VAN ETTEN DAM

Since the beginning of Michigan’s history as a state there have been several attempts to install a dam on Van Etten Lake before the dam that resides there today was established in the 1940s. 

There were many attempts to put a dam on Van Etten Lake, until the final attempt stuck in the 1940s. This historical feature, originally printed in the Sept. 17, 1980 edition of The Tawas Herald, outlines the origins of that structure, the improvements it brought, and the history of damming the lake before that time. The dam is not the only improvement to the area, as the Iosco County Board of Commissioners, which purchased property in the area, plan to improve into a county park, with funds from a recently passed parks and recreation millage.

 

OSCODA – The History of the Lake Huron Shore, published in 1883, purports that Howard and Van Ettan established a water-powered sawmill on Van Ettan Lake at Oscoda in 1836. After having its dam washed out three times, the firm finally abandoned the enterprise without ever sawing a single board. 

This is the only informational source which mentions any sort of settlement in this region as early as 1836, the year of Michigan’s statehood, and the published date is suspected to be erroneous, for there would have been no local market for manufactured lumber – the entire region was still a howling wilderness with only a few trappers and fishermen scattered along the entire Lake Huron shore.

Transportation of lumber down the lake to such established population centers as Detroit would have been a costly and doubtful enterprise and, in 1836, Lower Saginaw, now Bay City, was but a small fishing station and would not have its first sawmill until 1845.

In any event, Van Ettan Lake was dammed for a water mill some years before the establishment of Iosco County in 1857 and man has been constructing or maintaining water restrictive devices there ever since.

The lake served as a booming area for logs during Iosco’s white pine days and a booming company owned by the Loud family controlled the running of timber down the Pine Rive into the lake and eventually to the mills along the AuSable River.

In later years, dams have been constructed at the lower end of the lake so as to maintain the water level of wildlife recreational purposes and to add value to cottages constructed along the lake shore. 

This has led to numerous conflicts between property owners on the lake and those below the dam particularly when structures have washed out or were improperly designed and erosion of property along Van Ettan Creek or above the dam has resulted.

A dam projected in 1946 provided one of the most controversial headaches ever encountered by the old Iosco County Board of Supervisors and the matter landed in circuit court on more than one occasion. A special act of the legislature providing the legal means to construct and maintain a dam through establishment of a special assessment district was the final result and this came about through agitation originating right here in Iosco County.

In 1946, Van Ettan Lake property owners petitioned the board of supervisors to construct a dam to replace one which had washed away some years earlier. Estimated cost of that structure was to be $25,000 but, before work had been completed in 1947, construction costs had more than doubled. The board of supervisors, perhaps unwittingly, as future events were to show, had taken on construction of the Van Ettan dam as a “personal project.”

By the fall of 1947, property owners of Van Ettan Lake appeared before the board of supervisors to protest a special assessment roll required to finance the project. The delegation of interested taxpayers felt that the burden of repaying the cost of construction should have been spread over the entire Township of Oscoda.

The dam was to raise the water in Van Ettan Lake to a “normal and desirable water level,” according to the petition submitted originally by property owners.

“Van Ettan Lake dam cost $54,000 and this cost was levied against the land which was benefited by raising the water level of the lake,” stated The Tawas Herald on November 7, 1947. “A number of protests were filed relative to the specific descriptions of property and assessments.”

The principal cause of concern was the more than doubling of construction costs, which the Herald attributed to “increased prices of material and labor.” 

In addition, difficulties in purchasing land for the site of the dam, court proceedings for determination of the necessity of the dam and other matters delayed His construction for a long time, or until construction costs had spiraled upward.

“The board reluctantly ordered it built last summer, contending that such construction should not be done at that time, but Van Ettan Lake landowners urged its immediate construction,” stated the Herald in October 1947.

