The Milburnie Dam, a stone and concrete structure built more than a century ago to harness the Neuse River for power and later became the site of countless picnics and gatherings,, is coming down to restore a six-mile stretch of the river to its natural state.
Workers began chipping and clawing at the top of the dam on Wednesday, beginning a measured demolition process that will take two to three months to complete.
“They will pick it apart like a Lego wall,” said George Howard, CEO of Restoration Systems, the Raleigh company that is removing the last dam on the Neuse between Falls Lake and Pamlico Sound.
There has been a dam here since the late 1700s, Howard said. The dam now being removed was built around 1900 and replaced a timber dam erected to power a paper mill before the Civil War. Over the decades, the river at Milburnie was used to power Raleigh’s streetcars, to grind corn and wheat, and to generate electricity with a small hydroelectric plant that remained operational until 2005, Howard said.
The dam turned the Neuse River into a narrow six-mile lake on the east side of Raleigh. Water spilled over the top of the 15-foot-high dam onto the bedrock outcropping on which it was built, and the spot became a swimming hole, sometimes with tragic results. Restoration Systems has documented 15 drownings at the dam in the past 86 years, most recently two children, ages 7 and 10, in 2012.
Removing the dam and the tricky currents it creates will make the river safer, said Tiffani Bylow, the project manager for Restoration Systems. The dam is accessible from the Neuse River Greenway Trail, which passes nearby.
“This was a very popular spot to hang out,” Bylow said of the area known as Raleigh Beach. “And I think once this comes down, it will be very popular again. That’s what we’re hoping.”
Restoration Systems will spend $1.2 million demolishing the dam, on top of millions more for planning and additional work afterward, such as planting trees and monitoring what happens to the river. The company will make that back by selling mitigation credits to governments or developers who are required to compensate for destroying streams and wetlands elsewhere.
Its largest customer, Howard said, will likely be the N.C. Department of Transportation, which will in essence pay to restore six miles of the Neuse River to partially make up for the streams and other habitat it will destroy in building N.C. 540 across southern Wake County in the coming years.
To prepare for Wednesday, Restoration Systems began letting water through the turbine house on Sept. 21, lowering the river 4 to 5 five feet behind the dam and exposing muddy banks that no one alive today has ever seen. That allowed workers to get close to the back side of the dam with the machines they will use to dismantle it.
As the dam disappears, the river will eventually fall another four or five feet, Bylow said. Government permits for the project allow the company to lower the river no more than six inches a day, to cut down on erosion and allow fish and other animals to adjust to the receding river.
It will take some time for this stretch of the Neuse to return to its natural state. Sand that built up behind the dam will move downstream; rare mussels found in the river above and below the Milburnie impoundment are expected to move into this stretch of the river; and 15.5 acres of wetlands along the impoundment will slowly adjust to the lower water levels. And shad and striped bass, migratory fish that move up coastal rivers to spawn, are expected to make their way to northern Wake County for the first time in centuries.
The water quality of the river also will improve, Howard said, as a free-flowing river replaces the stagnant water behind the dam.
“It was a dead zone on the Neuse,” he said.
The Milburnie Dam is the third that Restoration Systems has taken down in North Carolina, after the Lowell Dam on the Little River near Kenly and the Carbonton Dam on the Deep River near Sanford. The project has been in the works since 2009 and needed the blessing of six state and federal agencies and the city of Raleigh. The document that spells out how the project will work and what has to happen for Restoration Systems to earn mitigation credits runs 700 pages, Bylow said.
“Just a lot of red tape,” she said. “Everybody wanted to make sure every ‘i’ was dotted and ‘t’ was crossed.”
Not everyone was eager to the see the dam go. Some residents who lived along the Milburnie impoundment liked the river just as it was, including a resident who regularly went out on the water on his pontoon boat.
Steve White of the nonprofit advocacy group American Rivers in Durham says there’s generally been a groundswell of support for removing non-functioning dams in the country since 1997, when U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt swung a sledgehammer at the doomed Quaker Neck Dam across the Neuse River near Goldsboro as part of a nationwide campaign to knock down old dams.
Still, it sometimes takes awhile to persuade everyone that a dam should go, White said.
“Even though it’s not a natural structure, it’s been there a long time,” he said. “But the more people see that a river’s natural state is its best state, the more support you have for removing it.”
Howard said the homeowner who owned the pontoon boat eventually made peace with the idea that the dam was coming down. He said Restoration Systems bought the boat and donated it to Sound Rivers, a nonprofit that works to monitor and protect the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico river watersheds.
Watch it come down
Restoration Systems, the company tearing down the Milburnie Dam, is live-streaming the demolition on its website, milburniedam.com/