History of Dams in Riverside, IL

April 22, 2012 update. Recently, it has come to the attention of the Frederick Law Olmsted Society that certain information regarding the Hofmann Dam removal project provided by the USACE may have been incorrect. Our response to this issue is here:

Hofmann Dam stay request, April 2012

August 19, 2011 update. In response to the 100% documents, the FLOS Hofmann Dam Committee has submitted the following comments and concerns regarding the project:

FLOS Phase II 100% Plan Comments
FLOS Phase II 100% Plan Comments

August 15, 2011 update. The Phase II 100% documents have been received from the Army Corp and the Hofmann Dam Committee is currently reviewing documents to ensure consistency with previous notes and concerns. The full-scale plan documents will be available for public review at our next FLOS Board meeting which will be held at the Riverside Township Hall in Room 22 on Tuesday, September 6 at 7:30pm.

Additionally, we are pleased to report that the Swan Pond re-grading, culvert drainage, WPA wall restoration and Riverbank restoration is now officially included in the plans. Pending final approval from the Illinois Department of Historic Preservation and the Department of Natural Resources, here is a copy of the Swan Pond proposal (please note this is a large file and may take time to load, in some browsers you may need to refresh the page to view or save file to desktop):

Swan Pond Plan 8-11

May 12, 2011 update. The Army Corp has responded with the following clarifications to our comments of April 5, 2011:

Army Corp response to FLOS Hofmann Dam Comments

April 5, 2011 update. The Frederick Law Olmsted Society Hofmann Dam Committee has reviewed the Phase II 50% documents and has forwarded the following comments to the Village of Riverside:

Frederick Law Olmsted Society comments to Phase II 50 % documents

March 15, 2011 update. Phase II 50% plans and Draft IFB are released. To view these documents please follow the links:

Hofmann Dam 50% Phase II Plans

Draft IFB Hofmann Dam Phase II

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the US Army Corps of Engineers appear ready to proceed with at least the first phase of an ecological initiative which will impact Riverside’s Landscape along the Des Plaines River: the notching of Hofmann Dam, removal of the Fairbank Dam and the re-grading of Swan Pond. As the planning and eventual outcome of these events are of great interest to the Olmsted Society, we present this history of dams in Riverside so that our Members can be informed and participate in discussions moving forward.

Humans interacted with the Des Plaines River long before Riverside was founded in 1868. What is today the village of Lyons is home to Portage Creek, a section of travel along the Chicago Portage which connects the Mississippi to the Great Lakes. Used regularly by the Northwest Indians, these portages were later promoted by Marquette and Joliet’s 1672 expedition. The portages advanced the settlement of Chicago and established Lyons as a trade town during the 19th Century.

In 1827, the first dam at the Hofmann site was built by the Laughton Brothers. The dam was placed upon a natural waterfall along the Green Bay Trail of the Indian, also known as the Riverside Ford. The waterfall is formed by a limestone shelf which at one time, following the last Ice Age, marked the shores of Lake Chicago. The Laughtons developed this geologic feature to power the first sawmill of Northeastern Illinois thus beginning a period of urban growth in the region. The Laughtons’ dam, of simple timber construction, was short lived and the sawmill is presumed to have closed around 1839.

In 1866, the Fox Brothers purchased the site and established the Riverside Milling Company. Their grist-mill was powered by a newly constructed stone and timber dam. While repaired multiple times due to its use of semi-permanent materials, this dam, in the shape of a horseshoe, would sustain the Riverside Milling Company for the next 31 years.
In 1868, just two years following the construction of the Fox Dam, the Riverside Improvement Company engaged Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux to develop a planned community on the land to the north and west of the Des Plaines River. Olmsted encountered the curvilinear Fox Dam during his landscape survey and commented on it in his Preliminary Report:

“It will probably be best to increase the height of the mill-dam so as to enlarge the area of the public water suitable for boating and skating, and so as to completely cover some low, flat ground now exposed in low stages of the river. At the same time, a larger outlet should be provided to prevent floods above the dam from injuring the shore. A public drive and walk should be carried near the edge of the bank in such a way as to avoid destroying the more valuable trees growing upon it, and there should be pretty boat-landings, terraces, balconies overhanging the water, and pavilions at points desirable for observing regattas, mainly of rustic character, and to be half overgrown with vines”

Olmsted named the crossing just downriver of the dam the Millbridge Crossing. Unfortunately, it took another 40 years for Olmsted’s vision for recreation along the Des Plaines to be realized.

