The Man Who Shut The Connecticut River Off

Jan 2, 2015

There are 4,800 dams in New Hampshire but only two where a full time dam operator is required to live on site.  There's Moore Dam in Littleton and Murphy Dam in Pittsburg.  NHPR's Sean Hurley recently visited with Murphy Dam Operator Alan Williams to learn more about life on a dam. 

Near sunrise, nearly every morning, coffee in hand, Alan Williams leaves the dam house and walks up the dam road and heads out across the half mile bunker of piled earth that is the Murphy Dam.  

Every morning, Williams walks the dam looking for leaks.
Credit Sean Hurley

"My wife says I'm her dam husband but somehow I don't think it has anything to do with the job.
Your life must be just full of the dam puns.
It is. On the refrigerator we got the refrigerator magnets with the to do lists? And mine says, Dam Important things to do with a picture of a beaver on it.
Do you feel some sort of kinship with the beavers?
I hate em. They make my life miserable.  Constantly cleaning out the debris out of the fish and game dams. I have found that beaver chili is very good.
You must be their bitterest archenemy. 
Yeah, who's the dam boss. The beaver or the man."

10 minutes away, high in the mountains near the Canadian border, the beavers are hard at work damming the very source of the Connecticut River.  From that headwater 2670 feet above sea level, the river slowly falls 400 miles toward Long Island Sound. While beavers made the first dam along this, the largest river in New England, man made the second.

"Lake Francis is a manmade lake 5 and half miles long and a mile and half wide.  The dam itself is a hundred feet tall and it's an earthen dam."

Lake Francis and Murphy Dam
Credit Sean Hurley

While the dam is owned by the state, its operation is overseen by TransCanada Hydro Northeast.  No energy is produced directly at Murphy Dam, but control of its water flow is integral to TransCanada's energy production. But it's also important to us.  Built in 1939 both dam and lake take their names from the Governor at the time, Francis Murphy

"This directly impacts Concord.  If it wasn't for holding back the water, then Concord would flood on a consistent basis."  [Editor's Note: Following up on a listener inquiry, Williams says he misspoke here. While Murphy Dam does prevent flooding of towns along the Connecticut River, it does not impact Concord.] 

Williams has a dozen or more smaller Fish & Game dams that he also oversees.  In the summer, he mows the huge fields and in winter he plows out the roads and lots.

But his real work happens in the Gate House, a half buried brick tower that straddles the bedrock of the Connecticut River about 40 yards from the dam itself.  The constant roar inside is water rushing through two massive pipes as Lake Francis, in a way, turns into the Connecticut River.

The Gate House descends into the earth and straddles the bedrock of the Connecticut River.
Credit Sean Hurley

"When we start letting out a lot of water - four, five hundred cubic feet a second - you can actually feel the ground shaking about 6 feet away from the building.  It's just a constant trembling."

In the 75 year history of the dam, Williams is only its third operator.  

"You don't leave the job until you're either fired or die.  It's just one of those great jobs where there's no mandatory retirement age so people tend to stay for a very long time." 

Williams in front of the dam house.
Credit Sean Hurley

  The job requires that Williams live on site in a historic farmhouse about 200 yards away from the dam where his two predecessors also lived - and it also requires him to always be within two hours of the dam at any given time.

"It takes a couple of months to get everything in order for me to go on vacation.  It's not like oh next Friday I'm going on vacation.  It doesn't work that way."

In the Gate House qt the same desk with the same light Williams makes the same notes his predecessors did. Lake level, water flow, precipitation, temperature, snowfall - all are recorded in the service of managing lake and river.  

"Because we're trying to balance keeping the lake full so we can maintain the reservoir for the summer but yet trying to balance the river out so I'm not flooding out towns south of us and it's quite a little juggling act."

A juggling act that sometimes results in a dropped pin.

"Two years ago, I had to shut it down cause there's a pin that holds an arm that opens and closes the 

Williams and his dam.
Credit Sean Hurley

  valve.  Well that pin fell out, so I couldn't adjust the flow.
So you actually shut the Connecticut River down?
I shut it off.  I shut it off for about 3 hours.
And what happened?
It got really low!"   

Hopefully the beavers weren't watching.