Other Impacts

Niles Dam

Restoration Efforts

 Geologic History of the DRS

The geology of the Dowagiac River watershed is largely responsible for its cold water temperatures and stable, swift flows. These attributes raised the attention of local citizens and resource managers interested in enhancing and protecting the Dowagiac River System. (U of M.) So it may be of interest to know something more about The DRS geological background.

Southwestern Michigan's land surface is the product of several major periods of continental glaciation during the last Ice-Age. The Wisconsin Ice Sheet came down over this area and receded in at least four sub stages. This region's physical geography today is a product of the Cary substage of the Wisconsin glaciation (16,000 to 13,500 years ago).

At that time, two large ice-lobes, at the preceding edge of the ice sheet, moved southward and came together in southwestern Michigan. The Lake Huron or Saginaw lobe moved from the northeast side of the Michigan peninsula, and the Lake Michigan lobe moved from the northwest side. The melting of these lobes, and deposition of their entrained material, gave rise to the present-day land forms. (US Geological Survey)

The outflow of melt-water in this region was also greatly influenced by another ice-lobe to the immediate south - the Maumee or Lake Erie lobe which affected where the water went from the two ice-lobes in our immediate area. The direction of advance and retreat of these three lobes were generally on an axis with the lake basins for which they are named.

The Saginaw Lobe was somewhat like a curtain between the more massive Michigan and Erie Lobes. It tended to retreat more swiftly. The corners where it met with the two larger lobes as they fluctuated foreword and back created particularly complicated land forms which are described as "interlobate". This means that the resulting glacial land forms were affected by both adjacent lobes. We have a significant amount of interlobate land forms in southwestern Michigan. (U.S. Geological Survey, et. al.)

The Lake Michigan lobe had the greatest influence on the watershed, forming numerous glacial land forms: ground moraines, recessional end moraines, outwash plains, glacial melt-ways, ice-contact features, and small glacial lakes. These water related depositional features are characteristic of a unique origin. They were created when the glaciers retreated and the Dowagiac valley served as a major glacial melt-way draining to the south. (U of M)

A huge body of impounded water once covered the area stretching from north of Decatur, through Dowagiac, Niles, and terminating near South Bend. This has sometimes been referred to as "Glacial Lake Dowagiac". Eventually the size of the lake diminished and became glacial Kalamazoo/Illinois river. This river was also fed by pro-glacial melt water from the three retreating ice-lobes and drained south into what became the Kankakee River, and thence into the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico.

Glacial Lake Dowagiac was six to eight miles wide in places. South of Dowagiac it reached from the bluffs west of Niles eastward to the heights of the inner Kalamazoo moraine. Fed by the pro-glacial waters from as far north as Grand Rapids coming off of the Saginaw and Michigan lobes, massive amounts of melt-water passed down through this wide channel. (Montgomery; Cook and Cook)

An interesting highlight of the geological history of the Dowagiac watershed was how it became a tributary of the Great Lakes (and the St. Lawrence watershed) when it had once been a tributary of the Mississippi.

The flow from prehistoric Lake Dowagiac basin was part of a great prehistoric glacial river system. It joined melt-waters from the Erie, Saginaw and the eastern border of the Michigan ice lobe, with the principal Indiana tributaries, the Elkhart, Yellow, and Tippecanoe rivers, and emptied its waters into the glacial Illinois river at the present site of the City of South Bend.

These great streams existed for long periods of time. The Kalamazoo/Illinois conveyed the glacial waters during the advance of the ice sheet, also during the period when it stood at its most advanced point and during its withdrawal.

When the Michigan ice lobe had sufficiently receded to allow the waters of glacial Lake Chicago to escape through the DesPlaines river opening to the west, there was a rapid lowering of the waters between the ice lobe and its terminal lateral moraine, and ended the flow of waters from Lake Chicago into the Dowagiac river basin, leaving a broad, water-worn plain leading from the Dowagiac river back northwestward to the retreating ice sheets.

