Jim Buck, Rogue Basin project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, stands above Elk Creek Dam on Friday. The unfinished dam stands exactly as it did Jan. 5, 1988, when environmental lawsuits and a federal court injunction stopped work on the project. Top: A logbook rests inside the Regulating Output Equipment Room at the dam. - Jamie Lusch

Time has come

TRAIL — Metal concrete forms line the top of half-built Elk Creek Dam, ready for the next pour that never comes.

Nearby rest the iron pieces of a large spillway gate, its elements meticulously laid out so the holes match up and are ready for bolts. A rotted plywood announcement board stands alone, waiting for the latest safety bulletin or change in work schedule that in 20 years has never been written.

Time has stood still here since Jan. 5, 1988, the day environmental lawsuits and a federal court injunction forced concrete crews to turn off their pumps, lock the gates and never return.

"They walked off the job, so what you see is a fairly large, incomplete federal project left intact," says George Miller, the Elk Creek project manager for the dam's owner, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Construction workers could return as early as next month, prepping to blast a notch in the 84-foot-tall dam, which rests 1.7 miles up Elk Creek from its confluence with the Rogue River.

The corps intends to award a contract within a few weeks for the notch, which will allow the creek and its wild salmon and steelhead to swim unimpeded past the structure originally meant to block salmon access forever.

Those contractors will find the dam site a throwback to the '80s, right down to the antiquated telephone and switching mechanisms inside what would have been the Regulating Output Equipment Room.

"You walk through the door and it looks like the day they left," says Jim Buck, the Rogue Basin project manager for the corps.

Inside, the navy-gray room looks like a cross between the innards of a submarine and a half-built Frankenstein set.

Huge switching mechanisms with large dials and switches were meant to operate gates inside two large pipes through which water was supposed to manage the dam's outflow. One such mechanism rests on blocks like it was dropped off for next-day installation.

Power runs to a second switching system, its LED lights flickering meaningless data.

"It's just minimum power, trying to keep it functional," Buck says. "At least they were flickering. If we had just turned the power on after 10 or 20 years, it wouldn't have worked."

An old logbook whose inside pages are filled with dead flies rests on a backup generator that could attract some interest on eBay or from the Smithsonian. The closest thing to the 21st century are lead-free paint surfaces and a 1996 telephone book.

Outside, the remnants become decidedly macro.

Stacked and ready for assembly are large machined metal pieces for the radial gates that would have helped regulate water flows during a flood. The gates' footings sport bolt holes that still have protective cardboard rolls inside.

Immense gray dunes of gravel meant to become the concrete that was never poured rise from what was to be a silty reservoir floor. The rock was mined from what would have been the lake's northwest banks and carried by conveyor to the site.

"One of our engineers said it was like an unassembled puzzle," Miller says. "All the parts for building a dam are there. They're just not assembled."

The rock crusher is gone, but its concrete-poured footings dot the site, surrounding the metal-rimmed announcement board that stands almost in defiance of time.

"This is the way things have been since they wrapped things up so many years ago," Buck says.

What was to be a floating metal walkway, its railing still stacked on the deck, rests on metal shipping supports. A combination of rust and holes from rifle shots have likely rendered it useless.

"Everything has kind of aged," Buck says. "But unlike wine, I don't think it necessarily gets better."

A few signs of the present pockmark the site.

Douglas fir trees 25 feet tall and near firewood-quality madrone now sprout out of the gravel mountains' upstream side. The exposed side is riddled with tire tracks from trespassing motorcyclists who found the site, Buck says, through an article in an off-road magazine five years ago touting the gravel mounds for their riding pleasure.

The contract that the corps intends to award soon covers only the design and construction of the notch and the return of Elk Creek to its original channel, Buck says. Future contracts will cover rehabilitating what would have been the reservoir site, including removing and/or salvaging the metal and rock there.

There are no plans yet to attempt to salvage or sell any of the items at the dam site, Buck says.

"Once we notch, at least mentally, that's when we'll move on," Buck says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail

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