Niagara Dam power house

The Niagara Dam power house, circa 1923. The dam went into service in 1906. It is 420 feet wide and 50 feet tall and was reinforced in 1997.

At some point since Peter netted a finny meal from the Sea of Galilee the honorable act of fishing for sport has been held in contempt in certain circles of society.

Such vicious attacks prompted a former president of the United States to take up the pen in impassioned defense of angling and the angler.

“The narrow and ill-conditioned people who snarlingly count all fishermen as belonging to the lazy and good-for-nothing class, and who take satisfaction in describing an angler’s outfit as a contrivance with a hook at one end and a fool at the other, have been so thoroughly discredited that no one could wish for their irredeemable submersion,” wrote 22nd and 24th president Grover Cleveland in a 1901 edition of the Saturday Evening Post.

It is unlikely anybody ever accused H.J. Rogers of Appleton, Wisconsin, of shiftlessness. Rogers made a 19th century fortune in paper milling and a gas streetlight company. Apparently he did have enough time when he wasn’t counting his money to have some fun.

The historical record has it that Rogers was on a fishing trip when an idea came to him. The power of falling water might be employed in the production of electricity.

Those musings he put to work upon his return from the fishing trip, according to David Haak writing for the October 1982 edition of the “The Wisconsin Engineer.”

The result was the nation’s first hydroelectric plant. Production began on the banks of the Fox River in Appleton on Sept. 30, 1882.

Which brings us to this week’s query.

Q: With the Roanoke Valley Greenway slated to eventually connect with the Blue Ridge Parkway it would be nice if the Roanoke River were open to navigation. What is the status of the Niagara dam/power plant? Is there any likelihood it will be removed some day so paddlers have free passage to Explore Park?

Hugh Craft, Roanoke

A: Niagara Dam on the river as it passes Vinton is the smallest in terms of generating capacity of seven hydroelectric facilities in the Appalachian Power Co. system that operate in Virginia, according to John Shepelwich of the power compnay’s corporate communications office.

“As for the future, Appalachian currently has no plans for retiring any of our power plants near term,” he wrote in an email.

He also had this:

The dam went into service in 1906. It is 420 feet wide and 50 feet tall and was reinforced in 1997. Two turbine generators in the powerhouse produced a combined net maximum of 2.4 megawatts — 1.2 megawatts each.

The structure of the dam itself is described as “free-overhead” meaning overflow spills over the top in the event of high water.

Assumptions that waterborne traffic moving east from the Roanoke Valley stops at the dam would be technically incorrect. Portage trails there have been in use for years. More recently, Appalachian has made improvements to the takeout, which is on the left bank of the upriver side of the dam, as Roanoke Valley Greenway Commission director Liz Belcher pointed out.

Steps are now there, as is a lift to make it easier to move watercraft up the slope.

Dam removal has been a focus of conservation efforts around the country for purposes including habitat restoration and safety. The Ecological Services branch of the Virginia office of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has spearheaded efforts that have included dam removal. At the service’s Website, successes including restoration of 24,817 acres and 275 miles of riparian habitat are highlighted.

Nationwide, it is safe to say most if not all dams that have been removed have been found to have outlived their original usefulness. Active hydroelectric dams such as Niagara cannot be so described.

With all the criticism of fossil fuel-based power generation it is useful to recall that hydroelectric power is a renewable resource. Although it has its critics for assorted environmental impacts, hydroelectric power advocates point out that any form of energy production has drawbacks.

Other questions abounded Sept. 29, 1882. According to the Haak account, three buildings had been wired by that date: two papermills and Rogers’ residence. When time came to throw the switch, nothing happened.

Dismayed, project managers sent a wire to Chicago summoning the help of an expert named Ames. When he arrived, a period of trial and error followed. Then a light came on. It burned dimly then more brightly. Appleton Edison Light Co. was in business.

Which is more that can be said for the fateful fishing trip Rogers took in which the light came on and the idea settled in.

The party didn’t catch a thing.

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