After glacial Lake Chicago found its DesPlaines opening, a period of stream robbing occurred in southwestern Michigan. The Dowagiac doubled upon itself and followed the abandoned channel of its former tributary from the Michigan lobe and discharged its waters into Lake Chicago, leaving in turn a well-worn channel from three to four miles wide and eleven miles long through which the lower St. Joseph waters now flow. The distance from the point where the Dowagiac emptied its waters into the St. Joseph to Lake Chicago was much less with a greater fall than the distance from the same point to Momence, Illinois, the site of a natural rock ledge and falls above which was a low gradient through the Kankakee valley.

A significant part of the waters of the Kalamazoo/Illinois are thought to have followed the abandoned Dowagiac channel creating the St. Joseph with its outlet into Lake Chicago. Since the fall over the new route was three and a half times greater than that over the old route, the new channel rapidly cut through the old river deposit, finally claiming all of the waters of the once mighty Kalamazoo/Illinois, abandoning its southern outlet at South Bend.

Another physical element which may have contributed to turning the current of the Kalamazoo/Illinois into the channel of the St. Joseph, was an ice gorge or dam south of South Bend at Crum's Point in an outflow plain deposited by the receding Michigan and Erie lobes. Well pronounced evidences of an ice gorge or dam having formed at Crum's Point were observed. Other depositional factors such as sandbars and gravel deposits from the glacial Dowagiac and St. Joseph rivers eventually contributed to a build up of land forms separating the St. Joe and Kankakee watersheds. (Montgomery)

Another drainage change occurred when the Michigan and Saginaw ice lobes had receded to the position above the Kalamazoo moraine (above present cities of Battle Creek, Jackson and Marshall), and the Grand river waters found an opening into the Michigan basin which was then draining via the DesPlaines, and no longer fed the Dowagiac basin. This caused the southern Michigan post-glacial lake to further diminish, and its outlet, the present St. Joseph river to become immediately much smaller and assume nearer its present capacity.

The prehistoric Kalamazoo/Illinois river, from its source to its mouth, had taken a south-westerly course. When the waters left the old channel, they took an almost due northerly course, forming a great bend in the river, with its sharp convexity to the south, a feature giving South Bend its name. The present St. Joseph River is geographically unique in being among a handful of rivers in the world whose mouth is north of its head. (Montgomery, Cook and Cook)

The proximity of the Dowagiac watershed with the continental divide at South Bend, and the Kankakee watershed opposite, are factors in the array of wildlife species that occupy the area fostering an important biological transitional zone.

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Native Americans

It is believed that shortly after the glaciers receded, early mankind migrated to this region hunting the mastodon and caribou. Several large finds of their fluted points have been documented for Cass County. The region has numerous archeological sites representing each subsequent period, including Archaic Culture, early, middle and late Woodland Cultures.

Initially the Potawatomi, the Chippewa and the Ottawa were of one nation, the Algonquin. After their move in the 13th century from the Northeast to the northern Great Lakes the three tribes became more distinct in language and customs but, the three tribes still retained a loose alliance known as the "Three Fires Confederacy".

From 1460 the Potawatomi occupied the lower peninsula of Michigan. In times of warmer growing seasons they engaged in more horticultural activity but were always basically hunter-gatherers with a winter and spring migration to upland forest for hunting and sugar making and a river bottom migration for fishing and summer planting. (Miller, U of M)

Beginning in 1640 the Potawatomi migrated north and west across the Upper Peninsula to the area near present Green Bay and the Door Peninsula under pressure from encroaching Iroquois from New York. The Iroquois had decimated their source of fur through trade with Europeans (Dutch and English) and were in search of new hunting grounds. Michigan became a no-man's- land used only for hunting expeditions and skirmishes between bands of warriors from various tribes.

Once the Iroquois were driven out of Michigan, the first tribe to venture back into the St. Joseph river valley were the Miami who were in residence when the first French explorers encountered them around 1670. The French first allied themselves with the Potawatomi in Wisconsin and were instrumental in defending them against the Iroquois as they sought to return to Michigan in the 1680's.

For a time the Potawatomi shared the St. Joe valley with the Miami, but eventually the Miami mostly moved to the proximity of Fort Wayne and the Wabash valley. The Potawatomi became the most favored tribe among the French traders and were a powerful tribe during the fur trading era. The French were also the Potawatomi allies in the Fox wars from 1712-1736. The European idea of wining the war was to exterminate the Fox; the Potawatomi, however, were content to seek peace after a major victory at the upper Illinois River in 1730.

