“The Dam Byllesby,” by Anonymous

It was a breezy September afternoon, and strong waves were lapping against the side of my canoe as I dug my paddle into the dark lake. Tiny green worm-worm looking algae swirled in the wake of my paddle as explored the small flooded caves that were riddled through the side the high cliffs. I ventured further along the shore to a small marshy wetland, and the algae worms became thick like split pea soup. A little further, and I found an old rope swing that hung far out over the water’s edge from a dead tree in a forest. Across the lake were a few humble houses, a sandy beach, playground, and RV camp site. I portaged across the small peninsula and down the piled limestone that held up the shore. As I came to the end of my trip, I began to notice a roaring. I was passing the dam, almost unnoticeable from the top. I never really noticed any of these things on those afternoon trips with my canoeing class, or at least I didn’t find them remarkable. Yet, studying the history of the dam showed me how all of these things came to be, and how the loss of one magical spot on the river led to redefining the natural heritage of Cannon Falls.

At the turn of the century, just under where I was canoeing the cannon river would have wound through pastureland, hugging the edge of a set of hundred-foot high cliffs on one side. Two family farms that raised corn, oats, and livestock resided on the river’s edge. However, that place was also a special spot for the townies. A small cascade called Big Falls was a popular picnicking destination for the people of Cannon Falls, who lived just under a mile away.[1] The spot was so highly esteemed, that poet S.S. Lewis wrote a lengthy poem in honor of the falls in 1911. He opens with:

Cannon Falls Dam

Cannon Falls Dam, Cannon Falls Township, Minnesota, courtesy of Minnesota Digital Library: Minnesota Reflections and Goodhue County Historical Society.

“All who have resided in Cannon Falls or vicinity for any length of time still retain a memory of the beautiful cascade on the Cannon River, locally known as the “Big Falls” as well as of the surrounding scenery of unsurpassed loveliness.”[2]

However, Lewis’s esteemed retreat would soon be destroyed by the advent of the electrical power industry. Just before 1900, the Cannon Falls and Northfield area had just gotten its first electricity. In 1896, Cannon Falls’ first lights were turned on thanks to the Valentine Power Plant, which operated on a small mill in town. Yet, after this power plant burned down in 1907, the town was thirsty for a new source of energy. Surveyors from Northern States Power declared Big Falls as the spot most suitable for the construction of a Hydro-electric facility and bought the farms of the land that would be flooded by their dam. The power company drafted plans to extend a 33,000 volt power line from the dam to Northfield and Faribault, whose own power companies would be shut down.[3]

It was in reaction to the construction of the dam that S.S. Lewis wrote his heart-felt fictional poem of a young native American who meet the falls’ guardian spirit Eumeemie why mourning the lost river. Eumeemie recounts to him the story of how the death of her lover brought her to become the guardian spirit of the Big Falls. Yet, when the dam was built, and she could no longer hear the sound of the cascades, she was released from her guardian duty to move on to the spirit world. Though Lewis’ over-simplification and romanticization of Native American culture is certainly problematic, he does use his poem make the connection that a single element brought the ruin of both Native American culture and the natural beauty he cherished. He describes this destructive element here:

“And I would leave the dismal place

Where heart grew sick at ruin wrought

A ruin there that Commerce brought.

For Commerce comes, the scene invades

Fast fall the groves; all beauty fades

From rivers, woods and flow’ry banks

Where’er the chain of Commerce clanks.

For Commerce comes with love for gain

And binds the Cannon in his chain”[4]

Here, Lewis expresses contempt for the commodification of the river though images of death and enslavement. In Southern Minnesota, this tension between natural resource preservation and industrial development was far from unique; in the beginning of the 20th century, rivers all over the United States were transformed for the sake of commerce and development. Though new water-rights, channels, and mills transformed American rivers in the 19th century, the mutation of waterways became much more dramatic in the 20th century with the establishment of the Reclamation Service. The purpose of the Reclamation Service was to manage the nation’s water ways since private interests couldn’t properly balance the needs of transportation and irrigation. Under the power of the Reclamation Service hundreds of rivers were scrutinized for their potential to improve commerce, and many dams and irrigation canals were built.[5]

Though the construction of the Byllesby dam occurred in the 20th century during the reign of the Reclamation Service, the Byllesby dam was vastly different than the gigantic public works dams. First, the Byllesby dam’s sole purpose was for power production rather than irrigation or transportation channeling. Second, the dam was a part of the vast private energy empire called Northern States Power owned by Henry M. Byllesby. The company’s extensive holdings stretched across the Midwest. In reality, Byllesby’s company was much more similar to Carnegie’s steel company or Rockefeller’s oil trust rather than the reclamation service.[6]

Despite his grief for the construction of the dam, Lewis makes a number of concessions that keep him from being purely preservationist. He concedes, “To those who come after us the lake will be to them, no doubt, as beautiful and attractive as the falls were to us.”[7] With this comment that Lewis included in his introduction, Lewis admits that the value of a pristine, untouched nature is not infinite and absolute. The relationship between the state of the earth and its people are constantly changing, so a culture based on a natural heritage will change over time. Lewis’s prediction about the lake was correct; with the onset of the forties and fifties, people became more interactive with the dam and lake. The sorrow for the loss of Big Falls as a favorite picnic spot was quickly cured by the opportunities provided by the water. The older townspeople recall Byllesby lake as fishing and boating spot in the forties, and the fifties brought the development of summer housing to the lake’s northern shores.[8] Its manmade qualities were soon forgotten as the lake began to blend into its natural surroundings and become a part of the natural cultural heritage of Cannon Falls.