On the final day of the board’s November session, arrangements were completed for financing the dam. Adjustments made at that meeting included reducing the assessment of $1.50 to $1.25 per front foot on improved Van Ettan Lake property; changes to certain specific. Assessments where “injustices” had been found in the roll and  spreading the payments over a period of three years instead of one year, as originally planned. In addition, a levy of $10.000 was made on property of Oscoda Township at large.

“In collecting the tax by a one year levy, there would have been no particular financial problem for the county, but it would have been a hardship for the taxpayers’ of the’ assessment district,” stated the Herald.

The supervisors solved that problem by dipping into its courthouse building fund established in the late 1930s, to finance construction of the dam.

“The money appropriated to the courthouse building fund each year has been invested in government bonds and the board of supervisors ordered those bonds to be sold. As the money is collected from the special assessment district, it will be replaced in the building fund,” reported the Herald.

That settled the matter for about 10 years, but problems cropped up soon after the original special assessment was retired. Provisions had not been made to finance maintenance of the dam and that proved troublesome as the structure had to be entirely rebuilt. 

On October 27, 1955, the Herald reported that Van Ettan Lake property owners had petitioned the board of supervisors for a special $20,000 tax levy to provide funds for repairing, improving and maintaining the dam.

Because of the lack of repair the operation of the dam caused damage by erosion to land above and below the dam. As early as 1950, suit was commenced in circuit court by some property owners seeking relief from continued damage and compensation for damages at that time. In 1955, that suit was still pending and the dam was being operated under the control of a circuit court order issued by Judge Herman Dehnke.

“Hailed by Van Ettan Lake property owners as a boon to them and the township before its construction, the dam has since caused dissatisfaction to many because the water level maintained was either too high or too low for each individual interest,” stated the Herald.

The 1955 petition to the board was signed by 196 landowners in the assessment district. That petition provided for $20,000 in tax anticipation notes to be paid from taxes levied on property in the special assessment district for the years 1956 through 1959.

“It was agreed in the petition that the county at large would not be chargeable with any costs relating to damages or improvements to the dam,” stated the Herald. However, at a public hearing held in November, 40 property owners appeared before the board of supervisors and protested the special assessment tax, maintaining that the county should participate in the cost of repairs and maintenance of the dam. The board of supervisors held the position that all such costs were the responsibility of the district benefited by the dam.

At a public hearing held at the county building, Atty. J. Russell Hughes of Harrisville represented an association of  Van Ettan Lake taxpayers and the county was represented by William R. Barber, prosecuting attorney. A second hearing was held December 5, 1955, to hear further objections on the special assessment district.

“Since our experience with Van Ettan Lake dam,” stated Glenn Long, chairman of the board of supervisors, “we are wary of proposals of dams to maintain or change water levels of lakes or streams. We have had several such proposals brought to us in the past few years.

“On paper, the proposed dam may work fine, but in the stream, it is a different story. Damage suits and dissatisfaction may be the result. A water level beneficial to wildlife or to one taxpayer’s purpose may destroy another taxpayer’s sandy beach and turn his property into a quagmire!

The board of supervisors “stood by its guns” in the 1955 matter and, county funds were never used to finance maintenance of the dam. In later years, a proposal to construct a dam to raise the water level of Tawas Lake, along with proposed dams on other streams and lakes of the county, always hit a snag when brought to the floor of the county board of supervisors. Members recalled the nearly 10-year struggle over the Van Etten Lake Dam and avoided being involved in other proposed dams.

Repairs made to the dam in 1955 have withstood the rigors of time and fluctuating water conditions and, today, the water level of Van Ettan Lake is constantly checked by a township employee. Gates are lowered or raised to maintain the proper level.

Although minor disputes arise occasionally as to proper level of the lake, Howard and Van Ettan, who lost three dams and a mill which never sawed any lumber 144 years ago – depending if one accepts that date as the year for the first dam on Van Ettan Lake would be happy to know that everything is operating smoothly today.

Edward Tate, township clerk, said he “was keeping his fingers crossed.” The special assessment tax for maintaining the dam expired with the 1959 levy.