The waters of the region played an important role in this period since it was superb "beaver country." Before the Europeans, the Indians hunted a large variety of large and small game and met all of their necessities by foraging and trading among themselves. With the advent of the fur trade they increasingly depended on trade goods and focused on trapping the valuable fur bearing animals for their pelts which they traded for manufactured supplies. Survival skills developed over the centuries were devalued as dependency grew on trade goods.

The bond between the Potawatomi and the French was reinforced for additional reasons. The French government had a good sense of diplomacy, respecting native peoples and providing them with tributes. The Potawatomi were naturally friendly and accommodating, furnishing wives for the few French traders in the area. In this region the missionaries were apparently more successful than elsewhere in obtaining true converts. The fact that the French and Potawatomi tended to assimilate each others cultures cemented a loyal relationship between them.

Adjustment to changing political realities was extremely difficult for the Potawatomi as the French withdrew and the European frontier developed. The continuing need to shift alliance created tribal divisions which left the Potawatomi at a disadvantage not being able to present a united front during later treaty negotiations. When the war of 1812 ended with the Potawatomi defeated along with their British allies, the Indians realized that their hold on the land was tenuous.

The loss of their old way of life was expressed poetically in Red Man's Rebuke of Chief Pokagon:

Alas for us; our day is over
Our fires are out from shore to shore
No more for us the wild deer bounds
The plow is on our hunting ground.

Local leader Leopold Pokagon was an eloquent spokesman for his people. He was successful in getting an amendment appended to the Michigan removal treaty that allowed the Catholic Potawatomi to remain in Michigan. He was shrewd enough to invest the tribe's treaty money in purchase of 874 acres in Silver Creek Township, north west of the Dowagiac River. Two hundred and fifty of the tribe moved there and built simple log homes and a chapel. When pressure for removal increased, Pokagon went to Detroit and obtained a written legal opinion that prevented his band's removal. Other Michigan Potawatomi, who were not Catholic were either forced to flee to Northern Michigan or Canada or were escorted by the Army in the march to Kansas. (Cook and Cook, U of M, Miller)

Many Potawatomi still live in the watershed in VanBuren, Cass and Berrien Counties and are major stake holders in the conservation of the areas resources. Their unique heritage of woodsman ship, husbandry of resources and respect for the land are themselves valuable additions to local culture.

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Pioneer Settlement

At the end of the War of 1812 European migration was already well under way into the old northwest. Although the Northwest Territory was nominally Indian Territory many Americans simply squatted on Indian lands throughout Ohio, Indiana and the other territories until the government secured succession treaties and offered the land for sale, at which point the European settlers had "squatters rights".

The pressure for European immigration into the territory was great. The agriculturalists of the eastern seaboard had not yet learned to keep their land fertile by scientific means of crop rotation or fertilizer or by raising soil enriching corps. Also, many sought to help their children become financially prosperous and independent. Ownership of land was highly valued by immigrants from Europe, where land was expensive and scarce.

Southwestern Michigan was difficult to reach overland. There were almost impassable swamps and numerous rivers to ford. The population of the eastern part of Michigan began in 1819 after territorial Governor Lewis Cass secured the necessary Indian Treaties. A military board of survey in 1812 gave an unfavorable report on the quality of two million acres of Michigan land that were to be set aside as bounty awards for soldiers. After examining the eastern part of the state, the surveyor indicated that the land was not fit for habitation or agriculture and seemed to grow less productive westward. The land was said to be low, sterile, unhealthy and filled with swamps. Lands elsewhere in the Northwest Territory were chosen to be awarded to veterans.

The requisite treaties were obtained from the Native Americans in 1920 - 1933. With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 and steamboat service from Buffalo, New York to Detroit, immigration routes for settlers were significantly improved. The reputation of the St. Joseph river valley also improved by word of mouth. The Baptist Missionaries serving the Indians at Carey Mission, near Niles, inadvertently proved that the area was habitable, although they were not pro-settlement, and they demonstrated the region's many attributes not appreciated in the earlier military survey.

