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Merrimack Valley

October 8, 2007

Dam combines past architecture with future technology

LAWRENCE — Peek over the Falls Bridge and you’ll see a combination of the past and the future.

Workers are exposing chunks of granite originally set in the river 159 years ago when the Great Stone Dam was built by hand. At the same time, crews are making way for the first major enhancement to the 900-foot-long, 35-foot-tall dam since it was originally built in 1848.

“We’re still hopeful we’ll be done by year’s end,” said Julie Smith Galvin, spokeswoman for the dam’s owner, Enel North America Inc.

Enel, with a $3.5 million project in the works, is updating the way the dam works. Visible from Route 28, the dam’s traditional wooden flashboard system is being replaced with a modern, inflatable crest gate — “a very strong balloon that’s inflated and deflated as needed for water flows,” Smith Galvin said.

So, instead of the wooden flashboards, onlookers will see a big, black, sturdy balloon made of a tirelike rubber sitting atop the massive granite dam.

Tell-tale signs that work is underway is the drop this month in the river water level. Enel needed to drop the river’s level 5 feet in order to go forward with the project. The company originally hoped to drop the water level early in the summer, but scaled back the project a bit after receiving complaints from boaters.

“We tried to balance the needs of river users with our construction needs,” Smith Galvin said.

Another indicator is the arrival of a barge with a crane aboard. The barge can be moved up and down the dam, as needed, by construction crews.

“It’s amazing to see a crane sitting on the river,” Smith Galvin noted this week.

Chips of granite taken from the historic dam have been donated to the Lawrence Heritage State Park. Designed by Charles Storrow, workers started assembling the dam by hand in November 1846. The dam, which provided power for the city’s textile mills, was finished two years later.

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