Tear down the Ames Mill dam

We got this email today from Norman Butler, proprietor of the Contented Cow and Chapati:

I understand that the sludge behind the dam was recently tested for pollutants with a view to repairing the dam (by Malt-O-Meal). What was the result of the tests? Why not remove the dam and restore the wild and scenic river as it flows through Northfield?

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I blogged the photos of the sludge testing that was done back in mid-June. I don’t know the test results and don’t have time this week to dig for them. Anyone else want to take a stab at finding out?

But I agree with Norman. Let’s tear down the damn thing. Sure, the water above the dam makes for pretty pictures but that’s no longer a good-enough reason, given the importance of improving the health of the Cannon River.


  1. Ross Currier said:


    People have been suggesting removing the dam for years. There’s even a movie about it.

    However, Heidi Hamilton said that reducing the water pressure from the banks of the river could result in some dramatic impacts…like the buildings in downtown sinking into the earth. Others have suggested that such a change would cause the “mighty” Cannon to be reduced to a trickle.

    Personally, I’d like to see a whitewater kayaking treatment, perhaps halfway between dam and no dam, like they have in downtown Denver. It has created a tourist draw for that city.

    Let’s chase the sludge study and Heidi’s analysis. Then we’d have more information to move toward a decision.


    August 14, 2007
  2. Sarah Hale said:

    I love the idea of a whitewater course replacing the dam! Wausau, WI also has a very successful course running through downtown, though theirs is helped out by the occasional dam release upriver. I understand that Denver is successful in part due to additional water from snow melt. I wonder if conditions on the Cannon would be favorable towards such a treatment?

    August 14, 2007
  3. kiffi summa said:

    A perfect example for people to go and look at is the (dam removal/rapids creating) DNR project in Cannon Falls. It’s absolutely beautiful and much healthier for the river.
    Of more immediate concern is the railing on the east side of the dam, which is reported to now be completely detached from its base, rather than just loose, as was discussed some time ago. A year or two ago, when the loose railing issue came up, it was looked at by the city and proclaimed safe for the time being, although it needed to be watched.
    I haven’t looked at it, but people who have say a child could easily slip through the gap. This should be checked , again, immediately. There are always families with children there, and soon there will be thousands of Jesse James visitors around.

    August 14, 2007
  4. I have real mixed emotions on this. I see the dam not only as something nice to look at but, there has always been a dam there since Northfield was founded. It is very historically significant and without it I think Northfield is really loosing a piece of its identity. I like the idea of having rapids there but it would not be the same.

    However, if the study that is being conducted states that the river would be healthier without the dam, than I say take it down. Otherwise, I say keep it for its historical significance, so Northfield can keep a piece of it’s identity and honor it’s past.

    All in all, keep the dam unless the river is being harmed in some way!

    August 14, 2007
  5. Ray Cox said:

    I like Sarah and Ross’s thoughts for a whitewater chute instead of a dam! But, people need to be aware that the removal of a dam can have significant consequences. Often water tables, ground stability and therefore building foundation support, etc. are all impacted by dams. Taking one out sounds simple, but it is actually pretty complicated.

    I like the dam. I agree with Kiffi that there are ways to make it more attractive. But as an old river mill town, it’s nice to see the dam there. How about powering it up to something?

    August 15, 2007
  6. Chip Cuccio said:

    Ray wrote, “How about powering it (the dam) up to something?” Excellent idea! Make it useful, and keep the identity (as Hayes brilliantly mentioned).

    August 15, 2007
  7. Ross Currier said:

    Justin Watkins served with me on the Northfield Planning Commission until his career took him to Rochester. Our peculiar passion for stormwater management keeps us in touch.

    Hearing the current discussion about the dam, one of his favorite topics, inspired him to write me:

    “I heard a stat that said ~85% of dams in the US will reach the end of serviceable life around 2025. This issue will come up very frequently in the next decade. A couple weeks ago I saw a great presentation regarding benefits of dam removal. If that is something you are interested in, I could arrange for you to view it, and/or find someone to present it.”

    August 15, 2007
  8. Philip Spensley said:

    Ray’s question about powering it up to something brings up something that has been on my mind for a while, ever since I saw a documentary on installing electric generators in the Thames River in London to catch the tide flow up and down…they are SMALL…about like a torpedo…and we could install a couple in the dam to power the whole of downtown! NDDC how about that for a project?

    August 15, 2007
  9. Brad Behrens said:

    I agree with the idea of removing the dam. Once a dam has lost its functional value, removal should always be an option. Funding sources for dam removal have increased throughout the last decade and studies have shown the positive impacts on fish migration and river ecosystem health that follow dam removal.