A military road was developed from eastern Michigan along the old Great Sauk Indian trail. It was developed into a territorial road in 1834 and eventually became U.S. 12. This was the chief overland route to the area from the Detroit population center. The other chief immigration route was from Fort Wayne fording the Elkhart and St. Joseph rivers.

A land boom ensued in the 1830's especially after Michigan Statehood in 1837 and renewed in the 1950's when the area was largely deforested and developed for agriculture. The advent of rail service to the area in 1848 greatly encouraged agricultural productivity and freed the rivers which had once been important transportation resources for development as sources of water power to drive industry.

Cass County history has another unique factor in the convergence of two main lines of the underground railroad the "Quaker Line" and the "Illinois Line" in Cassopolis and vicinity during the 1840's. Quakers in Cass County were abolitionists who settled here from the south and assisted one out of every four fugitive slaves that escaped into Canada. These settlers welcomed many African-Americans who remained in Cass County where they also pioneered. By 1960, one-tenth of the population of the county was African- American. (U of M, partly quoting Hesslink 1968)

A Michigan Freedom Trail Commission has recently been formed (according to Michigan Living, April, 1999). History buffs are more and more aware of the underground railroad and this area's key role. Cass County has every reason to be proud of its rich heritage in this respect. It represents another potential attraction very near the watershed.

"Through her Underground Railroad Foundation, Mose-Ursery offers arranged tours of railroad related sites and makes school presentations that emphasize the role of blacks in the area's general history. But the John B. Cooper Black Heritage Museum she opened in 1993 closed two years later when the village of Vandalia sold the building that housed it." (South Bend Tribune, Feb. 28, 1999) Surely such collections deserve support. The Southwestern Michigan College Museum near Dowagiac and the Northern Indiana Museum for History in South Bend both have interesting exhibits concerning the Underground Railroad in this area.

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Development of the River

Almost from the beginning of pioneer settlement the Dowagiac River System was altered for harnessing water power. Once settlers got their subsistence crops planted, fences up and log cabins built, attention turned to the establishment of mills. The majority of Cass County settlements had at least a saw mill and a grist mill: Dowagiac, Pokagon, Lagrange, Sumnerville all being "mill towns". (U of M)

Channelization of the Dowagiac River

By 1875 understandable interest arose among the settlers for draining the Dowagiac Swamp which stretched generally from west of Dowagiac northeast to above Decatur through which flowed the sluggish upper Dowagiac Creek.

This swamp created a great inconvenience to the travel of early settlers. A bridge just north of Sumnerville was said to be the only crossing of the swamp. If this crossing was not used, travelers were forced to go around the swamp at either Niles or Paw Paw. This inconvenience was coupled with health concerns. (Cook and Cook)

Malaria played no small part in retarding settlement of this area. The Michigan "ague" was a notorious scourge to early settlers and provided a very real impetus to draining swamps. Additionally, the young state of Michigan was in a period where public works improvements were much in favor.

Perhaps the most important reason for draining this swamp however, was to improve agricultural potential of the head waters region in VanBuren County. It was believed that this area could be turned to great productivity for such specialty crops as onions, celery and peppermint. This proved to be true and required the use of the Dowagiac River as a conduit.

By the early 1900s the channelization of the river and draining of the swamp was begun as a two-phase project to provide more agricultural land. The first phase was successful but farmers found that they still had fields that were too wet to farm early enough in the spring to maximize potential. This complaint sparked a second phase of dredging which was more extensive and, after numerous problems with the contractor, was finally completed in 1928.

Prior to the dredging, the Dowagiac River was known as Dowagiac Creek with an upper and lower branch. The lower (more easterly) branch is a swift, cold stream rising in Marcellus township which joins the upper branch at the boarder between Silver Creek and Pokagon townships. After the dredging the main course became know as the Dowagiac River, while the lower branch was known as Dowagiac Creek.

