20th Anniversary of the 2003 Dead River Flood

The Tourist Park Dam is seen washing out during the 2003 Dead River Flood. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE — I grew up in Marquette in a house overlooking the Dead River, which had an interesting history.

Built in the late 1930s at 435 W. Magnetic St. by the DeVries Family, it was one of seven houses moved in 1984 to make way for construction at Marquette General Hospital.

As a child, I remember canoeing and fishing on the Tourist Park Basin. My friends and I would ride our bikes to Tourist Park where we would search for tadpoles and crayfish. In the winter, one of the neighbors would shovel the ice, creating an ice rink where we could skate.

I was 17, when on Wednesday May 14, 2003, at approximately 5 p.m., combined snowmelt and rainfall caused the failure of an earthen dike on the Silver Lake Dam upstream on the Dead River.

The flood released between 8 and 9 billion gallons of water, which rushed downstream towards Lake Superior where additional dams- the Hoist, McClure, Forestville, and Tourist Park/Frank Russell were threatened with failure. A sixth dam, the Collinsville, was over 100 years old and no longer operational.

Around 4:30 a.m. on the morning of May 15, the police knocked on our door, warning us that the water was rising and recommending evacuation. Somehow, I managed to sleep through our dog barking at the police, but my parents started gathering important documents and items to take with us.

In the morning, remarkably enough, I went to school like normal just after 7 a.m. It wasn’t until 8:30 a.m. that the evacuation order was made mandatory for everyone north of Wright Street in the city of Marquette (about 1,800 people). An additional 150 people from Champion, Negaunee, and Marquette townships were also evacuated. People were instructed to leave white towels or sheets on the door to indicate that they had evacuated.

After school that afternoon, I ended up going to my father’s office since I couldn’t go home. My parents and I sat there with our Labrador, Ginger, worrying about additional dam failures and making phone calls figuring out where we would stay.

The biggest concern was the Hoist Dam. During the flood, a saturated area on the earthen dike at the Hoist Dam drew engineers’ attention and the spot was monitored every hour. If it had breached, it would have caused flooding of an estimated 19 city blocks in north Marquette, to a depth of up to six feet.

As the water continued downriver towards Lake Superior, it overtopped the Hoist, McClure, and Forestville Dams but they held. When it reached the Tourist Park basin, the water overtopped the small dam and carved a ravine around it, draining the basin.

Silt and debris from the flood clogged the water intake system at the WE Presque Isle Power Plant at the upper harbor, shutting down the plant on Thursday afternoon.

Eventually, I spent the night at a friend’s house in town while my parents and the dog went to another friend’s house in Chocolay Township. The next morning, my friend and I walked from her house to the high school.

I found it quite surreal that school was still in session despite the situation. One of my teachers was even upset that I didn’t have a project that was due that day; it was still at home and I couldn’t go back to get it.

By lunchtime Friday, the flood was over. It was intense but relatively quick. Silver Lake had completely drained and was left with the natural flow of the streams entering the basin.

The Hoist and McClure dams were declared safe with the water behind them receding about 1 foot every 12 hours. By 1 p.m., the city lifted the mandatory evacuation and started letting residents return to their homes.

Overall, the community was lucky in that there were no fatalities or injuries, but the economic impact of the event was estimated to be over $84,000,000. In the end, nine bridges were damaged or destroyed, two parks and three public access sites were thrashed, the river channel was realigned in a major way and a massive collection of sediment and debris rushed into Lake Superior.

When we returned home that afternoon, we found that luckily our house was high enough above the river that we hadn’t suffered any water damage. We had a fair amount of debris- broken branches and trash, along what had once been the riverbank.

We even found an old wooden board that we later repurposed for a yard sign. Most strikingly, we no longer had a peaceful view of the river, we had mudflats.

One of my clearest memories after the flood was going grocery shopping at Econo. Due to the Presque Isle Power Plant being offline for a month, everyone was trying to conserve energy, so the grocery store only had half their lights on. It was like shopping in the twilight zone.

Eventually things began to return to normal; the debris was removed, the power plant came back online and the washed out bridges were repaired. It’s now been 20 years since the flood and the river has mostly returned to its former state.

The Silver Lake and Tourist Park dams were finally rebuilt. We have a river for fishing and kayaking again. The birds and other wildlife have returned, although not in the full diversity that once existed.

The Marquette Regional History Center is hosting Twenty Years On: The Dead River Flood of ’03 on Wednesday, May 31, 6:30 p.m. We’ll look back on this major event in Marquette County’s recent history with a panel of citizens and experts who lived and worked here at the time.

Join us to hear about the impact on the community at the time and up to today. The suggested donation is $5.

If you have any documentation of the flood including artifacts, photographs, videos, and stories, that you would like to share, please contact me at the Marquette Regional History Center’s Research Library, beth@marquettehistory.org or 906-226-3571.


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