    August 15, 2007
  10. Griff Wigley said:

    Here’s a comprehensive resource for dam removal from American Rivers:

    Our Dam Removal Citizen Guide is an essential component of our Restoring Rivers Initiative. Comprised of a series of fact sheets, reports, and a 30-minute video, the Citizen Guide is the way for a variety of audiences to engage in river restoration projects.

    Whether you are a town manager looking for a document to aid you in deciding whether to remove a dam, a consultant looking for options to a traditional denil fish ladder, or a local river group that wants a video to help tell the story of river restoration at the next community meeting, the Dam Removal Citizen Guide will help.

    August 15, 2007
  11. Griff Wigley said:

    The Wisc DNR dam removal website has this list of environmental benefits:

    With regard to resource management, the most significant benefits of dam removal include:

    * Re-connection of important seasonal fish habitat
    * Normalized temperature regimes
    * Improved water clarity (in most cases)
    * Improved dissolved oxygen concentrations
    * Normalized sediment and energy transport, and
    * Improved biological diversity

    In general, carp prefer the warm waters of an impoundment, yet when a dam is removed the cool water species such as trout and bass, generally preferred by anglers, can move back into the river and re-populate.

    August 15, 2007
  12. Philip Spensley said:

    Now I’m curious. Griff says:

    “In general, carp prefer the warm waters of an impoundment, yet when a dam is removed the cool water species such as trout and bass, generally preferred by anglers, can move back into the river and re-populate.”

    Are there bass and trout below the dam, somewhere along the Cannon, perhaps coming up from the Mississippi, and why don’t they come as far as the dam? Or are there bass and trout above the dam somewhere along the river, and why don’t they come as far as the dam…or do they need flowing water and less sludge? Is this the only dam on the Cannon that prevents fish migration or would more dams be needed to be removed to allow them full access up and down the river? Where would bass and trout come from so that they would come to populate themselves in Northfield? Anglers, any insights, knowledge?

    August 15, 2007
  13. There used to be many game fish in the Cannon River. We have many pictures here at the museum with people catching huge Northerns and Bass. However, the dam was still there. I don’t understand how the dam is causing more pollution so the fish are not coming.

    Also the whitewaters would look nice but we are not known for having rapids in Northfield. We are known for two things; Defeating Jesse James and milling and part of milling is having a dam in the river.

    It really concerns me that everyone wants to get rid of a piece of Northfield’s identity and it’s past. For a town that wants to have a historic downtown they don’t seem to concerned about preserving one of it biggest historical pieces!

    August 15, 2007
  14. Dan Bergeson said:

    I agree with Hayes’ concern about Northfield losing some historic authenticity if the dam is removed. I also wonder what the aesthetics would be like with the high walls of the riverwalk and a stream the size of Heath Creek much of the year.

    But what I think is of the most immediate significance is that I think there’s already an agreement between Malt-O-Meal and the City to share the costs of refurbishing the dam and rebuilding the east wall of the riverbank above the 4th St. bridge in 2008(which Kiffi points out has been not only unsightly, but unsafe for some time).

    August 15, 2007
  15. Philip Spensley said:

    Dan and Hayes, I agree that the dam has meaning (beyond historicity even), but I would still like to think outside the box and find a use for it…(Ray, time to weigh back in here). To see all that water energy going to waste (well, water going over a dam or a falls of any kind generates good feelings, and not just from the extra ions in the air as a result, and lit up its even more attractive) but ok, no more need for milling, but wy not think electricity generation. The engineer proponent behind the experiment in the Thames is looking for more takers…more opportunities to try out his “invention”…and those generators are surprisingly small and each powers about 300 homes (or businesses). The city or Malt-o-Meal or whoever would partner could recoup their investment and provide Northfield with an innovatively productive use for the dam and provide a bit of marketability for themselves. We could lead a movement for small towns looking to use their own resources and cut back on coal generation of electricity…renewable energy is right there next to Bridge Square.

    Thanks, Hayes, for the info on the fish. I, too, can’t imagine why the dam would stop fish from being in the river, either above or below…they’d just not able to fraternise across the great divide, but I am not going to emulate Reagan and say Mr. Ames Mill, tear down that wall. Keep it, but use it.

    August 15, 2007
  16. kurt Larson said:

    Re: posts #12/13 and fish species.
    “cool water species such as trout and bass, ”
    Bass yes,
    Trout no…..
    Trout require such a cold temp. that they are limited primarily to a few streams in SE Mn. where the steams are typically spring fed.
    Just wanted to clarify before people start the idea of an outfitter shop selling flyrods along the cannon…

    I know it barely applies but for what its worth…….