By 1940, farmers in the Dowagiac River's head water region were complaining that their land had been drained too extensively. The water table was lowered considerably by the drain and was no longer in contact with the muck soil; therefore, it furnished no moisture to growing plants during the summer months. (U of M)

Robert Ausra, long time resident of the watershed, currently Supervisor of Silver Creek Township and formerly the Chairman of the Cass County Road Commission for 25 years, in 2000 shared with MEANDRS the following memories of the Dowagiac River:

My earliest recollections of the river began about 60 years ago. My parents bought property on the river and in 1925 built a cabin and used it every summer. Of course I spent a lot of time on the river and knew every hole in the area which was called Dorman's Bridge. Later the road would become Yaw Street. We used the river every day for fishing, swimming and bathing. My first fishing pole was a branch cut from the woods with grocery store string and a safety pin for a hook with an old rusty nut for a weight. Trout were plentiful as were other fish-bass and suckers were caught frequently. The fishing got better and better in the late 40's and early 50's. There were lots of frogs and turtles living in the ditches, brooks and swamps near the river. Snakes of all kinds were observed frequently. Trout of 10 to 12 pounds were numerous. As I acquired better fishing equipment I caught bigger fish. I can not remember ever spending 2 or 3 hours and not catching several trout. The water was clear and some times I would be very quiet and just watch the large trout go from one deep hole to another. When it rained the water would rise and become muddy but within a day it would clear up and return to normal. In the mid 50's the fishing fell off. My opinion is that when farmers began using weed killers and insecticides, the frogs, turtles and snakes disappeared along with the fish. Fishing today, limits are rare and size is small. I believe that the dredging had little to do with the fishing. The only thing to save the river is to create buffer zones along both sides of the river and its tributaries.

Good Luck - Robert V. Ausra

As Mr. Ausra says, there may be a number of reasons for the decline of the trout fishery in the mainstream of the Dowagiac River. The Partnership for MEANDRS, along with the Dowagiac River Watershed Project, Cass County Conservation District, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Cass and Van Buren Drain Commissions, is supporting better management of the land an water, including the installation of vegetative buffers throughout the watershed. It is interesting to note that most of the undredged tributaries to the Dowagiac River currently support reproducing brown trout populations.

(From Dowagiac River Watershed Project Newsletter 11th Edition, Sept. 2000.)

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Other Dredging Impacts

Several natural springs and lakes along the course of the Dowagiac River were apparently damaged by the dredging of the river. The beautiful and historic Big Spring at Crystal Springs Camp Ground ceased to flow after the dredging. The spring east of Wood Road between Wells and Crystal Springs road where Simon Pokagon (Leopold's more famous son) is believed to have been born, was also a mere shadow of its former self. Topinabee Spring suffered a similar fate.

Champlain Lake at the intersection of Champlain Road and Crystal Springs Road was drained to a swamp rather than a lake. Some other lake-like bodies of water indicated on early maps no longer exist. One of these is just south of Smith Lake Road and it appeared to be about two-thirds as large as Rogers Lake. (Cook and Cook)

"The Dowagiac River Drain may have been a boon to some, but it was a disaster to others. The Dowagiac Creek had been known as an excellent trout stream, but the dredging destroyed the habitat diversity critical to trout. The original flow sequence of stair-step riffle to pool to riffle; the spawning food producing riffles; and the deep resting pools had been destroyed. The removal of the large woody debris essential to creating habitat diversity and providing cover has either been removed or carried off by swift currents. In 1988 the Michigan DNR indicated that there was currently no natural reproduction of trout in the Dowagiac River Drain." (Cook and Cook) By contrast the Dowagiac Creek supports its own native brown trout population. (U of M)

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The Niles Hydroelectric Light Dam

Also known as the Pucker Street Dam, the Niles Hydroelectric Light Dam is actually two dams on the same site. Converted in 1891 by the Niles Electric Company from an old wooden dam made up of whole trees and mud initially built as a grist mill dam at the site. It was intended to power the Niles municipal street lights and was soon acquired by the city. A concrete dam was constructed in 1928 over the existing wooden structure.

After 1908, a larger utility company, the Indiana and Michigan Electric Co. took over most of the city of Niles' electric power needs. By 1981 the Pucker Street Dam supplied only 2% of the city's electrical needs and was used primarily during times of peak needs. At this time the dam is no longer producing electricity.

