GLADWIN – In a Gladwin County Record article from September 27, 2005 entitled ‘History of Chappel Dam’ it states that the dam had a rocky start during the process of its modern construction.
While the dam location has been around since the later 1800s, backing up water into what is known as Wiggins Lake, the dam itself was reconstructed in 1914 in concrete. This reconstruction completed despite troubles of holding back the waters during the process. The article mentions that water “broke through the earthen embankment and took portions of the concrete work with it” within the final years of its reconstruction. The reconstructed Chappel Dam stood its place for nearly 15 years before it broke under the pressure of four inches of rain water. According to the article, on April 4, 1929, the operator of the dam at the time could see that a large stump and log build up was preventing water from passing efficiently. After failed attempts to open the gate, the decision was made to save the spillway by destroying portions of the embankment by way of dynamite. This allowed for the floodwater to pass through, which then caused the destruction of the M-61 bridge, the shutdown of the village of Gladwin, and the flooding of many homes.
After this disaster, the dam was then repaired and operational by August 14, 1929. In 1962, the owners of the dam, Consumers Power Company, sold Chappel Dam to Gladwin County for one dollar to own and maintain.
The Record had the opportunity to speak with Mike Rajt, Chairman of the Wiggins Lake Level Authority about Chappel Dam and its recent fight with the record flood waters.
Mike has been a chairman for the lake since May of 2018. He worked years prior to create a group of individuals tied to the lake to oversee the operations of the dam instead of just one person. The County Drain Commissioner oversaw the dam before the lake authority had assumed responsibility in September of 2018.
The dam is operated by the Lake Level Authority which is comprised of Mike and a few other individuals including the County Commissioner for the district and the Township Supervisor. The volunteers were assembled by Mike with each being retired residents who live on Wiggins Lake. He is thankful for the quality of the volunteers. He feels very fortunate because he doesn’t believe the county would be able to afford to pay a team like the one he has assembled. He is aware of many qualified individuals who are interested in volunteering for the future, so he has no worries about the future of his volunteer group handling the day-to-day operations.
“We can keep [the volunteer group] going virtually indefinitely,” Mike said. “The advantage to that is that now the decisions are being made by the people on the lake or people who have an interest in the lake, and when the money gets spent, we have a major say in how it gets spent.”
On Sunday, May 17, Mike and his team of volunteers that help maintain the dam met via conference call with the Gladwin County Emergency Management Director, Bob North who then suggested that they lower the lake level by a few inches in preparation for heavy rainfall. Considering the smaller size of the lake, Mike believes it is able to fill with water very quickly.
The Lake Level Authority and the Chappel Dam volunteers established an Emergency Action Plan for the dam last fall. During the heavy rainfall on the night of Monday, May 18, they followed the plan and continuously opened the dam more and more until it was completely opened up allowing for maximum water flow.
At that point, Mike contacted Bob North for an idea of where to obtain gravel. Mike mentioned that Bob then referred him to Dave Pettersch with the Gladwin County Road Commission. Dave was able to supply the gravel by way of four dump trucks to the dam. Mike together with Dave, the road commission, volunteers, and the Sheriff worked to lay gravel in order to reinforce the embankments around the dam.
With the work being done to support the dam as much as possible, Mike went home early in the morning to try and rest before returning to the dam only hours later. Gladwin County Sheriff, Mike Shea oversaw the dam in the early hours of the morning while Mike Rajt was away. However, a Nixel alert indicating the possible dam breach kept Mike Rajt awake and he immediately returned to the site. He then learned that the dam had not breached and that the efforts from earlier seemed to be supporting the dam.
According to Mike, the water in Wiggins Lake was above its normal level by eight inches for roughly 20 hours. Despite the strong forces of nature fighting against it, Chappel Dam continued to hold throughout the entirety of the flood.
Mike believes that lowering the lake below the court-ordered level and conducting the proper inspections will allow for the Army Corps of Engineers to gain reassurance of the dams stability.
On Wednesday, May, 27, the lake authority lowered the lake water level by 13 inches in order to properly inspect the dam. On Monday, June 1, a certified diver inspected the dam from underwater to ensure its security. Mike hopes to have the water level restored and the dam’s security guaranteed by fall, however, he is unsure if a fall date is entirely realistic. He is also aware of the residents on Wiggins Lake calling for the dam to be brought up to modern day standards.
According to Mike, based on preliminary data, this recent flooding was greater than the previous record of flooding for the lake which occurred in 1986.
“Thank God that I had the guys that I had with me,” Mike said. “ I thank God for the Sheriff and Bob North and Dave and the Road Commission otherwise we would have another dam likely come down.”