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101-year-old Pigg River Dam being torn down

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FRANKLIN COUNTY (WSLS 10) -  Demolition has begun on a century-old Franklin County staple.

Built in 1915, the Pigg River Dam was one of the first hydroelectric dams built in Virginia.

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After sitting unused for more than 50 years, its removal became a priority for investors in the project; from the town of Rocky Mount, the county, conservation groups as well as Duke Energy, who paid more than $1 million to help Friends of the Rivers of Virginia (FORVA) conservation group buy it and tear it down.

The walls of the 200-foot-by-25-foot dam are coming down, letting the Pigg River flow through Franklin County as it naturally did more than 100 years ago.

"There's a hundred years' worth of debris up there that has messed up the river," said Bill Tanger, chair of FORVA.

A $1.5 million price tag Tanger says is worth paying.

"We are the crazy people who bought the dam and we are tearing it down," Tanger proudly said.

It was first built by a private owner looking to make a profit as the dam once powered the town. It was later sold to AEP who operated it until the 1950s.

Unused for 50 years, AEP sold the dam to FORVA who planned to demolish it after studies showed it was a liability to wildlife and the surrounding area.

"The dam had outlived it's usefulness," said Resource Protection Specialist Will Smith with the Department of Interior.

Leaving the dam also left a built-up river with nowhere else to go, but out.

"All of this wooded debris had collected in the past few years and it was actually forcing the water over to the side and it was starting to cut a new channel that was negatively impacting a 10-acre wetland over there," Smith said.

Taking down a dam this size and age is no easy feat, even for operator Monte Atkins with Shenandoah Stream Works. He has demolished 10 other dams during the past 10 years. This is his tallest.

It's a job that can be somewhat dangerous.

In fact, when he first started hammering the dam on Tuesday, a piece of rock shot out and busted his windshield.

"You got a 6,000-pound hammer, and rocks come out of there like a bullet sometimes," Atkins said.

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The group has been planning the demolition for about three years, so every possible angle or potential problem has been mapped.

Atkins said that this demolition is different because they are starting on the bottom side of the dam and needed to build a small road to work on to tear it down.

So far, this week's demolition has been without incident.

Despite the demolition, they are still working to preserve the historical aspects of the century-old dam. Tanger says they are going to keep about 20 to 25 feet on both sides of the dam still standing. This will prevent an overflow of sediment.

They also plan to leave the original pump house standing. Somewhere engraved in the concrete are the names of those who built the dam, which will be preserved.

"It's very satisfying," Smith said. "This is about people coming together to restore a natural resource for this community."

A 13-year-project that's finally come to fruition.


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