Peninsular Paper Dam on the Huron River in Ypsilanti

Located on the Huron River in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and attached to Peninsular Park, the Peninsular Paper Dam was originally constructed in 1867. It once generated power and mechanical energy for the Peninsular Paper Mill.

The mill, the hydroelectric generators, and all the supporting infrastructure have long been removed. Multiple private and public entities have found that rebuilding the dam and nearby infrastructure to support modern hydropower generation is not a realistic option, since the revenue generated wouldn’t cover the costs to maintain the dam.

Now owned by the City of Ypsilanti, the dam no longer serves any practical function. It is a high hazard dam, meaning that failure of the dam would likely result in severe property damage and potential loss of life.

The dam does not meet current state safety standards and the City of Ypsilanti is legally required to fix or remove it.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) considers removing Pen Dam a priority for improving river health, fish habitat, and recreation. MDNR first recommended removal of Pen Dam in 1995.

Benefits of Removing Pen Dam

  • Dams are dangerous. Removing Pen will eliminate drowning risks and the risk of catastrophic dam failure. More severe storms, which are increasing due to climate change, increase these risks.
  • The dam is a financial liability. Every year taxpayers pay to maintain, insure, and fix the dam. Removing the dam will cost taxpayers less in the long run than repairing and maintaining it.
  • Removing the dam will decrease flood risks above the dam.
  • Pen Park and the Huron River would become more accessible for paddling, swimming, and shoreline fishing.
  • The health of the river, fish, birds, and other wildlife would improve. Pen Dam is located in an ecologically important location. Removing it will especially benefit fish spawning from Ford Lake.
  • Dams can increase methane emissions from the artificial ponds they create. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and reducing methane emissions is essential to reducing climate change.

Although this project would be on a relatively small scale compared to some dam removals, the habitat and gradient that would then be available to fish in this part of the Huron River is of much higher quality than in many dam removal situations.” – Sara Thomas, Lake Erie Unit Manager, MDNR Fisheries Division

Removal Status

HRWC is supporting the City in planning for the dam removal, the restoration of the river, and the revitalization of Pen Park. More specifically, HRWC is providing technical expertise, advice, assistance with fundraising and funding, and facilitation. Guest blogger and engineer Janeen McDermott wrote a great blog describing the dam removal process. All decisions are made by the City.
HRWC’s role is to help make sure the project is safe, transparent, and improves ecological and public health. HRWC and the City of Ypsilanti are currently administering the process of designing the removal, which includes phase one: analyzing the sediment, depth and shape of the impoundment, and infrastructure that will be affected by the removal. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Habitat Grant Program provided funding for this phase of the dam removal into October 2023. This first phase is complete and the engineers shared findings at the April 2024 Ypsilanti City Council meeting — HRWC also shared an update on the status of funding and next steps. Here is a link to the presentation given at this meeting. (The project has received additional funding since this presentation was given. For a quick summary of this presentation and an update on funding check out this Pen Dam Update blog.

Plans Include Keeping the Peninsular Paper Mill Powerhouse

Many area residents have expressed interest in preserving the Peninsular Paper Mill powerhouse building and the distinctive sign on top. Multiple engineering teams have determined the dam can be removed without removing the building. HRWC and contracted engineering firms are proceeding with the removal design and site assessment under the assumption that the building will stay where it is.

Pen Park Could Get Much Bigger

Following dam removal, the size of Pen Park may increase to include the land on the north side of the river that is currently submerged behind the dam. (The amount of land that could be recovered is estimated to be about 30% of Pen Park’s current size.) The dam and the roped off area above the dam currently occupy a large amount of shoreline that will become mostly accessible after the dam is removed. The full potential of Pen Park could be realized because the entire stretch of waterfront will no longer be divided by the dam.

The former powerhouse, with its distinctive architecture and landmark neon sign, could be preserved and restored to provide a signature waterfront location for community residents to come together, celebrate Ypsilanti’s local heritage, and enjoy the river. The City of Ypsilanti owns the building and the park so the restoration of the powerhouse and options regarding its future use are entirely up to the city.

Effects on Land Values

Studies (1,2) have found that land values tend to increase slightly following dam removals, since flood risks are reduced, new recreation opportunities are opened up, and the views of a natural river are aesthetically pleasing. The effect of dam removals on property values are typically not significant.

Removing Dams is Good for Local Economies and Recreation

When dams are removed nearby neighborhoods and local economies have flourished. This has been the case following dam removals across the country, across Michigan, and in the Huron River watershed. . Eliminating the financial burdens of maintaining and insuring the dams allows communities to reinvest in public parks and programs.
The Huron River corridor provides more than 2.6 million visitor experiences every year and has an annual economic value of $66 million (inflation-adjusted to 2022 dollars), roughly equivalent to the University of Michigan’s Big Ten home football season. Communities that have prioritized their connection to the river enjoy most of that economic output. Removing Pen Dam would add to Ypsilanti’s access to these economic benefits.

