Construction crews sheltered behind a coffer dam chip away at Gold Ray Dam on the Rogue River Friday. - Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell

Toward a freer river

When Grants Pass native Scott Wright looks at Gold Ray Dam on the Rogue River, he sees a barrier to a dream.

"What I'd like to do some day is put in at Lost Creek Dam and float this river all the way down to the ocean," said the avid river runner who recently floated the lower Wild and Scenic Rogue with his family.

The water resources engineer for Corvallis-based River Design Group may soon be able to realize that dream: He is the firm's project manager for removing Gold Ray Dam.

"Everything is going great — we're happy to be working," Wright said Friday, the second day that a machine with a heavy metal hydraulic pincher was breaking up the concrete on the south side of the dam.

The way was cleared for the construction crew after U.S. District Court Judge Owen Panner on Wednesday lifted the nine-day shutdown of work on the 106-year-old dam after determining that dam supporters were unlikely to win their civil rights suit against Jackson County, which owns the dam.

Panner also denied a request to halt all work on the project while a lawsuit filed by dam supporters winds through federal court. In addition, he rejected a request for a preliminary injunction on the work.

The judge's decision allowed Slayden Construction Group crews to move forward with the $5.6 million project that was funded largely by a $5 million federal stimulus grant.

The dam and powerhouse, which produced hydro power for some 30 years beginning in 1941, was decommissioned by the Pacific Power Co. in 1972. The company then gave the dam to Jackson County.

Concerned about the financial liability of the old structures, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners in May decided removing the dam was the best and least-expensive option, prompting legal challenges by those wanting to keep the dam.

County Commissioner C.W. Smith, who spent much of his boyhood fishing the Rogue, watched the beginning of the dam removal.

"There is a degree of sadness in seeing it removed," he said. "When I was a boy, I used to fish along the dam and backwater with my dad. It's a neat and special place.

"But I understand the dam's reason for being is no longer there," he added. "It doesn't make sense to unnecessarily keep an impediment on a beautiful river, a river that ran free for thousands of years."

When the dam is removed, it will open 157 miles of river for migrating salmon and boat traffic. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife rates the dam as the worst remaining impediment to fish migration in Oregon.

Wright, 39, a 1989 graduate of Grants Pass High School who has a master's degree in civil engineering from Oregon State University, believes removing the dam will have a positive impact on the river.

"It's neat to come to your home waters and have a significant impact on shaping the river and improving it," he said, noting, "I've been on the Rogue pretty much all my life."

A temporary rock dam has been built to block the Rogue from the dam's south half, pushing the water to the north side. The plan is to remove the concrete and load the chunks onto waiting rail cars for removal.

The concrete is no more than 18 inches thick, making the work relatively easy, Wright said, adding that it will take about two weeks to complete the work on the south side.

"We will be turning the water over to the south at that point," he said.

A coffer dam also will be built just upstream of the north end of the dam, he said. However, that side of the river should be largely dry because the main channel will then be flowing on the south side, he said.

The workers will remove the dam's north side, fish ladder and abandoned powerhouse.

"The only thing different from what we anticipated so far is discovering the log crib dam we uncovered has concrete in it," he said. "From the historical photos we saw, it appeared to be all log structure with rock in it."

He was referring to the oldest part of the dam built in 1904. The larger concrete structure was built in 1940, he said.

"After they completed the concrete dam, they went in and tried to burn the old log dam," he said. "So there is a mixture in there of logs that are preserved and others that are gone."

Noting there are "No Trespassing" signs posted in the area, he asked that visitors stay on the nearby road and away from the construction area.

The river also is closed 500 feet downstream and a 1,000 feet upstream.

"That is for people's safety," he said. "Last night we had people walking around on the dam. It's not safe for people to be out there."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at

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