Because of this dam, the Dowagiac River has been isolated from the St. Joseph River and Lake Michigan fish have been unable to migrate further upstream. The stretch of the Dowagiac River from the dam to the St. Joseph River has become an excellent salmon fishing spot because of the cold waters of the Dowagiac River and high-gradient waters at the dam-site. The number of anglers fishing below the dam increased from 896 in 1992, when fish ladders were opened on the lower St. Joseph, to 4691 in 1993.

Beginning in 1993, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recommended that two gates of the Dam be kept open to avoid inappropriate release of silt that would overlay salmon spawning areas. Debate on opening the gates forced postponement of a decision.

The city of Niles has periodically attempted to adjust the level of water above the dam. The city sometimes opened the gates at the dam in anticipation of a rainstorm, which often resulted in releasing silt downstream, burying fish eggs and destroying spawning grounds. The DNR again recommended the permanent opening of two of the gates at the dam site to avoid problems of fish kill because of silting. The DNR held the city of Niles liable at a rat of $10.00 per fish for any fish kill resulting from silt buildup.

It was predicted that opening two gates would result in lowering the impoundment area by 5 feet and decrease the 61 acre impoundment to a stream bed surrounded by 40 acres of mud flats. The DNR planned to ameliorate the effect of the draw down by planting rye grass from the air to help prevent erosion of the mud flats. It is the State's position that the property owners will be exchanging an artificial lake for a more natural river. (Tribune)

Many property owners along the impoundment are opposed to this suggestion since they feel it would lower their property values. Some property owners are also concerned about the effects on wildlife, especially birds such as sand hill cranes, swans, Canada geese, and ducks that were common visitors to the lake-like impoundment.

Removal of the entire dam has been discussed at times, but Niles residents felt this was too drastic a change to the scenic value of the impoundment at this site. Other solutions suggested:

  • hiring someone to watch water levels at the dam or computerizing the gates to control flow.
  • building a retainer wall to keep waters near the current level. Once the retaining wall was built two of the dam's gates would be permanently opened and a "run of the river" condition would be established that would lower the present impoundment by about only one foot. The property owners recently declined this option due to the expense.


The draw down of the impoundment has gone forward as originally planned as of May, 1999. (Tribune)

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DRS Restorations Efforts

Interest in restoration of the Dowagiac River System began in the 1940s. Fishermen expressed their approval of the State's trout stocking program, and could see an even greater potential for developing a self-sustaining trout fishery. A property on Sink Road adjacent to the Dowagiac River was purchased and a preliminary proposal was developed for in stream devices to improve trout habitat; however, no action materialized at that time.

1994, a team of volunteers formed a watershed partnership because they recognized the unique hydrology of the Dowagiac River. They were again impressed with its potential for a high quality trout fishery and as a greenway corridor through the agricultural landscape of Cass County. In 1995, the group became formerly known as MEANDRS. (U of M)

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Dowagiac Mill Pond

The the existence and growth of Dowagiac was once linked to the Mill Pond on the Dowagiac Creek, the scene of the invention of the Dowagiac fishing lure. Today a rich local heritage surrounding sports fishing is preserved by the National Heddon Museum.


Barbara Wood Cook and Grafton H. Cook II, Pokagon Township Reflections, A History. Privately published. 1998.

Stanley R. Hamper (consultant), Historical Reflections of Cass County, Cass County Historical Commission, 1981.

Susan Wyatt Miller, At the Water's Edge, A Selective History of the Saint Joseph River, Fernwood Botanic Garden, 1996.

Hugh T. Montgomery, M.D., The Geological History of St. Joseph County, Indiana. Northern Indiana Historical Soc., Pub. No. 2, South Bend, IN. 1929.

Lou Mumford. "Drawing Down Niles Dam", South Bend Tribune, April 7, 1999.

U of M, School of Natural Resources and Environment, "Feasibility Assessment for Rehabilitating the Dowagiac River System in Southwestern Michigan" Appendices. 1998.

U.S. Geological Survey. Geohydrology and Water Quality of Kalamazoo County, MI, 1986-88. Water-Resources Investigations Report 90-4028.







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