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Devil's Backbone Dam needs repair

May 02, 2003|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY, MD. - Antietam Creek flows over the top of Washington County's Devil's Backbone Dam, hitting the rocks below and creating a calming effect for those picnicking and fishing just downstream.

But while the stone structure may be visually pleasing, it's what can't be seen that's causing concern for county officials and historic groups, County Director of Public Works Gary Rohrer said this week in an interview.

Rohrer said the dam, which possibly dates back to the late 1700s, is full of holes and probably will break if it's not repaired. He said one major storm could cause the dam to fail, sending a substantial amount of water, silt and sediment into the park and downstream.

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"On the aesthetics side, it would be a loss to Washington County in terms that it's such a beautiful park," Rohrer said.

The dam, part of Devil's Backbone County Park, is on Lappans Road (Md. 68), near Sharpsburg Pike. The park is the county's second oldest.

Rohrer had requested $720,000 from the Washington County Commissioners, including $310,500 for the next fiscal year, to fix the dam. The County Commissioners did not approve the request, saying they wanted to free up money for Board of Education construction projects.

The request, made in the county's Capital Improvement Program, stated that an engineering report revealed significant structural problems and that repairs were needed immediately to ensure public safety and protect areas downstream.

"It is of substantial concern to myself and to our engineering staff ... that something very likely could happen to it," Rohrer said. "It could be there 10 days or it could be there 10 years. I don't think it will be the longer term."

He said that although he couldn't think of any homes that might be in danger should the dam break, "Our concern is for anyone who may be downstream fishing or walking..."

Rohrer said there have been no major repairs to the dam since it was built. Some historical data puts construction of the dam in the late 1700s, while other information states it was built in the early 1900s, he said.

"It seems as if it's something we really ought to be looking at as a county," said Pat Schooley, a local architectural historian and member of the Washington County Historical Trust. "Obviously, if it fails there's going to be some damage to the park."

Commissioners Vice President William J. Wivell said repairing the dam wasn't a county priority, because the commissioners face budget cuts from the state and expensive constructions needs from the School Board.

Commissioner John C. Munson said he thinks the dam should be removed so the county wouldn't have to worry about repairs. He said water already flows over the top of the dam, so he doesn't think there's a reason to have it.

"I think maybe we're wasting our money," Munson said. "You know how engineers are. When they get something in their head, they don't want to give it back."

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