Demolition crews chipping away at Danville's low-head dam


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DANVILLE — Demolition crews continue to chip away at the low-head dam on the Vermilion River in downtown Danville.

"We are making progress down there," Lindell Loy, construction manager with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said about the dam-removal project below and just east of Memorial Bridge on South Gilbert Street.

A crew with Halverson Construction Company is using heavy equipment to break up the defunct concrete dam, slowly moving from one side of the river to the other on a causeway — an earthen platform that can support heavy equipment — they are building as they go. The state accepted Halverson's bid for the project in the spring.

Loy said that once the crew reaches the other side and the dam and piers are completely removed, they will stabilize the far bank by placing a wall of loose stones known as riprap to prevent erosion.

The crew will then work their way back across the river, removing the causeway, and finally stabilize the other bank. He said some of the causeway material will be used for that.

"The project should be done by the end of the year, if the weather cooperates with us," he said. "But the weather has to cooperate."

Right now, the river is naturally at a low level. And Loy said that when they initially broke the low-head dam, which created a pooling effect immediately upstream, the water level underneath Memorial Bridge — which carries South Gilbert Street over the river — dropped, revealing a large section of the former bridge that was removed prior to the current bridge being built in the 1950s.

Loy said the arched piece of former bridge, a surprise to everyone, can be seen in the river now but will eventually be removed.

Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer, a longtime proponent of removing the city-owned low-head dam for safety reasons, said the project started the third week of July.

Originally, he said, the plan was for another city-owned but smaller low-head dam on the North Fork of the Vermilion River in Ellsworth Park to be removed first, but contractors were able to start sooner than anticipated on the larger dam.

Both dams have had no functional purpose for decades and have been the site of multiple drownings over the last 40 years. A push by city administration to remove both of them ramped up after Sandra Barnett, a 24-year-old University of Illinois graduate from Woodridge, drowned at the larger dam during a canoe trip in July 2003.

Low-head dams have been called "drowning machines" because water spills over them, creating a roller effect just below the dam that can trap a swimmer. A sign posted at the Ellsworth dam warns of the roller effect.

Some local fishing enthusiasts and others were against removing the larger dam because it would eliminate the pooling effect upstream, which created popular fishing spots.

In several studies prior to the dams' removal, Eisenhauer said, it was indicated that the "pool" created by the larger dam extended only to Memorial Bridge, so it would not affect water levels farther upstream.

The Danville City Council approved the removal of both dams in late 2013, and the state agreed to fund the work. But that funding got hung up in the 2-year-long state-budget crisis that began in 2015, and the money was not appropriated again until earlier this year, finally paving the way for demolition.

Removal of the Ellsworth structure is expected to be done in-house by state crews, but Loy said an exact date for the start of that demolition has not been set.