In 1907, the dam and surrounding properties were purchased by brewery owner George W. Hofmann Jr. Hofmann Beer was featured at Doty’s tavern in Lyons, built on the former site of the Riverside Milling Company. With visions for a grand recreational area, Hofmann began improving the grounds for his new attraction, Niagara Park, named for the outcrop of bedrock on the floor of the Des Plaines at the dam site. Clam bakes, boat rides, family picnicking and outdoor entertainment were advertised.

In 1908, the H.W. Sauber Construction Company built an improved horseshoe dam with a concrete base and wooden struts atop matching the height of the Fox Dam. The dam comprised but a section of a larger superstructure connecting it with the Hofmann Tower and platforms on either side of the Des Plaines. Niagara Park’s beer garden and facilities occupied the scenic triangle section of land surrounded by present day Joliet Road, Barrypoint Road and Ogden Avenue.

The success of Niagara Park diminished as an exploding population began dumping raw sewage into the river. Intended to retain a pool of water for boating, the Hofmann dam was instead retaining raw sewage and sludge. This together with Prohibition forced George Hofmann, Jr. out of business in the 1920’s. However, he did not go quietly. Appalled by the raw sewage that contributed to the demise of Niagara Park, he adamantly opposed dumping activities and advocated for the sanitation of the Des Plaines. Attempting to halt the spread of pollution, Hofmann refused local demands to open his flood gates and allow the sludge to pass. As a result, the Sanitary District of Chicago built a by-pass at the Hofmann dam in 1928 along the north bank of the river in order to divert accumulated pollutants.

Between 1930 and 1933 additional improvements implemented above the Hofmann dam resulted in dispersal of approximately 4 feet of sludge from behind the dam. In 1936 the Works Progress Administration (WPA) removed the failed wooden crest atop the concrete dam which effectively lowered the dam’s crest and headwaters. The WPA also constructed a retaining wall on the riverbank of Swan Pond at this time. Remnants of the wall and other WPA projects are still visible around Swan Pond today.

The current dam was constructed by the State of Illinois in 1950 following much public concern over the crest level. Eventually, a concrete dam was erected in a straight line spanning the entire width of the Des Plaines with a crest level at 25.56’ equal to the heights of the prior dams of wood or partial wood construction. This 1950’s dam remains intact to date.

Certain concrete walls lining the river, original to Hofmann’s design, were removed or reconstructed in 1950. Additional aspects of Hofmann’s design including the retaining walls east of the Tower on the south bank were removed in 1984. The only original elements of Hofmann’s design remaining today are the wall and boat docks on the south bank of the river west of Hofmann Tower and the Tower itself.

Several years ago, ecological concerns led to the proposed notching of the Hofmann dam, as well as the removal of the smaller Fairbank dam and Armitage dam in River Forest. The intent is to improve ecological and recreational usage of the Des Plaines River by allowing natural fish recolonization, recreational boat passage, improved water quality, and restoration of a natural sediment transport system.

In 2003, supporting the concept behind the project, then president of the Olmsted Society wrote:
“We believe that improving the ecology and the recreational uses of our river is entirely within Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision…we fully support this project to improve the Des Plaines River and our River Park. The removal of an old dam that has outlived its original commercial and boating purposes will result in significant ecosystem improvement and enhanced leisure use. A large complex NHL village such as Riverside with its numerous parks, including the River Park, is a living landmark and requires evolutionary changes to maintain and improve its qualities over time. This project is a positive evolutionary change.”

In Riverside, the project has been described as including a re-grading of the Swan Pond flood plain, restoring the oxbow along the western boundary and installation of an outlet at the northeast corner of the park. River bank restoration is also a proposed component. It is our understanding that these projects are to be completed in phases and that plans will be developed first for the removal of Fairbank dam, next for the notching of the Hofmann dam, and finally for restoration of Swan Pond and the areas affected by construction. The Olmsted Society has offered to review and comment upon the plans at each stage once submitted to the Village. We look forward to providing our Members with updated information on this project going forward.

Photo Gallery of the various dams, courtesy of the Riverside History Museum: