KEITH WHITCOMB JR.
BENNINGTON -- Ron Pembroke did not think he was in much danger 16 years ago when he stepped into the Walloomsac River about 30 feet from the front of the Henry Dam. He did not even think the dog he was trying to coax out of a strong "keeper hole" would not be able to swim out on its own eventually, but once Pembroke was up to his knees in the river the undertow from the dam took him and pulled him in.
"It's a very innocent looking flow of water for the most part," Pembroke said in an interview Friday. "It's taken at least one life, and it's probably a matter of time before it takes another."
The Henry Dam is scheduled to be removed by the end of next week, said Bennington Planning Director Dan Monks. Work begins Tuesday, he said, and the town road crew will be doing the project. He said the cost is not great -- a few thousand dollars -- and is being split evenly with the Village of North Bennington. Monks said the town had been mulling removing the dam for some years now, but it was not until this year that Shelly Stiles, of the Bennington County Conservation District, began getting the permitting process moving. Monks said that while the Agency of Natural Resources encourages defunct dams to be removed, the permitting process is stringent, mostly on the federal level. He said a stream alteration permit was obtained from the ANR, while a permit was also needed from the Army Corps of Engineers.
Monks said the dam is being removed for safety reasons. "This isn't something we're doing because we thought it would be fun to do," he said, saying at least one drowning incident is known to have occurred there, and he also cited Pembroke's near drowning.
"I came as close to drowning there as you can," Pembroke said.
Pembroke, whose landscaping business is near the dam, said he crosses the Henry Bridge above the dam many times a day, and on that day in April 16 years ago a group of students from the Southshire Community School were there on a field trip. He noticed the dog that was with them was in the water appeared to need help so he went into the river to try and get it to swim in another direction.
The current would pull him closer to the dam then push him out in a cycle which he could not break. All he could do was breathe when his head was above water and try to grab onto the dam itself, which he did.
Monks said the dam is mostly made of wood and has a concrete cap. It was an exposed piece of wood that Pembroke grabbed onto. His height did the rest to keep him from drowning. "If I was any shorter, I would have drowned," said Pembroke, who is 6' 4". He was rescued by a man who walked over the top of the dam with a rope, who with half a dozen other adults pulled him from the water.
Some are not pleased to see the dam removed. The Banner posted a photo of the dam to its Facebook page on Sunday after the town first announced the project would be taking place.
"Something else us ‘townies' like to do taken away. They take everything away and then wonder why people cause trouble, it's out of BOREDOM!!!!" wrote Miranda Sprague, whose profile said she lives in Bennington.
Many appeared concerned about how it would affect the fishing, but others felt the dam's removal would help the fish population. "This will change the entire river for the best from a true fishermen's standpoint. Dams block the spawning of fish. I believe it will help repopulate the upper portion of this river that was decimated by the flooding," wrote Dennis Harwood, whose profile said he is from Bennington.
Pembroke said after his experience, a number of people told him about close calls they had, or knew of, at the dam. "Myself and employees of mine, we have rescued two other dogs from that site," he said.
There is no reason to believe there are contamination issues with the sediment behind the dam, said Monks. All the same, a sediment screen will be used to keep the material from going down river.
According to a report required for the project permit, written by Kate Kenny and Catherine A. Quinn, of the University of Vermont Consulting Archeology Program, the dam was likely built by Joseph Hinsdill Jr. circa 1812 to power a paper mill. It was associated with a number of mills throughout the 1800s and according to the report has been modified and repaired many times, its concrete cap being placed in the 1880s.
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.