    August 15, 2007
  17. kurt Larson said:

    I forgot to add in my last post,,,,I like the idea of attention being directed to the river. I believe it is the most under utilized attraction in Nfld. Unlike a lot of river cities WE OWN BOTH SIDES OF THE RIVER!!!!. Our river may not be as big as other river towns but we have a great walk area that barely gets used.
    What other ideas are out there that may be “outside the box.”
    Does the damn impede usage of the river or help it ?

    August 15, 2007
  18. Ray Cox said:

    Griff is right….fish will move into areas where they are not presently found when water quality is changed. Right now there is a native trout population in Rice Creek which feeds into the river. They have been there for years. When I was in high school and college we would catch them there on a regular basis. I’ve not fished the creek for some time, but must assume they are still there. Creating a riffle or rapids does wonders for water quality.

    August 16, 2007
  19. Dan Bergeson said:


    I don’t know if preserving the dam and installing the type of turbine that you suggest are compatible activities in a river the size of the Cannon or not, but I thought you and others may be interested and New York’s recent experience with these machines in the East River. See the following: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/13/nyregion/13power.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

    August 16, 2007
  20. I have mixed feelings about the dam, but regarding game fish in the Cannon, the river is full of them–right in downtown! There aren’t any trout, of course, but when the water level is a little higher than it is now there are plenty of northerns, walleyes, and bass (as well as sunfish, crappies and catfish) in there alongside the rough fish.

    I caught the nicest smallmouth of my life earlier this summer from the bank just alongside the gazebo.

    August 16, 2007
  21. Philip Spensley said:

    Dan, thanks for the website info…interesting…their problems with tides would not be a factor in an inland river where the flow is one way only. These turbines seem a bit larger than the ones I saw in the London installation…would probably help Hastings and Red Wing and Winona and other towns along the Mississippi though…we would need smaller blades because we don’t have the depth of water. I was heartened to read that “The idea of generating electricity by harnessing the power of a flowing river — called hydrokinetic energy — is attracting growing attention.”
    Ray, thanks for the info on the trout. Sounds hopeful. Undoubtedly further information from the Cannon River Watershed folk and maybe the U or the State Fisheries Board (if there is such an animal) would be helpful. I wonder whether one could harness water power as well as create fresh water rapids for the fish.
    I think all this discussion is very stimulating and hopefully it will not be a hot air bubble of simply wishful ideas but lead us concretely to some creative action being taken to reap the benefits of the river, aesthetically, historically, productively and economically. And yes along both sides of the river, above and below as well as through downtown. Couldn’t the bike trail better follow the river out of town going toward Cannon Falls, for example?
    Keep it going…

    August 16, 2007
  22. Gary Wagenbach said:

    It is great to read the active discussion and thoughts about the future of the Ames Mill Dam. I have been thinking about and doing research on the Cannon River for 15 years and have information and perspective on the topic. I have a species list of fish that the DNR have reported, some data on MN DNR listed freshwater mussels, and thoughts on river restoration. I also have a student here at Carleton, who would like to prepare a senior project looking at issues, history, and options for the future of the dam. She would work on that project during the 07-08 academic year. Also be reminded of the approach taken on the Morehouse Dam in Owatonna. Go have a look next time you drive that way. An alternate path for water to flow around the dam was constructed during 2007 and now fish can migrate. Fish migration is very important to river restoration. How about formulating a 100 year vision of restoration for the C. R. that is respectful of historical dimensions at multiple levels from geological history to milling, etc.

    August 20, 2007
  23. john george said:

    After looking at the pictures of the 2002 flooding on the blog just entered, I wonder how removing the dam would affect this type of water accumulation? It would be interesting to hear the input from a qualified hydrologist. My son is a licensed landscape architect in North Dakota. One of his responsibilities is addressing how his design would affect runoff. In the Red River valley, the average slope is 6″ per mile. That is flat, folks! This has been a real problem in addressing drainage in that area. As municipalities have attacked their own problems with flooding, there has often not been sufficient analysis of how their solution will affect other municipalities and farmers/homeowners along the river system. My son is presently working on a proposal for the Red River Authority (I think that is the proper title) which would allow for storage of large rains, since it cannot drain off rapidly. Has anyone checked to see if there is a state authority over the river systems that keeps all this in balance? I don’t think the Army Corps. of Engineers has this responsibility. We only have a small section of the river coming through town, and we need to be mindful of what we do affecting others up and down the river.

