Long before French settlers arrived on the river’s south bend to trap wildlife along the shores, the Potawatomi called the river Sagwa. Sagwa means “mystery river” and refers to the legend of visitor who would appear to the native people. Sagwa sounds feminine, like the river herself, who is curvy and whose mostly calm surface belies a strong undercurrent.
I learned about the legend of Sagwa from my friends, Gabrielle Robinson and Mike Keen. While researching the history of the river, Gabrielle learned about an innovative hydroelectric project started in the early 80’s which had been abandoned. Mike mentioned an educational component to the design that would make the project a double-win for the City. “You should work to re-ignite projects like that,” Mike told me.
While working on a degree in Liberal Studies at IUSB, a class taught by Jerry Hinnefeld in 2007 had students researching topics on energy. Looking for answers about the 1980’s hydro project, I made multiple calls to the county city building; most folks had never heard of the project until finally I talked to Gary Gilot, who suggested I call John Fisher, senior engineer at Lawson-Fisher.
John not only knew about the project, he was its chief architect and was thrilled to have someone show interest in his nearly-forgotten project. When he showed me the beautiful colored pencil drawings that had been tucked away for over 20 years, he was like a kid showing his mom his best artwork for her refrigerator. Not only had the City planned to install a small hydro generator, but an even larger 1.8 megawatt facility. The coolest part about the bigger project was a below-water level public concourse with windows on either side that would allow visitors to see the turbines turning on one side and fish going up the ladder on the other.
Armed with this information from John, I not only presented my research to my classmates, but I took my slide show on the road and showed it to anyone who would watch and listen. A blog site, letters to the South Bend Tribune, meetings with Congressman Donnelly’s office and radio essays later, I was appointed to South Bend’s Green Ribbon Commission by Mayor Steve Luecke. Our commission was the impetus for South Bend’s Municipal Energy Office, who, under the leadership of Jonathan Burke brought the little generator, nicknamed Little Gennie, to her intended home on the East Race.
The river has a long history of sustaining the people who interacted with her. I am proud of the part I had in re-igniting our embrace of her potential.