:: The Sustaining Waters of the Sagwa Zibi

originally posted 3/25/08 (Audio for Power Point)

As we awaken to the harm burning fossil fuels causes to our health and the health of our planet, we look for solutions. Reducing energy consumption is an important first step. Embracing alternative, renewable and non-polluting energy sources is another if we hope to achieve sustainability for all of us here on earth. In Michiana, we can take a step towards sustainability by tapping the clean energy of our River.

The River’s Early History

The River we know today as the St. Joseph has a long history of sustaining humans who interacted with her. She served as an important transportation route for Native Americans and early French fur trappers, and, at the point where she bends south, it was a relatively short portage from her waters to the Kankakee River’s, bearing travelers to the Illinois River and on to the Mississippi.

Several tribes of Native Americans inhabited or stopped along the River’s south bend, taking nourishment from the rich resources along her banks and in her water. The Potawatomi called the River Sagwah zibi, a reference to the legend of a visitor who mysteriously appeared on the River’s banks.  (The Potawatomi honor women as life givers and protectors of water; the River is also beautifully curving with a calm-looking surface and a strong undercurrent.  For these reasons, this writer refers to the River as feminine).

Tapping the River’s Power in the 19th Century

The earliest Europeans settled here in the late 1700’s to make their fortunes in the fur trade, trapping the vast array of wildlife along the heavily wooded banks of the River. Among these early arrivals were Alexis Coquillard and Pierre Navarre. In 1844, Coquillard oversaw the construction of a dam and east and west races along the River. The races directed the River’s water to power mill industries manufacturing iron tools, fabric, furniture and other products. The area’s resources of the River and fertile farmland helped South Bend to prosper.

Hydroelectricity Powers Early Industry in South Bend

Around 1900, James Oliverfinanced the construction of the most modern hydro-electric plant of that time. Sited on the West Race of the River, near where the Century Center now stands, Mr. Oliver’s electric plant powered the lights for the Oliver Opera House, the Oliver Hotel and his home at the corner of Washington and Chapin Streets. This house, known as Copshaholm,was the first residence in South Bend lighted with electricity. Past Copshaholm, the electric lines continued south to power Oliver’s chilled plow foundry on South Chapin Street. The River continued to generate electricity at the Oliver plant until the 1960’s, when the plant’s new owner, Indiana and Michigan Electric Company, citing high maintenence costs, de-commissioned it from service.

Re-Discovering Hydroelectricity in South Bend

In 1980, South Bend revisited the potential of the River to provide emission-free electricity. The city secured the rights to build a 1.78 megawatt hydro-electric power generator. (This is enough to power 1,000 South Bend homes.) Part of a plan to redevelop the River’s East side, the generator was to be installed when South Bend re-excavated the East Race as a water recreation feature. In addition to producing electricity, the generator was intended as an educational tourist attraction. The facility’s design includes a wheelchair-accessible concourse, which would bring visitors below the River’s surface. Windows along either wall of the concourse allow views of the generator’s turbines on one side and steelhead trout, chinook and coho salmon migrating their way up the ladder on the other. A similarly designed windowed fish ladder in Seattle is one of that city’s most popular tourist attractions.

In 2012 South Bend resurrected a 62 kilowatt generator on the East Race.  Purchased in the 1980’s, this small generator, nicknamed “Little Gennie” by South Bend’s Municipal Energy Office, was refurbished by Northern Electric and installed by Koontz Waggoner.  Little Gennie generated much excitement as the first hydro generator to be installed in South Bend in over 100 years.

South Bend still possesses the rights and design plans to build a 1.78 MW hydroelectric generator on this River that runs through us. Once known as the “Sagwah zibi”, she gave our city its earliest start and allowed this area, along with our rich farmland, to become a self-sufficient, sustainable economy. We’ve begun to embrace the River’s capacity for recreation and enjoyment with the East Race waterway, boat launches, canoeing and kayaking facilities, riverwalks and smattering of restaurants taking advantage of her vistas. More basically, however, humans, like all life, are drawn to water for survival; it is time we in Michiana return to our beautiful river and respectfully embrace her gifts for our renewal and sustainability.


10/8/12 Green Ribbon Cutting for “Li’l Gennie” on the East Race in South Bend.

9/3/12 City ready to install “Li’l Gennie“! Small hydro turbine ready to be installed at East Race!

