UPDATE: City Mills dam blast bigger than Eagle & Phenix


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Dam Blast Sequences

Update: In the most powerful blast so far in the construction of Columbus' whitewater rafting course, a section of the 1907 City Mills dam erupted in a plume of smoke, rubble and water right on schedule at 10:30 a.m.

Paul Meadows of construction company Batson-Cook said the explosion had more power than the second breach of the Eagle & Phenix dam downstream, which until today had been the most dramatic blast. Meadows said everything went as planned.

Project manager Newt Aaron said crews now will let the river flush out the blast site before workers building a road into the riverbed from the Georgia side go in and start removing rubble with heavy equipment.

Meadows said archaeologists with Southern Research also will descend into the riverbed to start surveying for historic features and artifacts. City Mills is one of the most historic industrial sites in Columbus, the place where the first dam was built in 1828, the year the city was founded, its purpose to exploit the river's water power.

The first dams were made of wood. An 1845 map showed the City Mills dam as a jagged line across the river, protruding west from the Georgia shore, then north running parallel to the current, and then shooting off west again to the Alabama bank. This design took advantage of rock islands that helped anchor the structure. It forced the current to pass beneath the mill, where it powered the machinery before exiting through an arched tailrace.

In 1882, the same year the Eagle & Phenix mill built a stone dam downstream, the Eagle & Phenix company bought City Mills with plans to improve the dam, which sagged and leaked. So the dam was rebuilt in 1883 as a wooden rafter dam which still zigzagged across the river, but was made of log cribbing on a wooden frame, a much sturdier structure.

Industrialist George Pearce leased City Mills in 1883 and bought it from Eagle & Phenix in 1890. Over the next few years he had portions of the dam near the Georgia riverbank replaced with rock walls. Pearce had hoped to sell excess hydroelectric power to the Columbus Railroad Co. that ran city streetcars and built a power station next to City Mills in 1894-95.

From 1904 to 1907, the Hardaway Co. built the existing rubble masonry dam on bedrock 700 feet across the river.

And Hardaway did such a good job that whitewater construction crews could not take the dam out just by picking it apart with heavy equipment, as had been the initial plan.

Aaron said the dam turned out to be far too solid for that, so blowing it apart became the better option.

And a much more entertaining one as well. About 300 people gathered on the 14th Street bridge downstream today to watch the explosion, and they were not disappointed.

Among those gathered was Larry Harden of Phenix City, who recalled slipping through barricades to lie on the bridge during a flood in 1962, when he was 13. The river was so high he could reach out his hands and touch the water, he said.

"I've seen cows and hogs float down this river," he said. "I've lost a lot of friends out here, too."

He believes the river remains hazardous to those who don't respect its power.

"This is a very dangerous river, and I'm afraid you'll get a lot of fatalities over the years," he said.

Also awaiting the blast were TSYS worker Michael Legette and his mother Sonja Legette. They said they were unlikely to take a whitewater trip down the course when it's finished, but they will enjoy bicycling along it.

"You take a risk in anything you do," said Michael Legette. "You're not going to fool nature."

Breaching the City Mills Dam at 18th Street north of the TSYS campus is one of the final steps as organizers prepare to open the whitewater course Memorial Day Weekend. A year ago, two holes were blown in the Eagle & Phenix dam, most of which has been removed.

Meadows, the project executive with Batson-Cook Construction of West Point, Ga., said the blast crew planned for a river flow of 9,000 cubic feet per second to submerge the dam and contain the blast. When the Eagle & Phenix Dam was blown in two separate blasts last March, fencing and mesh were draped over the dam to contain debris.

The 2.5-mile Chattahoochee whitewater rafting course is scheduled to open May 25. It should take workers about three weeks to clear the debris from the blast, Meadows said.