Pulling the Plug on Mill Creek

Published In:
Community Observer, Spring 2001,
Spring 2001

Author: Grace Shackman

The recent decision to remove Dexter's Mill Creek Dam promises an ecological and recreational payoff.

The Dexter Village Council voted in mid-February to accept the recommendation of the Mill Creek Dam Task Force to remove the 175-year-old dam. Still unresolved, however, are two large questions: who owns the dam and who will ultimately pay for its removal.

But even with money at issue and no official timetable established, one thing is certain: the removal of the dam, which has not been used as a power source for more than eighty years, promises a flood of ecological and recreational advantages. Not only will the creek run faster and cleaner without the dam, thus allowing for a healthier and more varied aquatic life, the water will return to its original narrower channel, leaving more dry land at its edge for nature study and recreation.

The first dam on the site, just west of downtown, was built in 1825 .by village founder Samuel Dexter. Dexter had selected the site for his town a year earlier specifically because it was on a creek, just off the Huron River, that could be dammed for power. He harnessed that power to build a sawmill on the west side of the stream, about where Mill Creek Sporting Goods is now. Next he built a gristmill on the opposite side, where the village offices and fire department now stand. The sawmill business did not last long, but the gristmill continued to operate for nearly a century, run by a variety of owners before it closed in 1917.

In 1920 Henry Ford, who was buying up mills all over southeast Michigan to encourage the development of small village industries, bought the gristmill and water rights. He rebuilt the Mill Creek Dam and began work on the mill building, but died before it could be completed. The village-industry project died with Ford, and in 1957 Ford Motor Company sold the old mill and the land to the village.

In 1995 the Fisheries Division of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources issued a report, the Huron River Assessment, that recommended the removal of retired hydroelectric dams. The DNR's arguments for cleaner water and recreational opportunities intrigued the Dexter Village Council. The timing was also right: the replacement of the bridge over the dam is on the Washtenaw County Road Commission's project list, and if the dam is removed, the bridge will span less water and be cheaper to replace.

Part of the delay in removing the dam until now has been determining who owns what part of it. According to John Coy, village president and chair of the task force, the research so far indicates that the village owns the land on the east side of the dam, the county owns the land on the west, and the Ford Motor Company owns the spillway. However, he says, "who owns and who pays" for removal may be two different issues. Since the village can not afford such a big project, it will be applying for grants from sympathetic groups such as fisheries organizations, parks commissions, and state and federal environmental groups.

Huron-Clinton Metroparks officials have recently announced plans that should add to the attractiveness of the project. They plan to build a five-mile bike and hiking trail that would run all the way from Mill Creek to Huron Mills Metropark.

—Grace Shackman