Fork in Ellsworth Park and the much larger structure just downstream on the main stream.
A little history might be helpful. The first dam on the North Fork was built in about 1828 shortly after the establishment of Danville, to supply water power for Solomon and Samuel Gilbert's Mill. It stood in the vicinity of the present dam. After the demise of the mill, the dam continued its usefulness by maintaining a pond from which ice was cut from the frozen North Fork during winter months by the Beard Ice Company. The present structure was built in 1931-32 to ensure standing water in Ellsworth Park even should the pumping station upstream reduce stream flow to zero.
The more formidable dam is that on the main river downstream from Memorial Bridge. It was built in about 1912 to supply water for steam and cooling to the power plant up on the bluff in the vicinity of the Public Safety Building. When the plant was shut down, I believe in the 1950s, the ownership of the dam was transferred to the General Motors Central Foundry, which required the water that was backed up for its needs. With the end of the foundry operation, the dam, having outlived its purposes, was offered to, and accepted by, the city of Danville.
Today, the century-old dam is in deteriorating condition. The most obvious evidence of this is the disappearance of the top layer of concrete extending from the left bank a third of the way across the structure. During low water, the flow is confined to that section. It is clear that the city of Danville does not have the resources to make the immediate repairs, much less maintain the integrity of the dam over the years to come. The only resources likely to do anything with respect to either dam must come from either state or federal sources. Such resources will only be available for their removal.
Having enjoyed fishing in Vermilion County in years past, I can sympathize with people who have over the years fished the impounded area upstream of the dam on the Big Vermilion. But Vermilion County is full of fishing opportunities with Lake Vermilion, Kickapoo State Park and other venues too numerous to mention. It is equally true that the dam on the Big Vermilion has been hazardous to canoes and other small craft. Moreover, the Salt Fork and the Big Vermilion rivers offer the best canoeing opportunities in over a hundred miles. The presence of the dam is the main limiting factor. Additionally, scientists from the state have maintained that there are ecological reasons for the removal of the dams. Free-flowing streams allow for aquatic life to move freely both upstream as well as down, promoting greater biological diversity.
Danville is currently in a position to really take advantage of its rare position for scenic and recreational development, fronted as it is by its two rivers. The removal of the dams along with the creation of a recreational corridor from Lake Vermilion down the course of the North Fork to its confluence with the Big Vermilion, then downstream to at least the I-74 bridge, would set Danville off like few other cities in the state. In addition to the quality of life advantages, there are potential economic opportunities. It is a unique opportunity, not to be wasted.
Dannel McCollum, a former Champaign mayor and a Democratic candidate for the state Senate in 2002, is a historian and a freelance writer.