Despite the acceptance of the Byllesby dam as a part of the natural heritage of the Cannon Falls community, multiple economic factors led Northern States Power to release its ownership of the dam in 1967. First, the advent of larger nuclear and coal powered plants in southern Minnesota reduced the importance of the dam.[9] Additionally, the structural weaknesses of the dam were becoming a liability to the company, and repairs would be expensive and troublesome. In fact, dams all over the country that were built near the turn of the century–like the Byllesby Dam–were becoming hazardous. A number of towns were destroyed and hundreds of people were killed by the collapsing dams in the sixties.[10]

Yet, the residents of Cannon falls would not realize that they were no exception to this threat until later. When they first discovered that the dam would be decommissioned in 1967, alarm bells were sounded, and a number of lakeside homeowners immediately formed the Lake Byllesby Improvement Association. Their goal was to protect the dam and lake by forging a plan in which Dakota and Goodhue county would own the lake and park but pay Northern States Power for operation costs. The counties feared that they would “lose a considerable amount of tax money with the dam inoperable.”[11] The fervor with which the citizens of Cannon falls approached the preservation of the dam and lake suggest interesting information about their views of nature. Just as the northwesterners fight against their dams to protect the native salmon populations, the citizens of Cannon Falls fought for their dam. While the countless recreational opportunities surrounding lake Byllesby are meant as a means of convening with nature, the nature that people seek is completely synthetic. Yet this isn’t a false view of nature, rather, it is infinitely more practical. As a destination that is close to the town and the population it serves, the Byllesby lake makes itself more accessible to and more easily integratable into daily life.

The dam began its story in industry—as a part of a system of commerce that destroyed and commodified the natural heritage of Native Americans and the early settlers of the Cannon Falls area. Yet, through its interactions and life with the community over the 20th century, the dam became something more than a symbol of its destructive industrial roots. It became an icon of community identity. Its preservation is a grassroots movement to fight the energy system and global climate change by providing local, sustainable energy. Yet, many claim the dam is the scourge of aquatic ecosystem health in order to provide a local energy economy and recreational utility to its middle-upper class citizens. The dam is a paradox and a compromise–it isn’t part of the old pristine earth of Eumeemie, nor is it at home in the system of capitalist extortion of the environment. It is a compromise–a solution that is a part of a new earth.


[1] Kalow, Dennis. Historic Cannon Falls 1854-2004: A Sesquicentennial Celebration. (Cannon Falls: Cannon Falls Beacon, 2004), 297-299.

[2] Lewis, S.S. Eumeemie: A Legend of Cannon Falls (Cannon Falls, Minnesota, 1911).

[3] Kalow, Historic Cannon Falls, 62-63.

[4] Lewis, Eumeemie.

[5] Billington, David, The History of Large Federal Dams. (Denver, Colorado: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, 2005).

[6] Currey, Josiah Seumour, “Henry Marison Byllesby,” In vol. 4 of Chicago: Its History and Its Builders. (Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1918), 249-252.

[7] Lewis, Eumeemie.

[8] Kalow, Historic Cannon Falls, 62-63.

[9] “Byllesby Hydro Plant Generators Shut Down,” Cannon Falls Beacon, January 5, 1967, 1.

[10] Derrick, Betty P, “The Dam that Almost Failed,” The Minnesota Volunteer 42.245 (1979): 45-51.

[11] “To Study Future of Lake: Byllesby Ass’n Formed,” Cannon Falls Beacon, January 19, 1967,1.

Works Cited

Billington, David. The History of Large Federal Dams. Denver, Colorado: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, 2005. Accessed April 4, 2013. http://www.usbr.gov/history/HistoryofLargeDams/LargeFederalDams.pdf.

“Byllesby Hydro Plant Generators Shut Down.” Cannon Falls Beacon, January 5, 1967.

Currey, Josiah Seumour. “Henry Marison Byllesby.” In vol. 4 of Chicago: Its History and Its Builders, 249-252. Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1918. Accessed April 4, 2013.  http://darrow.law.umn.edu/documents/Henry_Byllesby_Chicago_history_and_its_builders_1918.pdf.

Derrick, Betty P. “The Dam that Almost Failed.” In The Minnesota Volunteer 42.245 (1979): 45-51. Accessed April 4, 2013. https://webapps8.dnr.state.mn.us/volunteer_index.

Kalow, Dennis. “Lake Byllesby.” In Historic Cannon Falls 1854-2004: A Sesquicentennial Celebration. Cannon Falls: Cannon Falls Beacon, 2004.

Lewis, S.S. Eumeemie: A Legend of Cannon Falls. Cannon Falls, Minnesota, 1911. Accessed May 18, 2013. http://ia700404.us.archive.org/20/items/eumeemie00lewi/eumeemie00lewi.pdf.

“To Study Future of Lake: Byllesby Ass’n Formed.” Cannon Falls Beacon, January 19, 1967.

“Valued by Many Counties: Lake Byllesby is Big Recreational Asset.” Cannon Falls Beacon, February 16, 1967.

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