Tamaqua Desilting Basin dam on Little Schuylkill River to fade into history

Mar. 14—SOUTH TAMAQUA — A historic dam that was part of perhaps the nation's first major river cleanup is destined to fade into history as part of a state Department of Environmental Protection initiative.

Land Reclamation Group, a Westmoreland County consultant hired by DEP, recently notified the Schuylkill County Planning Commission of its intent to seek a permit to remove the Tamaqua Desilting Basin dam.

The dam, which stretches across the Little Schuylkill River, is on the south side of Route 443, a short distance west of Leiby's Restaurant in South Tamaqua.

One of three desilting dams built under the Schuylkill River Desilting Project, a $55 million cleanup in the early 1950s, the Tamaqua dam is scheduled for demolition sometime next year.

The others are the Auburn Dam at Landingville and the Kernsville Dam, north of Hamburg, in Berks County. The Kernsville Dam is also slated for demolition.

Removing the dams raises an intriguing question: Should they be preserved as history, or have they outlived their usefulness?

Land Reclamation Group says removing the earthen breast of the Tamaqua dam will reclaim about 1,650 feet of the Little Schuylkill River channel in Walker and West Penn townships.

In a news release, DEP said the site would become wetlands and a flood plain once the dam is removed.

The reclaimed land would provide habitat for various species and afford an opportunity for fish passage on the Little Schuylkill River. It would also allow space for passive recreation for the public.

Engineering Consulting Services, a Pittsburgh firm, is performing the engineering on the project.

Vince Humenay, project manager, said the engineering work should be done by late summer or early fall.

Hunt Valley Environmental, a Westmoreland County firm, is slated to do the demolition and subsequent construction.

Michael Barrick, HVE consultant, said he expects the project will be finished next year.

Storyboards commemorating the dam's historic importance will be put up as part of the project, he said, and it's possible a warehouse on the property will be saved.

The dirtiest river

Once considered the dirtiest river in Pennsylvania, the Schuylkill became the focus of a precedent-setting cleanup from 1947 to 1951, according to "A River Again: The Story of the Schuylkill River Project" by Chari Towne.

"It was the first environmental cleanup carried out by a government agency, and is among the earliest river restoration efforts in this country, predating other river restoration efforts by decades," writes Towne, a Schuylkill watershed specialist with the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

The idea behind the Schuylkill River Desilting Project was that the dams would slow the flow of the river, allowing coal silt to fall to the river's bed. There, it could be removed by dredging.

"Reclaiming The River," a marker put up on the Schuylkill River National and State Heritage Area near Reading, estimated 30 million cubic yards of coal silt accumulated before dredging began.

"It clogged and choked the main channel, filled the dams, increased flooding, fouled the water and spread a black blanket over the lowlands with every spring flood," the marker says.

The Prohibiting Pollution of the Schuylkill River Act, adopted by the state Legislature in 1945, estimated there was 30 million tons of anthracite silt in the river in the 75 miles from Tamaqua to Norristown.

In dedicating the Kernsville Dam on Oct. 4, 1950, then-Gov. James H. Duff called the Schuylkill River cleanup project an unprecedented river reclamation program.

"Once labeled Pennsylvania's foulest river, the scrubbed Schuylkill will reward future generations with better health, recreation, industrial growth and flood control," Duff told 200 people gathered at Kernsville.

Kernsville plan

In 2019, saying it had outlived its usefulness, DEP announced plans to drain the $2.2 million Kernsville Dam, a 600-foot-wide concrete dam across the Schuylkill River on the border between Schuylkill and Berks counties.

In her book, Towne expressed concern that without the dams, the desilting project might not get the recognition it deserves.

At the time, Kurt Zwikl, executive director of the Schuylkill River Heritage Area, also stressed the historic importance of the project.

"If the state can step up and take the dam down, it can step up and tell its story," said Zwikl, who is since deceased. "We can't turn our back on history."

Contact the writer: rdevlin@republicanherald.com; 570-628-6007