50 years ago, turmoil; today, an anniversary

By Chuck Zielin

In 1969 our nation was in crisis. Anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, race riots and assassinations dominated national headlines while the city of Anoka had a dam problem. 

The old wooden dam had reached the end of its life. Its foundation was eroding, wash over planking was in disarray and the main internal support pillars were deteriorating. Newspaper articles said Anoka’s 80-year-old dam was “in deplorable condition” and “silt was the only thing holding it in place.”

In mid-1968 the Anoka City Commission began the process of finding an immediate solution: Should the dam be abandoned, removed, rebuilt or replaced? To abandon or remove would cost upward of $185,000. In addition, the recreational benefits of the dam would be lost. Finally, the Rum River and Mille Lacs Lake would be exposed to unwanted invasive species moving freely upriver since they share a watershed. The city didn’t consider rebuilding the dam a realistic option because of the cost and the durability of another wooden structure. Creating a new concrete construction seemed the only solution to maintain the aesthetic beauty, the recreational benefits, conservation needs and protection from invasive species.

Commission efforts to find funding from surrounding cities, counties, the Metropolitan Council, state and federal agencies and the private sector had gone nowhere. In response, the Anoka Commission voted to assume ownership of the problem, to move ahead by saying the dam was an “integral part of the Rum River eco-system” and issue a bond levy in November 1969 for $550,000 to cover project costs. At the time, this was the second most expensive project ever funded and a larger plan also came into focus.

An overview of the total project not only involved the dam but the acquiring of State Hospital Land for park and recreation activities, expansion of upriver boat landings, park developments plus bank and soil conservation efforts. Responding to the commission’s calls for assistance, the Highway Department and the Anoka Co-Op came forward to clean up and beautify their riverbanks.

In January 1969 when bids were let, the lowest bid was $121,000 over the bond levy limit. Once again, the city turned to the state for help. After eight years of seeking funds from “every conceivable source,” the State Department of Natural Resources Commission finally, in March 1969, allocated $185,000 to finish the project. An additional $15,000 was contributed by the Anoka County Park Fund in 1970.

Due to several bad weather events, and a major labor dispute, the dam was not completed until 1970. Today, due to the foresight and tenacity of the Anoka City Commission, we celebrate the dam’s 50th anniversary! City Commission success in establishing an extensive plan that can be seen and experienced from Anoka to St. Francis makes this treasure a point to experience.

Chuck Zielin is a volunteer for the Anoka County Historical Society.

This is one of four photos in the ACHS collection that show the reconstruction of the Rum River Dam in Anoka, probably around 1970. (Object ID 2001.0268.503)

This is one of four photos in the ACHS collection that show the reconstruction of the Rum River Dam in Anoka, probably around 1970. (Object ID 2001.0268.503)