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Voices of the Boardman River: the Gibbs Family

Naina Rao
The Gibbs family has lived along the Boardman River for generations.

Old dams are being removed from the Boardman River. That’s because they are costly to maintain and harmful to the river’s wildlife.

But not everyone is excited about losing the dams. The Gibbs family has been here for generations and their ancestors helped build the dams.

“It still hurts me terribly to go over to Brown Bridge and not see the pond where it used to be,” says 92-year-old Edna Sargent, who has lived near the Boardman River her entire life.

Brown Bridge Dam, which was removed in 2012, meant a lot to Sargent. Her great-uncle, Lorraine K. Gibbs, was one of the pioneers of hydroelectricity in Michigan. He helped build the Boardman and Sabin Dams.

When Gibbs and his cousins arrived from Wisconsin, they noticed the large amount of water flowing through the Boardman River.

“Right away, they recognized the power you can produce from a stream,” says Edna’s cousin, Bob Gibbs.

Lorraine Gibbs and his cousins started the Boardman River Electric Light and Power Company. Their dams made power that helped Traverse City boom between the 1880s and 1900. That transformed the remote sawmill village into a regional manufacturing center.

The dams supplied power to several commercial buildings, homes and city streets.

“If they had a dam and had water power, they could do anything” says Edna Sargent.

Sargent and Bob Gibbs lived next door to each other growing up in Mayfield, near Kingsley. As often as they could, they fished for trout on the Boardman River.

In the early 2000s, the license for the dams was set to expire. Traverse City Light and Power and the City of Traverse City had a choice: remove the dams or repair them. In 2005, they stopped power generation from the dams and terminated the contract with the dam owners – Grand Traverse County and Traverse City.

The local governments were left with the task of pulling out the dams.

“And I think Bob and I both squirm when we hear that … because we like it the way it was,” says Sargent. “And we like the fact that our ancestors built the dams, and the dams ought to stay because nobody else understands what it takes to make one.”

Sargent says the dam areas on the Boardman River provided recreation. They were secluded, so residents could come and observe nature. She says trout fishing on the river isn’t as good as it used to be.

“Because the river is full of kayaks and canoes and people coming down the river in tubes and stuff,” says Sargent. “It has become this touristy thing.”

The last dam – the Sabin Dam – is scheduled to be removed this month.