Dams in Rockford, part 1

In 1841, early citizens of Rockford wanted to harness the power of the river.  February 28, 1843, the Rockford Hyraulic and Manufacturing Company was incorporated to build the first dam across the river. This first dam was located about where the Jefferson Street Bridge is today. In his Reminiscences…of Early Days in Rockford, John H. Thurston said, “On the east side at the location of the dam, the water for two-thirds the width of the stream, was about waist deep in summer, with eight to nine feet in the channel…Had it been built at the ford on the rock bottom the material would have cost cash, a commodity the promoters of the enterprise did not possess except to a limited extent, while timber, brush, stone and earth could be made available at the site chosen.”

The dam was completed in 1845. The Rockford Forum, in April 2, 1845, says “The river, where the dam will cross it, is about thirty rods wide, and the greatest depth, about nine feet…races…will be built, parallel to the river, on both sides of the river.” The December 3, 1845 issue of The Rockford Forum states that the dam “measures 500 feet in length, and is 150 feet wide on the bottom of the river….Two races extend to the ford,120 rods below the dam, and are 80 feet in width.” The dam was elevated seven feet, giving a head of eight feet. The cost of the dam ws $9,000. During the building of the dam, the editor of the Forum felt that the power generated would grind all the flour in the area, and that there would be hydraulic power left for manufacturing machinery. Thurston says that Edward S. Hanchett, Freeport, began construction of the dam, and C. C. Coburn completed the work.

Thurston said that the mill race on the east side of the river extended to Walnut street, and was twenty feet wide (a more conservative width than the newspaper article.) William Wheeler had a saw mill, James B. Howell had carding and fulling machinery. Nettleton’s grist mill was located on the south side of E. State St., and A. C. Spafford and L. B. Greogry had a saw mill at the head of the race. On the west wide of the river, Thomas D. Robertson and Charles I.Horsman had a saw mill. Below the mill  Orlando Clark had an iron foundry, in a stone building.

April 28, 1846–the west end of the dam collapsed, and repairs were made. Then on March 20, 1847, the east end of the dame collapsed, and the water carried the sawmill away. Again, repairs were made. The sawmill was found on an island about 4-5 miles downriver. Thurston quotes L. B. Gregory, “The dam broke three times; first near the west end, I think in the spring of 1846; the next I think was in the spring of 1847 near the east end and took off our saw mill, landing two bents down on Long’s island…The last break was June 1st, 1851.” The June 11, 1851 Rockford Forum, reported that the part of the bank below the dam was washed away, and there was a break in the top of the dam.

Sources: Thurston, John H., Reminiscences, sporting and otherwise, of early days in Rockford, Ill.

The Rockford Forum