CORUNNA — After years of legal back and forth and numerous repairs, the city of Corunna has taken the next step toward removing the dam along the Shiawassee River, approving a $1.2 million bid for the project July 1.
Longtime Owosso resident Joe Rundell is among those sad to see the aging, decrepit structure go. Rundell says the current dam was constructed by his father in 1912 to replace a dam built in the mid 1800’s to service a grist mill.
“There was an early thaw and the ice completely took the dam out. Part of the mill was built on the dam so when the dam went, a little bit of the foundation went, too,” Rundell said.
“My father and another man went up the river and they felled trees, made them into logs and they floated them down to the dam. Just the two of them made a cofferdam using those logs and rocks to hold them in place. It was in the form of a triangle…they were able to get the water going over the wheel again enough so my father could start grinding wheat again, but not like before. It was a weak fix.”
According to a Shiawassee history website, a Corunna dam was constructed in the mid-1800s to provide power for a grist mill. The dam consists of a 200-foot wide overflow spillway with a 25-foot-wide stoplog bay section located adjacent to the right abutment (west side of river). The dam has a structural height of 10 feet, a normal head of 7 feet and creates an impoundment with a surface area of 17 acres.
The dam has been the site of several drownings in the last 150 years. The most recent fatal drowning took place in 2008.
Rundell’s father, also named Joe, was the head miller at the Corunna grist mill. Rundell said his father took it upon himself to fix the dam in 1912, borrowing approximately $10,000 from someone in Detroit, possibly a mason, to make more permanent repairs.
“He took it on himself because that was his living,” Rundell said. “He owned a share of that mill and he had to get it running again. And I don’t think it was very long, maybe a month or so, and my dad was grinding wheat again, to make flour.”
The elder Rundell continued as head miller in Corunna until 1916, when he decided to open his own grist mill in Owosso, on the corner of Corunna Avenue and Washington Street. He ran that mill for nearly 30 years before it burnt down in 1943. He died seven years later, at the age of 76.
“I was 10 years old when my father passed,” Rundell said. “All of this stuff, it came to me later. My dad never told me about this stuff. My father used to like to fish there down by the dam.”
Today, Rundell lives in Flint and works as a sculptor and engraver. He said he drives through the Owosso area often, and does not want to see the dam removed.
“Of course I want to see it stay because my dad built the darn thing,” Rundell said. “I think that he and the other guy that built that initial cofferdam were brave people to do that. The people around in 1912 needed flour to make bread and such, and so they used my dad’s flour to make the bread in Corunna and Owosso. They didn’t go to the store very much to buy bread, they made their own.
“I think that today, too much stuff is going. I’ve been to Europe…you look at buildings that are 200, 300, and 400 hundred years old. They didn’t knock them down after 30 years,” Rundell continued.
“I think that in losing that dam, we’re losing part of our heritage. There’s no reason for it,” he said.
The path toward the removal of the dam has taken more than a decade.
Corunna filed a lawsuit against the state Department of Environmental Quality in 2010, objecting to DEQ orders regarding repairs to the dam. The city argued it was not the owner of the dam and therefore was not responsible for repairs. The dam was abandoned long ago, the city claimed, with ownership reverting back to the state of Michigan.
Attorneys for the DEQ countered that when the city purchased land on the west side of the Shiawassee River in 1979, the purchase included the dam.
Circuit Court Judge Gerald Lostracco agreed with the state’s position, saying that under riparian laws owners of riverfront property own the bottomlands to the middle of the river plus anything that has been built on it, such as a dam.
Philip Ellison, attorney for Corunna, said a dam should be treated as personal property, not real estate. He compared the dam to a utility pole that remains the property of the utility company regardless of who owns the land it sits on.
In 2013, the city lost in 35th Circuit Court, it then lost at the state appeals court and Michigan Supreme Court, in 2015.
Estimates at the time suggested the cost to build a new dam would top $1.8 million with repairs to the current structure nearly as high.
Removal will cost about $1.2 million with the majority of that covered by state and federal grants. The city council accepted a bid for removal on July 1. Work could start by August.