For a long time — possibly centuries — the St. Joseph River was a way for people to get around, whether they were casting off from southern Michigan or northern Indiana.
There used to be canoes, pirogues, steamboats and keelboats floating up and down the river to their destinations, Emil V. Anderson wrote in his 1949 text “Taproots of Elkhart History.” But that was before the dam was first built along the St. Joseph River in 1870 northeast of current-day downtown Elkhart.
Before the first European settlers found the river, Native Americans would cut through the water in birch bark canoes “propelled by the nearly silent motion of (their) solitary paddle(s),” Anderson wrote. Either the Native Americans or French traders later used pirogues — which are large canoes made of hollowed-out logs — to carry their stocks of fur to and from trading posts at Bertrand and Niles.
The river was “welcomed as an easy mode of transportation” and led to the development of both Elkhart and St. Joseph counties between 1830 and 1860, according to an article published June 22, 1975, in the South Bend Tribune.
Many keelboats and arks would travel along the river by 1832, and steamboats would later join them, according to the article. Farms, factories, blast furnaces and distilleries would make use of these boats for at least 16 years to carry their products. Since there weren’t any bridges then, ferries would also take people across the river.
River pilot E.J. Davis called the river “the great highway” that “gave employment to more people and represented a greater money investment than all other traffic,” according to an article published June 9, 1996, in The Elkhart Truth.
“It was the great artery that joined the city or village to Chicago and the great developer of the great expanse to territory outlying for over a hundred miles east, the business, trade and commerce… which went by this river and passed through Elkhart both east and west,” according to Davis.
But the importance of the river as a means for commercial transportation dwindled with the introduction of the railroad in 1851, according to the article.
There were still steamboats and keelboats that made use of the river in 1852, Anderson wrote. But it would be almost two decades before a dam would be built along the river in Elkhart because of how difficult and costly it was to build it and causeways to channel water to nearby mills.
The Elkhart Hydraulic Co. was formed in 1868 to construct a dam across the St. Joseph River, Anderson wrote. The 300-foot-long “brush dam” was built in 1870 with the use of felled trees that were set in place with timber and stones. The cost of constructing the dam was more than $100,000.
The Elkhart Hydraulic Co. later built the existing dam and powerhouse in 1913, according to an article published Aug. 5, 2015, in The Elkhart Truth. AEP Indiana Michigan Power then acquired the hydroelectric plant in 1922, which continues to operate to this day.