New signs are being installed on the Walnut Street Bridge in Elmira to warn Chemung River paddlers about the hazardous Chase-Hibbard low-head dam 1,000 yards downstream.
Each of the four, easy-to-see, 8-foot-by-4, aluminum signs read “Danger Dam Ahead” printed in white letters on a red background. The signs, purchased by the Chemung River Friends, will be installed on the four main sections of the side of the bridge facing upstream.
The Sign on Walnut Street Bridge
“The dam is nearly impossible to see when you are paddling downstream toward it,” said River Friends Executive Director Emily Marino. “If you don’t know that it is there, you and your kayak can easily be swept over the dam and trapped in a churning river hydraulic and drown.”
In the early 1970’s two Binghamton firefighters drowned after their boat was pulled into the dam’s swirling water overturning and trapping the men and the rescue boat in the powerful hydraulic.
River Friends purchased the signs following a Chemung River rescue this past summer when the river was high and fast. A group of several women paddled under the Walnut Street Bridge and were unable to paddle back upstream to escape the dam. Fortunately, they were able to paddle to an island above the dam and await rescue by the Elmira Fire Department before their boats were swept over the 8-foot-high dam.
A few weeks later a few paddlers in rubber rafts, at the Grove Street Boat Launch in Elmira, were about to paddle downstream toward the dam unaware of its location and danger. Fire officials who were training at the boat launch told the men about the dam and the group cancelled their trip.
Several years ago, River Friends and the City of Elmira, built the Don Hall portage on the Southside bank of the river adjacent to the dam. Paddlers can exit the river, above the dam, carry their boats up a set of steps and along a paved trail that leads to the water’s edge below the dam where it is safe to resume the paddle.
“The Grove Street Boat Launch is the most used launch on the river,” Marino said. “It’s part of our mission to improve river safety”.
The project was a partnership with Eastern Metal in Elmira, which manufactured the signs at a reduced price, and the Chemung County Department of Public Works which is installing the signs while the bridge is closed for renovations. The bridge is expected to reopen by the end of October.
The dam is owned by the Elmira Water Board, and it keeps the river level behind it high enough to allow the water board to withdraw more than 60 percent of the community’s drinking water from the river.