Barton Dam creates the pond that provides most of the city’s drinking water. Its powerhouse is a designated historic landmark that produces green energy. But because it’s not visible by car from a public road, it would be easy to live here for a lifetime and never see one of the city’s most photogenic scenes with your own eyes.
If you’re able, however, it’s just a five-minute walk. From the Barton Park parking lot on Huron River Dr. across from Bird Rd., a gravelly dirt path winds around a nondescript fenced-in building and quickly leads to the dam.
Bob walked it one morning with Brian Steglitz, the city’s water treatment plant manager. Standing at the foot of the dam, Steglitz explained that it was completed in 1913, and is one of two city-owned dams currently producing hydropower (the other is Superior, near St. Joe’s). It consists of three distinct pieces: an earthen dam, a concrete dam, and a powerhouse. Though they function as an integrated whole, each has its own characteristics.
To prevent the buildup of excess pressure on the dam’s earthen portion, buried piping carries some water to a small, picturesque lower pond that can be seen to the left of the trail on the approach to the dam. Water from this pond is channeled into the tailrace below the dam’s spillway. Other piping carries Barton Pond water to that nondescript building by the parking lot–it’s a pumping station that sends it to the city’s water treatment facility on Sunset Rd. And water is released through the powerhouse to generate electricity.
The concrete section was innovative for its time. A “barrow arch dam,” it gets its strength from its geometric design; it is hollow inside. It is divided into ten gated spillways, each topped with padded steel gates attached by pivot arms to buttresses. The mechanism can be examined from the walkway across the top of the dam, reached by a set of steep wooden stairs. When needed, motors pivot the gates upward, letting water run out beneath them.
Water is sent over the spillways only when necessary to maintain the level of Barton Pond. More often it is released through the powerhouse, where it spins a large generator that produces electricity that is sold to DTE.
The powerhouse has intricate brickwork, and the roof is composed of pretty bright green ceramic tiles. The powerhouse is a designated Michigan civil engineering landmark; when it was necessary to replace the roof, the city found green ceramic tiles very similar to the originals, though not the exact size.
The dam’s walkway provides a good view over Barton Pond. Our two youngest grandchildren delighted in looking down from here on a day when the spillways were closed. They tried without success to count the numerous fish swimming below.
The path to Barton Dam is open all year long, but there is no winter maintenance and it can become impassable due to snow or ice. And then there is that dam horn: if the horn sounds, a lot of water will be coming over the dam; turn around and retrace your steps.