Text and photos by Eric Fowler
Sleeping atop a river is not for everyone, but for this family there's no place they'd rather call home.
There are plenty of Nebraskans who have houses along the Big Blue River. But only one family literally lives on the river like Bill and Kim Petersen
"We've heard them all," laughed Kim. "I'm the dam girl, and … ." The list goes on.
Bill bought the dam, powerhouse and 76 acres of land for $36,000 from the Norris Rural Public Power District at auction in 1986 after the company decommissioned the plant and sold its two 450 kilovolt General Electric generators. "Originally I bought it just thinking I'd kind of fix it up a little bit for a place to hunt and fish, but I didn't have any plans on living in there," said Bill, a DeWitt native who was living and working in Beatrice at the time. "Then when I got to looking at it, and I was single at the time, I thought, 'You know, this would be a great place to live.'"
Converting the cavernous building, measuring 42 feet by 31 feet with a 22-foot ceiling and 13-inch thick walls, into a home was a challenge, especially when it came to the round concrete bases that once held the generators. "That's all reinforced concrete, 2½- to 3-feet thick, and to bust it out of here to do something else would've been a major job," Bill said. "It was easier just to make something out of it or build over it."
So five steps lead from the ground floor to the kitchen, which was built on top of one of the bases. The other was faced with brick and wood and topped with a counter to form a circular bar that seats 14.
The home's second floor is suspended from the roof, with two bedrooms on one side of its H-shaped floor plan and a bedroom and bath on the other. None of the rooms have doors and the walls only extend four feet off the floor. While that doesn't offer much privacy, it does allow heat produced by a single wood-burning stove and circulated by five ceiling fans to warm the entire house. Only when they're away for days do they run their furnace.
The construction still causes challenges, particularly cooling. All but the south wall of the house were insulated and covered with oak paneling. In the winter, that wall soaks up sunlight, which radiates through the home well after sundown. But despite the insulation, the west wall forces heat into the home when the summer sun bears down on it in the afternoon. "We run our air conditioning six months or longer," Kim said. "This place isn't shaded. We just stick out here like a sore thumb."
The exposed brick of the south wall does add character to the home. So do the steel I-beams that served as a track that crane workers used to service the generators but which now support lighter ware, including books.
The thick walls insulate the home from the sound of water rushing through the dam's gates, but don't keep the residents from hearing an occasional bang or ping produced when logs bounce off the concrete pillars and steel gates during high water.
When the water is really high, simply getting home can be a challenge for the Petersens. During the flood of 1993 they had to drive through two feet of water- past carp and catfish - to get to their garage, which Bill had thoughtfully built on a berm well above the high-water mark.
Remodeling was well underway when Bill met Kim in 1987. The two were dating when she and some friends crashed a party Bill was hosting. "We walked in and I'm like, 'Wow. I'd like to live here.' And I said, 'Gosh, Bill, do you want to get married?' And he said 'Yeah, I do.'" The words proved to be prophetic. In 1988, they were married and moved into the house, along with Kim's daughter, Jessie.
"Yeah, I thought this would be a great bachelor pad and then I ended up getting married shortly after it was done, so it didn't work out quite like that," Bill joked. "If I would've built it with a home and family in mind, I probably would've done something with this big space other than having a big bar."
The powerhouse is the only home Luke, now a freshman at Southern High School in Wymore, has lived in. And as you might expect of someone who lives in something he can write about for a school history paper, Luke has a keen interest in dams and rivers. He spends time "flying" over rivers on Google Earth and locating dams. And he's spent many hours reviewing reports, blueprints and other information on the dam that Norris Public Power gave Bill when he bought it, as well as other resources, and is now the family's expert on the subject.
"I like dams and rivers and lakes and stuff like that, and I just wanted to know the history of this one," Luke said.
The village of Barneston was founded in 1884 on the site of the Otoe and Missouri Indian Agency by F.M. Barnes, who had operated a general store at the agency since 1873. Work on the powerhouse and dam, located west of town, began in 1919 and was completed in 1923.
"They got all of the rock from the west side to make the concrete," Luke said, explaining the faded photographs the family has of the construction project. Steam engines powered the derrick and the rock crushers. "They had a derrick on each side and they had a cable that went across and they would fill this bucket with concrete and pour it."
And they used a lot of concrete. The entire structure measures 404 feet between the retaining walls. The spillway on the western portion of the dam is 250 feet long and 30 feet high with a base 30 feet thick. On the eastern end is the powerhouse. In the middle are four 24-foot-wide steel tainter gates supported by four-foot-thick concrete piers that rise 46 feet from bedrock.
