The highway that leads to the village of East Barre, U.S. Route 302, is a lazy river road that winds through rolling hills alongside a babbling branch of the Winooski River. There’s nothing much to see along this semi-rural stretch of highway save for lush forests, the occasional house and — holy mackerel! What the hell is that humongous concrete bowl off the side of the road?
Anyone who’s driven this stretch of Rte. 302 — roughly two miles east of downtown Barre — has seen this enormous structure. To me, it looked like the preapocalyptic spillway from the scene in Terminator 2: Judgment Day where the evil, liquid-metal terminator tries to run down a teenage John Connor with a Mack truck.
In fact, that’s exactly what it is — except smaller, and without the time-traveling cyborgs. As a faded roadside sign attests, this gigantic cement half-pipe is part of the East Barre Dam, a massive mound of earth on the Jail Branch of the Winooski River that was designed to protect Barre, Montpelier and other towns downstream from floods of doomsday proportions.
The dam was one of three built in the early 1930s following just such a deluge — the flood of 1927, a November storm that sent walls of water careening through central Vermont, destroying 1000 bridges, claiming 84 lives (including that of the lieutenant governor, S. Hollister Jackson) and leaving 10,000 people homeless. In response to the catastrophe, President Franklin Roosevelt deployed an army of Civilian Conservation Corps workers to construct a 400-foot-wide dam that rose 60 feet above the crest of the stream, and a concrete spillway with a giant speed hump, called an ogee weir, to blunt the force of surging floodwaters.
As recounted in the book The Making of a Forester, by Perry H. Merrill, a longtime state official who established Vermont’s forests and parks system, the dam was completed “almost entirely with hand labor, and involved the clearing of brush and trees, and construction of a 600-foot trench for the concrete tunnel under the dam.” For tools, the workers had nothing more than wheelbarrows, picks, shovels, sledges and drills, Merrill wrote.
In 1960, the Army Corps of Engineers strengthened the dam’s structural integrity by raising its elevation 10 feet, lengthening it 420 feet and enlarging the discharge capacity of the culvert where the river passes through the earthen dam.
Good thing they did, because the spring floods that left Montpelier and Barre virtually underwater tested the East Barre Dam as never before. Several times during last April and May, the Jail Branch swelled to 18 feet above normal. That’s twice the usual seasonal high and the highest level it’s reached in at least a decade, according to Steve Bushman, a dam safety engineer for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. Without the dam to hold the floodwaters back, he says, the damage downstream could have been even worse.
“It performed great,” says Bushman, who just gave the dam its annual inspection last week. (It passed with flying colors, he says.)
If push came to shove, Bushman says the dam and spillway could hold back several times that volume. In fact, the East Barre Dam was built to hold 3.9 billion gallons of floodwater — enough to cover 38 square miles with five inches of water.
But the dam never sees that kind of action, so naturally the locals have found other uses for it — as evidenced by the empty beer cans (Bud and Bud Light), graffiti (“Blunt Time” and “Barre Sucks Cock” were two memorable tags) and other assorted trash littering the area (Hershey’s wrappers, a crushed pack of Camel cigarettes, a used pregnancy test — reading negative).
The garbage bothers Adam Braman, a young man I encountered on a recent visit to the dam who could pass for John Connor’s stunt double in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. A scruffy 24-year-old dressed in a camouflage hat and shirt, Braman has a contract to weed-whack the entire perimeter of the dam to keep woody vegetation from encroaching on the structure. He had been at it for an entire week when I met him, with his dog, a lanky Weimaraner named Fancy Lou, by his side.
“I drove to Alaska last year, and you never see this kind of trash out there,” he said.
Braman was a friendly dam tour guide and noted that, in the winter, snowmobiles frequently cross the area on a VAST trail that follows the crest of the dam. Unlike its sister dams in Waterbury and Middlesex, the East Barre Dam doesn’t have a reservoir or recreation area, so, beyond a few dog walkers, it doesn’t get much use in the summer months.
But Braman has some ideas of his own for alternative uses of the bone-dry spillway: an oversized skateboard park, or a summer concert venue where people could tailgate on the sloping, concrete amphitheater.
“Of course, if they did that,” he said, “it would probably get trashed.”
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