SUNBURY — State Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) officials await a final report and recommendation on how to repair the air piping system of the Adam T. Bower Memorial Dam.
Utility Services Group, of Camp Hill, studied the inflation system last week for bag six of the 2,000-foot long inflatable dam that creates 3,000-acre Lake Augusta in the Susquehanna River. Damage to the bag, located near the Shamokin Dam side, caused DCNR to deflate the dam and end boating season approximately a month early on Sept. 3, according to park officials.
HTE Engineering, of Utah, inspected the bags in late September and patched several small punctures in the sixth bag. This is the second time since 2017 that boating season was cut short due to needed repairs.
"It seems like a weird coincidence that we had both of those two things (in the same bag)," said park manager Nicholas Sherlock. "Other than being on bag six, those things are completely unrelated. It seems like when it rains it pours."
Boating season on the Susquehanna River starts in May when the bags of the Adam T. Bower Memorial Dam are inflated. The season ends each September and the dam is lowered in early October.
After high water in June, the park detected air pressure dropping in Bag 6. During three weeks of around-the-clock work and monitoring, park staff discovered several small punctures in the bag, as well as damage to the air piping system. Staff had successfully made temporary repairs to keep the dam inflated, maintaining the recreational pool for continued public boating and water access.
Recent repairs are nothing new. The dam's history of repairs starts before it was even dedicated in the 1960s.
It is believed to be the world's largest inflatable dam, but rumors of a bigger one in China have circulated around DCNR in recent years. State officials have no other details on whether this is true, according to DCNR spokesman Terry Brady.
The dam, its location and the Valley's history and connection to the river have played an important role in the area's history, said Northumberland County Historical Society President Cindy Inkrote.
"The dam has definitely improved recreation on the Susquehanna River," she said. "Lake Augusta is an asset to the region and provides a way for area residents and tourists alike to connect to the river. The Susquehanna once provided food for Native Americans and early settlers, served as a part of an important transportation network, and has evolved into a viable recreational boating location."
The dam's history
According to historical records and newspaper clippings from The Daily Item, the current dam is located in the same place as a log dam that was built in 1820 and destroyed in 1904 by the break-up of 22 inches of ice during the spring thaw. The remains were thought lost to time, but when the current dam was being constructed, several logs were found embedded in the river floor. One of those logs is sometimes displayed at the Northumberland County Historical Society.
The Daily Item reported that the Central Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce in 1958 conceived the idea of introducing tourism to the valley by creating a lake for boating and water recreation with the construction of a dam across the Susquehanna River between Sunbury and Shamokin Dam. The proposed dam almost became a concrete dam, but the idea was vetoed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"The engineers, who designed and erected Sunbury's flood control system, would not allow construction of a regular type dam across the river due to flooding hazard during spring high water runoff," The Daily Item reported.
An engineering magazine called the "Constructioneer" in 1967 reported that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers objected to a fixed dam because of its large past investment in flood control construction protect Sunbury.
The Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce Committee approached Secretary of State Forests and Waters Maurice K. Goddard, who recalled a collapsible dam constructed in Los Angeles in 1957 that was developed by Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, according to the Constructioneer.
The Central Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce put out a flyer in 1969 detailing the "unique concept in dam construction" invented by N.M. Imbertson.
After the project was bid three times, the contract was awarded to Harrison and Burrows Inc., of Jersey City, N.J., for $1.2 million. The commonwealth provided the total funds for construction, according to the Constructioneer, and the groundbreaking ceremony was held July 28, 1966.
Dedicated but with problems
The dedication of the dam was expected to be in 1967, but it was delayed due to high or dangerous water levels from November 1966 through April 1967, August 1967, October 1967 through June 1968 and for several long and short periods in the winter and spring of 1968 through 1969, according to the Daily Item.
Less than a month before the dam was dedicated in 1969, one of the bags exploded in what was described in the June 13, 1969, edition of The Daily Item as a "violent explosion" and a "jet plane breaking the sound barrier" by one Millard DeWire, of Sunbury.
The bag was "beyond repair," but the dedication ceremony took place as scheduled over the July 4, 1969, holiday with much fanfare, including a parade, thousands of spectators and three days of festivities. The dedication was two years after the initial completion date.
It would be another 18 months before the state accepted the dam on Dec. 9, 1970. That's because the dam had more damage inflicted upon it.
"Repairs began almost immediately that summer and continued into 1970," according to The Daily Item in a look back in 1972. "The replacement of the No. 7 bag had been placed when, during the spring of 1970, an itinerant barge floated down the river, disintegrated in ice floes, and a hunk of the debris bobbed and weaved over the dam, slicing through Bag No. 3."
Two months later, in 1970, an unidentified boater rand over the submerged dam and neatly opened up bag No. 5 with his propeller, according to newspaper reports. These events caused another long-term repair into September 1970.
In mid-October 1970, the dam was repaired and boaters enjoyed a few days of chilly fall boating.
Doubt and renamed
The water around the dam became known as Lake Augusta, and the area was touted as "Fabridam Country" and the "Gateway to the Susquehanna Valley Vacationland." The dam, partnered with the incoming marina at the park, was praised as a harbinger of tourism dollars, according to records.
In the years that followed, The Daily Item reported more damage to the bags and more boating seasons cut short. In a July 1982 edition, the state was studying "alternatives to Sunbury's inflatable dam." The state was "concerned about the resiliency of the Fabridam on the Susquehanna River," especially after two bags were knocked out of commission in that year.
SEDA-Council of Governments in 1982 advocated for a permanent dam to replace the inflatable one. Some initial estimates placed the costs of a permanent dam at $18 million and a partially permanent dam at $12 to $15 million. Other estimates of a permanent dam without floodgates would range from $7 to $7.5 million, The Daily Item reported.
In July 2001, the Fabridam was renamed the Adam T. Bower Memorial Dam after the late Adam T. Bower who represented the area in the state House from 1938 to 1966. Bower, a Republican, served as House Appropriations chairman in the 1960s and steered about $2.2 million in state funding to the project.