By Tom Hintgen
On Sept. 24, 1909, about a year after a city-owned dam was built as part of a hydroelectric station along the Otter Tail River east of Fergus Falls, employee Ben Snyder was awakened at 4:20 a.m. and noticed the lights fading. Looking out the door he saw water splashing up on the platform, and knew that something was seriously wrong.
Grabbing his clothes, he warned N.P. Johnson, who was on duty. Just as they left the powerhouse, the floor trembled and the two men ran up the railway embankment. In what seemed like a split second, the 10-ton structure sank from sight.
This site eventually became known as Broken Down Dam.
Snyder and Johnson headed toward Fergus Falls to warn the city of the impending danger. They reached the Ed Burau farm where Burau hitched up his team of horses, and the three of them headed for town.
Enroute to Fergus Falls, they met the city electrical superintendent, J.W. Peterson, who was heading to City Dam to learn why the lights had gone out and why he could not reach the power station by telephone.
They spread the word and, fortunately, there was no loss of life in Fergus Falls, despite flooding in some areas of the community.
When the destruction took place, a century ago this coming Thursday, water poured down a narrow gorge between large hills until it reached the Kirk Dam, located near Oak Grove Cemetery. This dam had previously furnished power for the city water works system. Water poured into basements on the south side of Lincoln Avenue.
A block downstream, the Red River Mill Dam went out and Red River Milling Company suffered a $10,000 loss, a substantial amount of money close to a century ago. The Woolen Mill Dam was destroyed with a loss of $5,000.
Dayton Hollow Dam, five miles south of Fergus Falls, withstood the flood. Otter Tail Power Company owned the dam and its president, Vernon Wright, reached Dayton Hollow at 6:15 a.m. with F.G. Barrows. They were able to open the flood gates.
None of the demolished dams, with the exception of Central Dam near South Cascade, was rebuilt. After the disaster at City Dam, Fergus Falls and Otter Tail Power Company successfully negotiated terms for an electric service contract.
The Otter Tail River begins at Big Elbow Lake in northeastern Becker County. The total drop from Big Elbow to Fergus Falls and finally to Breckenridge is 553 feet. This is one of many facts available in the book, “History of the Otter Tail River,” written by Al Seltz of Fergus Falls.
How to get to Broken Down Dam
To get to Broken Down Dam by vehicle, head east of Fergus Falls along Mt. Faith Avenue until you get to Broken Down Dam Road. Drive north a short distance until you come to the Broken Down Dam Park sign.
You can walk to the site along hiking trails — with the easier route starting to the right of the sign.
Over the years this site has been a popular stopping site for hikers along the Otter Tail River. Others have driven to the site and have taken along a picnic lunch.
There’s only one flood of historical record in Fergus Falls, and it was due to the failure of the City Light Dam in September 1909.
Interest in Broken Down Dam east of Fergus Falls has passed from one generation to the next.