Oakley Dam: A Rising Tide

Oakley Dam: A Rising Tide

Now that I’m a famous Mahomet Citizen columnist when I run into people around town they frequently ask me questions about the Sangamon River. Questions like “Hey, Scott, have there been any articles written about the Sangamon River by U.S. Supreme Court Justices in Playboy Magazine?”

I of course respond “Why yes, I know of at least one! And that’s quite a story!”

But we must begin at the beginning. With the story of the rising tide of opposition to the Oakley Dam.

Opposition to the Oakley Dam project began with a simple weekend nature hike in Allerton Park by Patricia Hannon. On this hike Patricia first learned about Oakley Dam.

In case you somehow (gasp!) missed the previous Notes column about Oakley, in 1962 the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Congress had authorized Oakley Dam on the Sangamon River upstream of Decatur (technically still in Lake Decatur) to correct for the myriad problems created by the first dam (no need to review the problems with this logic here).  

While Oakley was initially authorized for a cost of $27 million at a height of 621 feet above sea level (which presented no problem for Allerton Park), in 1966, with no public hearing, no announcement and no public input, the Corps decided to raise the height of the dam by 15 feet to 636 feet and raise the cost to about $64 million. This proposed increase would have back up the flood pool all the way to south of Monticello, flooding much of Allerton Park in 5 or 6 feet of water.

So Patricia went home and shared this information with her husband Bruce, and they told several friends and so on.

Soon after, Patricia and Bruce and a few others formed the Committee on Allerton Park, or COAP to stop the dam and save the park.

COAP started with a simple petition drive, stopping people in grocery stores to sign petitions. They talked to people who were at first unaware of the project, and then immediately after hearing about it, were naturally opposed to it. So before 1967 was out, their petition had over 20,000 signatures of people opposed to the dam.

But there was a nearly unbreakable bond between Decatur’s political leadership, the Decatur Chamber of Commerce and pro development groups, and politicians. These included William Springer of the Illinois 21st District (which included Decatur, Champaign and the entire Oakley project area) and Governors Otto Kerner and Richard Ogilvie, who were all closely aligned with the Army Corps of Engineers which sought to please them all.

And the 20,000 signatures opposed to the project? Well, those were just some people talking. The plans to start building Oakley Dam proceeded apace.

But COAP didn’t give up.

They organized demonstrations and marches, drawing assistance from local news outlets, including the News Gazette, which was unsympathetic to the wasteful Oakley Project. Moreover, the News Gazette was competing for readers with the Decatur based Urbana Courier, which in a clear example of ‘fair and balanced’ reporting, was amazingly very supportive of Oakley Dam.

In the midst of the emerging environmental movement of the late 60’s, the Oakley Dam project quickly took on national importance. Senator Charles Percy of Illinois received more mail concerning the Oakley Dam project than he did on U.S. involvement in Vietnam! Oakley also became a poster child for big government projects run amuck. Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin referred to the Oakley Project as “a pork barrel boondoggle of the most blatant kind.” (important note: this project is not in his state). And Proxmire signed a second petition, circulated in 1968, that gathered 80,000 signatures. Impact on the Corps’ decision making concerning the project? Nil.

In May of 1969, COAP invited noted conservationist U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas to Allerton Park. He led a hike through the park and spoke out about the dam at a protest event alongside John Gregg Allerton.

Articles on the Sangamon River Oakley Dam project appeared in Time magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Christian Science Monitor. Field and Stream magazine named the Oakley Dam project as one of the nation’s 10 most unwanted projects.

And as a result of his trip, Justice Douglas wrote an article in Playboy magazine referring to the Corps of Engineers as “public enemy number one”, criticizing the Corps for its unneeded and environmentally destructive projects and citing as his example the Oakley Dam project on the Sangamon River.

By 1968, COAP had already proposed several quite reasonable alternatives to flooding Allerton Park, while keeping the dam and its “benefits”.

The Corps summarily rejected all compromises. As a matter of fact, in a shining example of government responsiveness to the peoples’ will, in 1969 the Corps proposed raising the height of the dam yet again (to 641 feet) and increased the projected cost of Oakley to $75 million.

Political support for the project remained quite strong and the project proceeded apace.

And by 1970, COAP prepared to sue the Army Corps of Engineers in Federal Court over the Oakley Project.

But since I’m a mere Mahomet Citizen columnist and not (yet) a novelist, my editor tells me that here is where my story must end.

…for now…

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