The yellow excavator was rapping like a woodpecker against the old dam, pounding through concrete and signaling the end of an era for the village that Melvin Cyrus ?Boss? Meeker laid out in the redwoods a century ago.
Camp Meeker, a village in western Sonoma County, is removing the last trace of a once-popular swimming hole that for the past decade has remained unused in order to minimize harm to endangered salmon and steelhead.
The dam, which could create a sizeable swimming hole with water over 10 feet deep, will vanish. An adjacent section of Dutch Bill Creek, which flows north into the Russian River near Monte Rio, will be restored. And a new steel footbridge over the creek will replace the narrow walkway that sat atop the dam.
?It?s sad to see it go, but I know it?s the right thing,? said Louise Patterson, a Camp Meeker resident for more than four decades.
Patterson, standing beside the village post office, expressed gratitude for the many summer days that her family spent at the swimming hole, the place her children first learned to swim. But she said in recent times it has become clear that ?dams are not good for fish.?
The Gold Ridge Resource Conservation District of Occidental and the Camp Meeker Recreation and Park District are partners in a $1 million project to remove the dam and restore the creek. To improve the passage of fish, the project also will add a series of low concrete baffles in a large rectangular culvert under Market Street, a main entryway to the hillside community.
The work will be financed by grants from seven agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries service, state Fish and Game, state Coastal Conservancy and the county of Sonoma.
The aim is to provide a pleasant and natural place where people can get close to the creek.
?It would let people begin to see what this area looked like before we were there,? said Gary Helfrich, a member of the recreation and park district board.
The dam was built in the 1950s, said Helfrich. It replaced downstream swimming holes that likely were used in the days when a narrow-gauge railroad still brought Bay Area residents to summer homes there on such San Francisco-sounding streets as Van Ness, Mission and Montgomery.
With the new dam, Camp Meeker?s volunteer firefighters each spring would insert thick wooden flashboards to block its center opening, thereby backing up the creek water.
But in 1996 the federal government listed the region?s coho salmon as a threatened species, followed the next year by steelhead.
Eventually state fish and game officials required the owners of the region?s summer dams to conduct environmental impact reports to investigate the dam?s impact on fish. For Camp Meeker, Helfrich said, the cost of the report likely would have exceeded the park district?s annual budget.
?It began to be really clear for us that the world had changed,? he said. Never again were the flashboards set into the dam.
But in an era when creeks are no longer dammed, officials began to hear about grants that might be available for stream restoration and for a new footbridge. Eventually the park district teamed up with the resource conservation district, which was putting together a project on the nearby Market Street culvert.