Workers lived in a house on the west bank of the river, the foundation of which still stands. A swinging bridge spanned the river, making the walk to work a short one for those who toiled on the east bank. Barneston residents used the bridge to monitor progress of the work. Floodwaters claimed the bridge twice. It was rebuilt after the first flood, but not after the flood of 1941.
Planning the dam took much longer than the construction. A process that began in 1905 led to the formation of the Beatrice Power Company by local businessmen, including George Steinmeyer, and investors. It was delayed by a legal battle over who had rights to develop the site, thanks to the state engineer's office granting those rights to two individuals. Work began on the project despite the legal questions, and in 1921, the Nebraska Supreme Court confirmed the right of Steinmeyer, who was also the engineer for the project.
In 1921, the editors of the Beatrice Daily Express clamored for the completion of the project and the projected 3.8 megawatts of energy it would produce. Steinmeyer had built another hydroelectric dam 12 miles upstream at Holmesville in 1911. Its capacity, however, was about a third of what the Barneston Dam would produce. Express editors believed both plants would produce enough power to "make Gage County the manufacturing center of Southern Nebraska."
Industry first harnessed the waters of the Big Blue River in 1957, the year Beatrice was founded and 10 years before Nebraska became a state. But most were dependent on the "coal barons," their power plants and the whims of the miners and railroads and the propensity of their workers to strike. The Big Blue River, the Express said, would be more dependable, and produce power "sufficient to run all of the factories, and more as they come along. Not only turn the wheels but light the cities, towns and farm homes, giving them a chance to cook with electricity."
Barneston and its 258 residents - twice as many as the 122 who live there today - used only a fraction of the electricity the plant produced, including some to light the river for nighttime ice-skating parties at the dam that drew up to 200 people.
The plant also served Liberty, Rockford, Filley, Crab Orchard, Lewiston, Adams, Mayberry, Virginia, Odell, Krider, Diller, Lanham and Steele City, as well as Hanover, Kansas. Farms within five miles of the transmission line could also tap its power, allowing those folks to do away with gas lights and candles years before the Rural Electrification Act (REA), passed in 1933, began bringing power to much of rural America.
The remaining 98 percent of the power produced was sold to the Nebraska Gas and Electric Company, which delivered the power to its customers in eastern Nebraska, southwestern Iowa and northwestern Missouri.
"They had flash boards going over the dam to make water two foot higher so they could make just a little more power," Luke said. Of course, raging floodwaters were not kind to the steel rods that held those boards in place. In photos taken during the flood of 1993, the dam's spillway appears to be little more than a speed bump. "In 1941, it was higher than that," Luke said, referring to one of the area's worst floods on record.
The Central States Edison Company of Chicago bought the plant in 1927, ironically a year in which drought and low river flows forced a shutdown of the plant. Passage of the REA led to the creation of Nebraska's public power system, the Norris Public Power District and its purchase of the Barneston Dam.
Maintenance problems required the dam to be shut down in 1978. Norris refurbished and restarted the plant in 1982, but soon after it closed for good.
It's unlikely that the power dam would've been operational much longer without a greater investment, as its steel gates were showing their age. Unusually warm weather that followed a cold snap in 1993 caused the ice behind the dam to break up and pile against the gates, crushing one of them.
It wasn't the first trouble they had with a gate. The gate closest to the house was damaged and leaking, so Bill sealed it with concrete and built a deck over the top of it. Another was reinforced with a steel plate before it could break.
The two operational gates are now left open. Except when the river is running full tilt, water now rushes through those openings rather than forming an 18-foot-deep pool behind the dam and gently flowing over the spillway. "When it held water you could put a jet ski or a fishing boat on here and you could go at least three miles upstream and have deep water to mess around in," Bill said. Now farmers upriver can no longer easily pump water from the reservoir to irrigate their fields. They also no longer call Bill and ask him to open the gates and drain the reservoir when the forecast calls for heavy rains.
The worst part about losing the gate is that the dam isn't as aesthetically pleasing as it was when water was flowing over the spillway. And having the water rushing past right below the deck instead of 100 feet away makes casual conversation more difficult.
"[Luke] would love to have [the broken gate] fixed, but it's probably not going to happen unless we win the lottery," Bill said. "I wouldn't even know who you would call. If a guy was going to do anything, you would probably form it up and pour concrete in there to the level of the other gates and then you still got two operational gates. One's enough. For the life of me, I don't know why they put four of them in here anyway. None of these other dams have any gates at all other than maybe a small one."
