Case in Point

The Newaygo Dam
A Case in Point


Traveling north on M 37, just after passing through the village of Newaygo, you cross a four-lane bridge over the Muskegon River which offers an impressive view in both directions. Over your left shoulder, you can see the approximate downstream end of the most popular stretch of the Muskegon, the fourteen-mile section from below Croton dam to Newaygo.

The river flows without obstruction here but it was not always so.  Up until 1969 when the DNR demolished it, a concrete dam just below the bridge extended across the entire main stem of the river. Originally constructed in 1854, it had undergone a number of upgrades at the direction of a variety of owners and operators until it was abandoned and finally removed.

In this issue of the Riverview, Scott Looman, Education Director at the Newaygo County Museum provides a fascinating historical perspective of the Newaygo dam from start to finish. We are grateful to Scott for granting us permission to reprint his article.

The subject matter holds particular interest for us since the dam in question provides an important object lesson in the unexpected consequences of major river construction, dams in particular.  Throughout its entire life cycle – from original construction to final demolition – this dam, like many, caused significant adverse effect to the river it controlled.

The most obvious visible impact of course was to the flow of the river. In the days when the dam was in place the upstream section was referred to as the pond. Wide and sluggish, it bore little resemblance to the free flowing stream as it existed in the 1800’s or as we see it today. Allowed to return to its natural state, a relatively steep gradient produces strong currents and a faster, much narrower stream. In effect, removing the Newaygo dam greatly improved the form, function and visual appeal of that section of the Muskegon River.

Below the surface, out of sight, the dam was causing devastating changes. Water temperatures gradually rose. Sand and silt accumulated and clogged gravel spawning beds. Additionally the dam completely blocked the upstream passage of several critically important fish species including walleyes and sturgeon. Prevented from migrating upstream to their historical spawning areas, they experienced gradual but steady population declines.

The Muskegon, once a renowned walleye fishery, began to lose its appeal to anglers. In the 50’s and 60’s the DNR compensated local residents who operated large dip nets from platforms extending out into  the river below the dam. Net stand operators placed the fish in live wells to wait for DNR technicians who collected and transported them upstream.  The effort proved ineffective and was abandoned shortly before the dam was removed.

Although definitely good news for the long-term health of the river, the demolition and removal of the dam created new and equally severe impacts. Silt and sand that had accumulated for over 100 years flushed downstream with disastrous effect on the lower river and the Muskegon Marsh, a wide shallow wetland just upstream of Muskegon Lake.

Today, obvious recovery has occurred. Visually, the experience is much improved as you enjoy the view from the bridge. Flowing without obstruction, the stretch from Croton to Newaygo supports a thriving seasonal fishery for salmon and steel head as well as an improving walleye fishery.

The common denominator in the study of dams on the Muskegon is one of ignorance coupled with lack of concern for long-term consequences. The case has been made many times over and need not be repeated here.   Hopefully in the future we can take a more enlightened approach to the way we manage our fresh water resources.