6/15/12 Plans move forward to initiate “green energy tariff” to pay for hydro electric facilities on the dam at the East Race.

1/1/12 Newly elected Mayor Pete Buttigieg opens inaugural speech at Century Center with support for hydro.

8/17/11 City Hires Municipal Energy Director, Jonathan Burke who, along with his duties to reduce the City’s energy consumption, is committed to pursue hydroelectric energy on the St Joe River in South Bend.

6/21/10 Citizens (this writer included) urge IURC to change net metering regulations to facilitate renewable energy production

4/22/10 Green Ribbon Commission/Green Energy Committee’s work pays off: South Bend announces procurement of funding for feasibility study for hydro generator!

4/25/09 IUSB’s Society for Physics Students invites this writer and Gary Gilot to speak on hydro power on 3/30/09.

4/20/09 South Bend forms Green Ribbon Commissionto help achieve South Bend’s goal to be a Green City.  Mayor Lueke’s office invites this writer to join the GR Commission and she (nauturally) signs up for the Green Energy Subcommittee to continue advocating for hydro project.

10/29/08 My responseto Beth Barrett, Congressman Joe Donnelly’s Grants Director on current status of hydro project and what Donnelly and his office can do to help.

10/29/08 An emailfrom Congressman Joe Donnelly’s Grants Director, Beth Barrett, seeking information on what progress has been made on the hydroelectric project 

10/17/08 A Callfrom Congressman Joe Donnelly’s office regarding hydroelectric power on the dam at Century Center.

9/15/08 This writer organizes a meeting between South Bend’s Public Works Directror, ND’s Director of Sustainability, IUSB’s Director of the Center for a Sustainable Future, Editor of ND Magazine, Sierra Club State Representative and herself.

6/30/08 Hydro Power and River History slide show now available onYoutube, this is a Power Point slide show.

6/16/08 Mayor Steve Luecke speaks publiclyon East Race hydro power at a recent meeting of Michiana Watershed, Inc.

6/2/08 Hydro Power Goes to the Local Building and Construction Trades Council Meeting -seeking union support for “green energy” building project.

5/25/08 Hydro Power Goes to the Community Forum for Economic Development – Seeking additional support and increasing awareness of this project.

4/28/08 Wondering Aloud on Funding for Hydroelectricity – Seeking funding assistance for hydroelectric energy in South Bend.

4/22/08 Mayor Luecke signs “Cool Cities” pact to reduce global warming -The mayor is asked to go on record on hydroelectric power in South Bend.

4/10/08 Letters sent to Mayor and Common Council -Letter explains brief background of hydro power in South Bend and urges political support from city officials.

4/9/08 Response from Beth Barrett – Congressman Joe Donnelly’s Grants Director explains current federal grant situation.

3/17/08 Emailto Congressman Donnelly’s Grants Director – Initial contact with Beth Barrett regarding grant funding for hydro power in South Bend.

3/6/08 Questions for Design Engineer – Conversation with John Fisher, Lawson-Fisher Associates, on concerns regarding design of hydro plant on South Bend’s East Race.

3/5/08 Urging Inclusion of Hydro Power in Development Plans – Synopsis of Holladay Corporation’s public presentation of development plans for East Bank Village at which inclusion of hydroelectric power was urged.

2/28/08 Response to Congressman Joe Donnelly -Lettter thanking him for support, urging funding for Energy Efficiency Block Grants.

2/23/08 Congressman Joe Donnelly reponds  to this writer’s request for information on federal grants South Bend may be able to access for hydroelectric project.

2/3/08 Letterto Congressmen Joe Donnelly- Constituent’s letter urging support for hydroelectric power from federal official representing South Bend.

1/30/08 Letter to the Editor- Published in the South Bend Tribune on 2/14/08, this piece urges public support for sustainability initiatives including hydroelectric power.


28 Responses to “Hydroelectric Power in South Bend”

  1. […] called Joe Donnelly’s South Bend office to ask whether there was federal funding available for a hydro electric plant on the East Race as was once envisioned in the 1980’s.  Today I received his response; the entire text of his […]

  2. Rob James III Says:

    Please contact me I am interested in talking about this project, My group is in the hydro electric generation business. We would welcome the opportunity to look at this site with you.

    Rob James III

  3. […] Hydroelectric Power in South Bend […]

  4. Neat info, I will visit again!!

  5. […] Hydroelectric Power in South Bend […]

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