    August 21, 2007
  24. john george said:

    Opps! The year was 2004, not 2002! There goes everyone’s confidence in my typing (keyboarding) skills. Guess I am just behind the times.

    August 21, 2007
  25. Griff Wigley said:

    At Monday’s Council meeting, the dam’s east side retaining wall was included in Joel Walinsky’s 2008 Downtown Enhancement Project Workplan (p. 24 of council packet PDF):

    The attachment with cost estimates (PDF):

    Maintenance Wall and Deck: $229,800.00
    Observation Deck/Railing: $48,000.00

    It looks as tho the city pays the $48k. Who’s on the hook for the $229k? Malt-o-Meal?

    August 22, 2007
  26. john george said:

    Rats! There goes the price of a bag of cereal! I would ask, what price is safety? Especially with all the visitors who line the mill site. One thing is for sure. If we don’t do anything, nature will certainly do something.

    August 22, 2007
  27. C.J. Betcher said:

    I think that not only does the dam have historical value, but it is also is a great flood barrier. Also, it could be a good source for hydropower for the city of Northfield.

    April 30, 2008
  28. Mary Rossing said:

    If you are interested in the fate of the dam, the health of the river, or the potential for recreational opportunities surrounding the river in downtown, please put the next NDDC forum on your schedule. There will be representatives from the Cannon River Watershed Partnership, the DNR and hopefully Malt-O-Meal on hand. Tuesday, May 6th at 8:00 am in the lowerlevel conference room of the Archer House. All are welcome, it’s free, and there’s cookies!!

    April 30, 2008
  29. Chris Israel said:

    Do you folks have any idea how much silt is in that section between the dam and Dundas?? Removal of that dam will fill in the river, all the way to Byllesby, with silt and mud. That in turn will destroy fish habitat and spawning ground.
    I am an avid fisherman, and spend 90% of my time on the stretch between that dam and Byllesby. I often clean trash up during my outings, and I am very protective of the resource we have.
    Whitewater??? I’ll throw myself in front of the dozer…

    June 5, 2008
  30. Chris,

    At the NDDC forum on dam removal, we were told on average that the fish population would only be affected for a couple months, maybe a year. However, I might be mistaken on that.

    June 6, 2008
  31. Gary Wagenbach said:

    Regarding the question of how much silt is behind the Ames Mill Dam:
    In 2001 two Carleton students, Sean Bryant and Sarah Leibson, estimated the volume of sediment accumulated behind the dam. The result was 2,436,750 cubic feet or 90,250 cubic yards of sediment. Advisers for the project were my self and Prof. Mary Savina. Gary has the original poster showing their work (you may contact Gary to view the poster and check their work). Lets look at the implications of those numbers. Some staff at MN DNR should be able to help based on experience with other dam removal / modification projects.

    June 10, 2008
  32. Shane Mossman said:

    Hi Tracy,

    I stumbled on your site after looking for more information on the Cannon River. I came across some blogs from early 2007 and 2008 that were of great interest to me. They were in regards to the possible removal of the Cannon River dam in Northfield in the hopes of a more canoe friendly Northfield.

    I moved to Northfield 2 years ago. I am an avid outdoorsman in the form of canoeing, kayaking, hiking, biking and camping. I love to be on the water. My favorite place to canoe is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. Due to the economy I have not had the chance to get up north this summer so I thought I would try and turn this into a positive and explore the lakes and rivers close to home. The Cannon River is the closest so yesterday I spent a nice sunny day on the Cannon River for the first time. I started in Faribault and my beautiful day on the river was rudely ended by a very old and useless dam in the middle of Northfield. I am sure it was useful long ago, but today it has no purpose other than an obstacle for canoeists. I would have loved to have continued my travel on the river and I am used to portaging the lakes up north but there is no safe portage route around the dam so I was forced to take out at Riverside Park. I would love to continue my route on the Cannon from Northfield to Cannon Falls but can’t due to this damn dam!

    Anyway I just wanted to add my 2 cents as I have seen there are others who have had thoughts on this topic and thought I would share my pictures on the Cannon river yesterday. While it is not the clear waters of up north, I did enjoy the day on the river and hope that Northfield will make some positive changes for us who love to canoe. I think Northfield has a great opportunity here for better recreation which helps promote a healthy and active lifestyle.

    Here is the link to the pictures.


    July 9, 2009
  33. Tracy Davis said:

    Does anyone have an update on the status of the dam from Malt-O-Meal, the DNR, et al?

    July 10, 2009

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