The thought of living in a dam house didn't scare her away, but Kim said raising kids on the river was a challenge. Luke "would've crawled right off the end" of the deck built over the first gate if given the chance, Kim said.
"I still tell people, 'If you fall into that hydraulic, we just can't save you - there's just no way. And you'd probably hit concrete if the water was low,'" Kim said. "That kind of scares kids and they know not to mess around."
But as time passed, the kids grew up and took swimming lessons, and such concerns vanished. "I always tell people I'm not scared of anything he does out here," Kim said of Luke. "He can go swimming or mess around in the dam or whatever, but when he was young it scared me to death to send him to town on a bike. It's just what you grow up around."
A kayak and johnboat sit on the bank below the house. Luke and his friends get plenty of use out of both. They fish, paddle and swim in the river. When high flows recede, they scour the bank for arrowheads and other artifacts. While seining minnows one year, they even snagged a buffalo skull which is now displayed in the family room.
Most of the land that came with the property is across the river from the house. There, near the site of Beatrice YMCA's former Camp Otoe, which drew area residents for bible and nature studies and other activities until it closed in 1940, Bill keeps an area cleared and mowed for gatherings of family and friends. Bill and Kim drive to Barneston and across the Highway 8 bridge to the property. Luke usually takes the johnboat or kayak. "I don't want to go six miles to get 100 yards," he said.
It doesn't happen often, but when the river is low enough, the family climbs down a ladder on the downstream side of the dam and sits in the tumble bays basin below the gates. The flowing water creates a soothing hot-tub effect, but isn't for folks who don't like fish bouncing off their legs and feet.
"There's lots of wildlife," Kim said of the property. "We've had snapping turtles in our front yard. I looked out one morning and there were 20 wild turkeys on our driveway. We've had beaver crossing the yard and of course the usual deer, fox and others. We had to trap coons last year because they were getting my chickens." University of Omaha herpetologists tell them the area has the highest concentration of timber rattlers and copperheads in the state. Bobcats are a common sight.
And there are plenty of channel and flathead catfish in the river. While fishing was one of the reasons Bill bought the place, he admits he doesn't fish as much as he should.
"It's one of those deals where if I didn't live here, it's the kind of place I would drive quite a ways to fish," Bill said last fall. "But since I live here, I always think I can go fishing tomorrow, so I haven't fished much at all this summer, partly because of high water and partly because like this time of year, when the yellow cats (flatheads) are biting, I've been hauling silage and just haven't had time.
"But yeah, I really do like to fish here as much as I can, and we all like to eat catfish."
Bill retired from banking and was a charter pilot until recently. These days, he works on a neighbor's farm during harvest, takes care of a small farm the family owns, and keeps the woodpile stocked for winter. He has harvested several trophy whitetails on the place, mounts of which adorn the walls of the home, but work tends to get in the way of hunting these days, too.
"On the west side of the property, that's really good deer hunting. It's heavily wooded. There's lots of deer right around here, too. They cross the river down below this place every morning and every evening. I've never done it, but if you lay up on top of the roof with a rifle, that would probably be as good a deer stand as you could get."
Bill hunts pheasants and quail when he has time. He doesn't hunt waterfowl, but thinks he could do well on ducks and geese on the sandbar below the dam, especially after it gets cold and the area below the dam is the only open water around. Bald eagles like the open water in the winter, too, and a pair has nested in a dead cottonwood across the river in recent years as well.
Canada geese have nested on the sandbar, and a pair even nested on the crest of the spillway after the gate broke and water no longer flowed over the top of it. "She apparently got them out okay, but I wondered after they hatched how she was going to get those young out of there," Bill said.
The novelty of the home has had its drawbacks. When they moved in, newspaper articles drew attention to the unique home. More recently the home was featured on an episode of "reZONED" on Home & Garden Television.
"When we first moved here, every weekend you could just count on somebody just stopping in, which was fine when we didn't have kids. We both worked, but we were young and the more the merrier," Kim said. "But then things get busy and you've got to mow and you've got to clean house. Then you just get these people stopping by out of the blue. My husband doesn't mind it, but I don't care for it. You feel you've got to give strangers a tour of your home."
Anglers once had open access to the property, but waking up to a yard full of pickups grew tiresome. The final straw came when they returned home to find people they didn't know on their deck and someone riding their lawn mower. "The nerve of some people," Kim said.
But despite the challenges, Bill is happy he chose to live in the dam house, and Kim's happy she joined him there.
"It's different and it's not for everybody but there's nowhere else I'd rather live," Bill said.