In all of the dam removals we have participated in, we have always seen some reluctance for the change, yet following the dam removals we have never seen a community who didn’t very quickly embrace the new flowing waterfront and come to enjoy it more than ever before.” – Dr. Bryan Burroughs, Executive Director, Michigan Trout Unlimited

Environmental Justice

Industries like Peninsular Paper Mill once lined the Huron River, particularly in lower-income neighborhoods. Before the Clean Water Act became law in 1972, the Huron often smelled of chemicals and sewage, and it was frequently covered in oily sheens. Pollution from the Peninsular Paper Mill often changed the color of the river depending on what dyes the mill was using. Kids were told not to let their clothes touch the river for fear that they may be permanently stained, and fish kills were more common than they are today.

The Peninsular Paper Mill was built and operated for the profit of a single company at the expense of the environmental health of downriver residents for generations. Restoring the river to a natural state through Ypsilanti will begin to fix the injustices of the past and give the area a place to come together.

Background and History

The dam was originally constructed in 1867 to provide power for paper manufacturing; it failed in 1918 and was rebuilt in 1920. The Peninsular Paper Company Dam powered a paper mill in Ypsilanti that produced newsprint for Chicago for a century from the 1860’s to the 1970’s. In the mid-1980s, the Peninsular Paper Company sold Pen Paper Dam and land to the City of Ypsilanti for a dollar. Selling aging dams for a dollar is a strategy often used by industry owners to avoid future liability and put the cost of repairs on other parties.

The City of Ypsilanti later created a park on the land and is now responsible for maintaining the dam. In 2014, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) inspected the dam and required the City to either bring the dam up to safety standards or remove it. The City of Ypsilanti then approached HRWC to discuss options for repair or removal. In 2018, the City of Ypsilanti and HRWC hired an engineering firm, with some funding support from the Friends of Pen Park, to do a feasibility study for removing the dam, restoring the river, and revitalizing Pen Park.

Dam Removal Planning and Preparation

A feasibility study was completed in 2018 and was presented to Ypsi’s City Council. The City Council hosted a Town Hall meeting in February 2019 to share the findings with the community and get feedback before deciding. The City then collected feedback from the community via its website. On May 7, 2019, Ypsilanti’s City Council voted in favor of a resolution to approve the removal of Peninsular Dam. (Resolution No. 2019-101).

The City committed $500,000 toward the removal of the dam, less than the cost to repair it. Any additional costs will be secured from external funding sources, such as federal or state grant programs. HRWC is committed to help raise the balance of funds and restore the Huron River through Ypsilanti.

HRWC, acting at the request of the City, secured two grants from the 2019 and 2020 MDNR Fisheries Habitat Grant Program cycles, totaling more than $650,000 in funds.

Through the autumn of 2021, the City, with support from an independent facilitator, led public forums to maintain transparency, convey information, answer questions, and encourage residents to guide the vision for river restoration. This public engagement process was led by an ad hoc committee of volunteers, stakeholders, and city officials. The committee’s meetings are public; agendas, minutes, and links to meetings can be found through the Agenda Center on the City of Ypsilanti’s website under the heading “Pen Dam Public Engagement Committee.”

In April 2022, following the completion of the scope of work from the 2019 FHGP grant, the City of Ypsilanti hosted a Town Hall update event. LimnoTech presented findings from their sediment, bathymetry, and hydraulic analysis. HRWC shared an overview of the restoration process, and City officials provided an update on property boundary assessments.

The 2020 FHGP grant which will be active through October 2023, will complete a geotechnical analysis, conduct additional sediment sampling, and prepare a preliminary removal design that includes sediment management strategies.


More Resources

How to remove a dam
What communities can expect when a dam comes out of a river

Michigan Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Habitat Grant Program Proposals

Removal Design and Supporting Analysis for Peninsular Paper Dam (2019 grant cycle)

Removal Design and Supporting Analysis for Peninsular Paper Dam (2020 grant cycle)

Removal Feasibility Study

Peninsular Paper Dam Removal Feasibility Report

Pen Dam Removal Feasibility Report Presentation

Considerations of Fish, Wildlife, Ecological Health, and Recreation

Removing Ypsilanti’s Peninsular Paper Dam Prepares for the Future guest blog by Beth Gibbons, climate change expert

Removing Dams Helps Fish guest blog by Sara Thomas, Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR)

Birds and Dams guest blog by Juliet Berger, Ornithologist, NAP

Michigan Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Division Huron River Assessment, 1995

Letter from Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources to Ypsi City Council re: Fisheries Division Supports Removal (March 2019)

Letter from HRWC to Ypsilanti about Pen Dam Removal (Dec 2018)

Letter from Michigan Trout Unlimited to Ypsilanti about Pen Dam Removal (Feb 2019)

Huron River Water Trail Safety and Stewardship Assessment

HRWC Blog about dams, methane, and greenhouse gas emissions

Past Considerations of Hydroelectric Capacity

Hydropower Generating Capacity Estimate for Pen Dam

Argo and Geddes Dams, Ann Arbor Hydropower Study Final Report

Hydoelectric Redevelopment Argo and Geddes Dams, Ann Arbor/ Feasibility Study

Letter from consulting firm about the costs and challenges of hydro power (Boardman)

Case Studies and References from other Dam Removals

Case studies of environmental benefits of dam removal (Headwaters Economics)

Boardman-DPR-June-2014-Public-Release (Grand Traverse County, MI)