Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Tragedy and Crystal Lake

By Frank Boles

On October 17, Stacy Leroy Daniels spoke on the history of Michigan’s Crystal Lake.  Located in Benzie County, Crystal Lake is one of the largest inland lakes in the state. It was considerably larger before Archibald Jones began an ill-fated canal project.

In 1873 various individuals interested in expanding commerce at Frankfort conceived of a canal between Lake Michigan and Crystal Lake. The canal would open up much of the interior to Frankfort, an idea designed to boom both farming and lumbering.
To accomplish this, Archibald Jones, who had arrived in the area a year earlier, began to sell shares in the Benzie County River Improvement Company.  The plan was straightforward – lower the lake level about four feet, and use that water to raise the depth of the Betsy River. With the addition of a few locks, this would create an easily navigated channel between Frankfort and Crystal Lake.
Survey work was begun, and soon construction started on an approximately eight mile long canal. By August the channel had been dug. What exactly transpired next is a bit unclear. Some accounts have Jones removing the “temporary” dam at Crystal Lake to let the water from the lake flow downstream and wash away much of the remaining dirt in the proposed canal route. Although stories in which Jones “pulls the plug” makes for a good tale, a more likely explanation for what happened is that violent storms washed out the temporary dam, freeing the water from the lake to flow downstream.
Whichever account is true, on Saturday, August 23, 1873 the dam broke, and within a short time the roar made by the water could be heard five miles away. When the roar finally ended, approximately one-quarter of the water in the lake had flowed into Lake Michigan. The water level in Crystal Lake had dropped eighteen to twenty feet, from about 615 feet above sea level to about 595 feet above sea level.

“Shorn of her glory” and “desolate looking” was how some contemporary observers described the lake a few weeks after the dam broke.  Perhaps all might have been forgiven had the canal really worked, but it soon became clear that a boat of any size still could not move up the Betsy River from Frankfort to Crystal Lake.
Unsurprisingly, at the time there was a good deal of finger pointing. In the long run, however, “pulling the plug” created lasting economic benefits that went far beyond moving lumber and agricultural products from the inland areas to Frankfort. Prior to 1873 Crystal Lake had almost no beach.  But by September 1873 almost 21 miles of very desirable beach had been exposed. Eventually a control dam was built and a good deal of legal proceedings resolved who owned all that newly available beach. Today, Crystal Lake is maintained at a level of approximately 600 feet above sea level in the summer, and about a foot lower in the winter. The beach front property is valued at approximately $660 million.
Archibald Jones, however did not to enjoy any of this long-term windfall.  Once it was clear that the Betsy River remained unnavigable, he moved to Illinois and later to Kansas. It was quite a story, one those present enjoyed.