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The Sixes Bridge Dam

Michael Hillman

Probably one of the more unusual bits of trivia that I discovered during the research on the history of the lands surrounding our farm was the story of the Sixes Bridge Dam and Lake project.

The project, proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1969, was designed initially to serve as a water reservoir for the Washington Metropolitan area. At the time, predictions of exponential growth in Washington's population and economy, had federal, state, and local governments apprehensive about the ability of the unregulated Potomac River to meet future water supply needs. To correct swings in the Potomac's flow, and therefore assure a steady water supply, dams on estuaries that drain into the Potomac (like the Monocacy) were proposed. The dams would hold the river back during rainy periods and release water during dry periods.

To substantiate their claims of the urgency of the project, the Corps noted in their 1973 Environmental Impact Statement that the water supply demands for the Washington area already exceeded the lowest flow of record of the Potomac River. Specifically, on July 15, 1971, over 400 million gallons of water were used from the Potomac River, while during the summer of 1966, the flow rate of the river had dropped to a rate of 388 million gallons per day, a 12 million gallon shortfall. With predictions of an impending water supply crisis and outright shortages and rationing by the year 2000, the federal government began detailed planning of a proposed reservoir system.

The dam for the reservoir, to be built over 5 years at a cost of 38 million dollars, was to be located on the Monocacy, one-half mile downstream from Sixes Bridge, on property now owned by Lisa and Errol Bell. The topography of the Monocacy River Valley at this location was ideally suited for a dam. The eastern bank of the river lies at the base of a long, imposing, steep stone cliff, which would serve as the eastern wing of the dam. The right bank of the proposed dam is a long sloping hill that leads to a ridge line which runs clear up to Four Points Bridge on Tom's Creek. The 70-foot high dam was to be 2,250 feet long, composed of roughly 700 feet of concrete and 1550 feet of rolled earth.

The V-shaped lake created by the dam would have extended twelve and a half miles up the Monocacy River, just to the outskirts of Emmitsburg on Tom's Creek. With a shoreline of over 53 miles, the lake would have flooded 3,500 acres of farmland over a maximum width of two miles. Farmland that would be submerged by the proposed lake was to be purchased by the government under the right of eminent domain. To protect the quality of the water in the lake from farm runoff, landholders adjacent to the lake would have their property lines moved back a mandatory 300 feet from the lake's shoreline.

In an effort to blunt criticism of the dam's impact on the local community, economy, and environment, the dam's proponents expanded its use from a simple reservoir to a recreational reservoir and a 7000-acre park. Under the revised plans, swimming, fishing, sailing, and motor boats would have been allowed. To support this expanded use, proponents called for the installation of access roads, and a vast array of visitor facilities, including parking areas, picnic tables, fireplaces, tent pads, and boat launching ramps.

While a majority of the new land would be used to support public recreation, a significant portion of the 7000-acre park was to be set aside as a nature preserve. An extensive reforestation program was to be undertaken which proponents predicted would draw bountiful wildlife. The preserve would also encompass many lakes that would serve as refuges and nesting grounds for flocks of migratory birds that were expected to utilize the lake and its surrounding park.

Proponents predicted that the expansion of allowed activities in the park and lake would serve as an additional attraction to visitors of Gettysburg, as well as a lure to claustrophobic Washingtonians, thereby creating a vibrant tourist and recreational economy in the Emmitsburg area, freeing the area from its dependency on farming.

However, all good things do have their cost, and in this case, the cost was a little too high for many in the community. All told, the constructions of the dam and lake would have required the purchase of 10,880 acres, and the relocation of about 70 families. Many residents along Grimes, Sixes, Sixes Bridge and Four Points roads would see much of their present day land covered under water.

A survey conducted by the Maryland Historical Society noted several historic county sites would have been adversely affected by the dam. These included: the total submersion of Castle Dairy Farm, with its late 18th century stone house and barns; the extraordinary large frame Victorian Barn on Six's farm; the total submersion of the picture perfect Grimeís Farm; and, the flooding of Frenchman's Purchase - a 1794 two and one half story sandstone bank house.

In addition to buildings, the lake threatened at least three late 19th century steel trestle bridges, which, according to the Environmental Impact Statement for the project, "are rapidly disappearing from the rural scene and are considered important elements in the historical character of Western Maryland." The bridges cited included Sixes Bridge, Tom's Creek Bridge (a.k.a. Four Points bridge), and Grimeís Bridge.

Because of the personal toll it would take on the families within the projected lake area, the damís proposal was met with wide and fervent opposition. Public meetings were well attended and always ended in a strong signal to the government that the dam was not welcomed. An indicator of how strong the feelings were against the dam can be seen in the reaction of longtime residents when asked about the project. Most had done their best to suppress the very notion it was even proposed. Many however responded with an angry "They're not bringing that up again are they?"



I admit I was intrigued at the thought of our farm suddenly becoming prime lakefront property and the resulting high price such land would bring. I've even evilly thought of what it would look like with a McDonald's on it, yet I can't get over thinking what would have been lost. The unbroken peace and quite of a spring morning; the pitch black nights which pay host to faint stars, creating a dazzling celestial canopy; the long roadside chats with neighbors too little seen. All the beauty man proposed to build pales in comparison to that created by Mother Nature. If you doubt it, watch the sun rise near Grimes Bridge, soak in afternoon warmth at Four Points, watch a sun set anywhere in the valley. Only a fool would throw this serenity away.


With the success of water conservation programs, water restrictive devices in household appliances, and the growing awareness of the scarcity of water, most have long ago discarded into the waste bin of history the very notion of a water shortage that could affect us. Then again, today the Potomac is flowing at only 75 percent of normal capacity and we are in the longest drought in over 100 years. These are the same precursors that existed in 1965, which led to the original call for the dam. Furthermore, due to global warming, severe weather pattern shifts, from drought to monsoons, will be the norm, as they have been this year. Consider also that we only have 648 days until the year 2000, the original projected date of the beginning of water shortages. Are the omnipresent water restrictions haunting harbingers of things to come? Might the proponents of the dam have been right?

FOOD FOR THOUGHT - "The true price of a thing is that which we must give up for it" - Henry David Thoreau.

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