Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Byrnes Mill Dam Removal

The second recent news item I'd like to catch up on is the one I described in the last post as "good news that at first might seem like bad news". Back in the middle of December, an article appeared in the News Journal about the intentional partial destruction of a structure more than 220 years old. Normally that would be tragedy, but in this case the structure in question was a dam on White Clay Creek that fed a mill associated with the Hale-Byrnes House. The dam is located amidst the White Clay Creek Country Club golf course (Delaware Park), and was removed for a very good reason.

The following article was written especially for us by Jerry Kauffman, University of Delaware professor and director of UD's Water Resources Agency. I'd like to thank Dr. Kauffman for providing us with this, and for all his work in local environmental and historical preservation.

UD Removes Historic Dam to Restore Anadromous Fishery along White Clay Creek National Wild and Scenic River at Delaware Park in Mill Creek Hundred

For the first time since the American Revolution, resident and anadromous fish like the American shad, hickory shad, river herring, and striped bass will be able to spawn and swim freely from tidewater to freshwater in the Piedmont along the White Clay Creek National Wild and Scenic River in Mill Creek Hundred in Delaware.  On December 4, 2014, an interdisciplinary UD research team worked with a contractor to breach and remove 40 feet of the historic Byrnes Mill Dam at Delaware Park Race Track.  This is the first recorded dam removal for fish passage in the State of Delaware.

Hydrologists and historians from the University of Delaware School of Public Policy and Administration discovered that White Clay Creek Dam No. 1 was constructed as a 13 feet high, 100 feet long timber crib and rock fill structure in 1777 by Daniel Byrnes to divert water into a mile and a half long raceway that provided hydropower for a colonial mill at the nearby Hale Byrnes House.  The mill dam and raceway were operating when George Washington and the Marquis De Lafayette met during a war council at the Hale Byrnes House on September 6, 1777 after the Battle of Coochs Bridge to plan to defend the British advance on Wilmington and Philadelphia.  The removal connects 3.5 miles of the White Clay Creek National Wild and Scenic River to the tidal Christina and Delaware Rivers and is the first of seven planned dam removals along the creek between sea level and the Delaware/Pennsylvania state line.  The project was led by the University of Delaware Water Resources Agency with $190,000 in grant funding from the American Rivers-NOAA Community Based Restoration Program, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, FishAmerican Foundation, and National Park Service.

In addition to being the first dam removal in Delaware and one of just six projects funded by NOAA/American Rivers in the United States, the project required unique collaborations and partnerships to document the dam’s history and construction details.  The 237 year old dam was hand built by the miller Byrnes to withstand countless floods and droughts over the centuries.  The 20 to 30 feet long colonial era pine and oak timbers, hand forged iron spikes (some as long as four feet), and quarry stone were pulled from the breach and stockpiled for historic documentation by historians and archeologists from the University of Delaware Center for Historic Architecture and Design (CHAD).  The UD facilities department has provided warehouse space at the STAR campus for CHAD to examine and preserve the artifacts.

The interdisciplinary University of Delaware research team required collaboration between the Water Resources Agency in the Institute for Public Administration (Gerald Kauffman, Martha Narvaez, and Andrew Homsey) and the Center for Historic Architecture and Design (Rebecca Sheppard and Catherine Morrissey).

UD student research assistants who conducted field work for the planning and design of the project majored in civil and environmental engineering (Ian Kaliaken, Jordan Deshon, David Specht, Lawrence Latour, Dustin Briggs), chemical engineering (Erica Addonizio), environmental studies (Kelsey Wentling, Caren Fitzgerald, Thomas Santangelo, Kayla Iuliano, Seth Olsen), natural resources management (Emily Baumbach), Kevin M. Archibald (biology), and water science and policy (Kate Miller).

The effort required the assistance of the owner Delaware Racing Inc. (John Mizikar and Ryan Kidwell), contractor Merit Construction, (Vince Dills, UD ’89), Duffield Associates (David Gosse and David Diefenthaler), Delaware State Historic Preservation Office (Craig Lukezic), American Rivers (Laura Craig), NOAA (Mary Andrews), National Park Service (Julie Bell), and White Clay Creek National Wild and Scenic River Manager (Shane Morgan).


  1. I am sad to hear that the dam we referred to as little falls is gone!! We used to fish and swim there in the late 70's all thru the 80's.

  2. Sad to hear the old dam is gone, spent many summer days there fishing and swimming, it was a great place to hang out as a kid!!!

  3. I also used to hunt back on bread and cheese island and have seen quite a few old ruins of barns and a couple houses, there is even an old paddle wheel John Deere tractor back there and a lot of neat old farm implements.

  4. Very cool! I've heard before that there are some ruins hidden back on Bread and Cheese Island. I've not had the, I mean go hunting around there yet.

    Now let me ask you, Scott -- when you were playing there, did you or anyone else have any idea how old the dam was? I'm sure there have been lots of kids in the area who have played on and around old ruins and relics without having any clue as to just how old they were.

  5. I had no idea the dam was that old, and before ogletown rd (rt.4)was rerouted there used to be a newer house right up from the corner of churchmans and ogletown intersection we would buy worms from them and the farmhouse on the corner that is gone now(replaced by a medical building) we would pick apples from the tree on the corner and would access the falls across from that old farm house,you had to run across the tracks to the old road bed that had a small bridge that went over the mill race and a little further up the trail you could start to see the taller end wall of the dam and just above that end wall is where the race went back towards the tracks and made a left and parraleled the tracks, while walking up to the dam I always got an eire feeling like something was special about the place,but couldn't quite pin it down. I know now and thank you for enlightening me about it. By the way I started seeing shad show up there in the late 90's when I would venture back just to reminisce and cast a line!!