NB Dam postcard

I am always tempted to write something inappropriate in this column for its shock value. On the other hand, people turn nary a hair when you make puns on the word “dam” these days. And so I desist once again in the name of propriety and good humor.

A week or so ago on Facebook, someone shared a vintage photo of kids playing near the old New Bethlehem dam. The image showed the structure as having two tiers rather than the single cascade that most of us were familiar with while growing up. Another member of that particular group thought that it must have been a dam somewhere else.

For some reason, the dam defines this town, a landmark left over from a very different time. Before the age of coal and gas extraction, there was a wealth of timber ripe for the reaping, and the dam was part of a miles-long industrial complex that got it to market.

I needed to put things into perspective and looked up LL Himes’ history of New Bethlehem written in 1887. There was already a dam in place as early as 1840 that was washed away in one of our periodic big floods.

As chance would have it, I bought an old postcard on eBay a few months ago dated June 30, 1909, showing the timber dam that replaced the post-1840 structure before being upgraded and covered with concrete sometime in the 1920s or 1930s. The original dam looked very much like its modern counterpart, complete with two separate cascades.

The photo was probably hand-tinted because color photography was still a few decades in the future. And there were timber barges on the South Bethlehem side of the creek and a mysterious structure on the New Bethlehem side.

It wasn’t quite as I had imagined it. When I think of lumber barges, I always have this mental image of tree trunks spiked together into a crude raft, the kind of thing my great-great-grandfather would have navigated down waterways in his prime.

It is difficult to make out all the details, but the barges in the photo seem to have been built with cargo holds and rough decking. They negotiated the falls at the dam by hugging the Armstrong County side of the creek, if the photo tells the truth. There was something of a shallow concrete apron that still existed in the 1970s, and this must have been the chute the rafts used.

The old mill race wall was already in place, and the timber barges were snuggled up tight against it. Given that this was in 1909, you have to give those old builders a lot of credit. Their hydraulic cement held up until it was removed when the new dam was built a few years ago.

The structure over on the New Bethlehem side puzzled me for a couple months. It looks a little like a bridge crossing a mill race, but there doesn’t appear to be any decking. After taking a closer look a few minutes ago, I realized that it must have been a boat scaffold.

While the Andrews lumber dynasty was best-known for its sawing and planing mills, it also built boats for a while, barges that would get the finished product to market. The railroad had reached New Bethlehem more than 25 years before the photo was taken, and it was something of a surprise to see the boat scaffold and timber barges still in business.

I have heard that state officialdom wanted to do away with the dam some years before I returned in late 2001, something about fish migrating upstream to their ancestral spawning grounds. Fortunately, that bit of ill-advised political correctness was offset by the locals’ raising a hue and cry. A fish ladder was incorporated into the new dam and everybody was satisfied.

I don’t know if it was done on purpose, but today’s modern dam could be a dead ringer for the 1909 version. People of my age cohort spend a lot of time moaning about missing the old dam, but I really like the new one.

First, it’s pretty. The computer-synchronized lights playing across the waters don’t do much for me, but they are a nice touch on a frosty winter’s night.

Second, those living downstream from it have observed that it does a bang-up job when the ice goes out in the spring, smashing ice sheets into smaller bits that don’t get hung up in inconvenient places.

Third, I like the idea of restoring a landmark to something resembling its appearance more than a hundred years ago. It has more character.

[Susan Kerr is a semi-retired freelance writer living in her hometown of New Bethlehem. Previously, she was the managing editor of a regional-interest magazine and a business journal in State College.]

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