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A Two-Minute Guide to the Salt Creek Dam Conflict

Environmentalists want to improve biodiversity in Oak Brook. A historic mill is trying to stop them. What a quaint throwback to when feuds didn’t involve facemasks!

Illustration by Lily Padula
Illustration: Lily Padula

The Setting

Graue Mill, built in 1852, was a functioning gristmill until 1929. (It was also an Underground Railroad site.) Now it’s technically a museum, but mostly it’s a place where rich people take prom and wedding photos. In 1934, the Civilian Conservation Corps built a concrete dam on Salt Creek, which flows next to the mill and helps funnel water to its wheel. The waterfall created by the dam, paired with the old-timey-ness of the building, makes for an idyllic setting for said prom and wedding pictures. In short: It’s nice there, people like it. OK.

The Main Players

DuPage River Salt Creek Workgroup Created in 2005 to address local waterway problems without spending tons of cash. Subsidiary of the Conservation Foundation. Wants to ditch the dam.

Graue Mill and Museum Board of Directors Overseers of the site. Afraid that people won’t know the mill is open if the removal of the dam narrows the creek enough that it no longer turns the wheel.

Karen Bushy Former Oak Brook village president. A literal Karen. Her Change.org petition, “Save the Graue Mill Dam,” insists: “There is simply NO good and sensible reason to remove the dam!”

The Dilemma

Like most controversies, this whole thing started with President Richard Nixon. In 1972, the Clean Water Act was approved despite his veto, requiring states to, as the name suggests, clean up their water. In 2004, an assessment of Salt Creek found it didn’t cut the mustard — the dam blocks 16 species of fish from populating the creek upstream and creates a bleak environment for bugs. The state proposed a $213 million rehab plan, which the DRSCW found to be an insane amount of taxpayer money. That group offered a solution that costs about $5 million and also includes fishing sites and a canoe launch. Sounds great, right? Enter: people spending way too much time on Facebook during a pandemic.

The Dispute

As a deadly virus tears through our population, some folks out in DuPage County have opted to die on this mill. Bushy’s petition, started in May, has over 11,000 signatures. On its Facebook page, Graue Mill has made (unsubstantiated) allegations that big money is behind the dam removal, though the motive for such an investment is wildly unclear. (Neither Bushy nor representatives from Graue Mill responded to interview requests.)

Now, keep in mind, the mill itself — unlike the dam — is a historic site and is not in danger of being torn down. There are no plans whatsoever to tamper with it. And yet, many commenters seem to think the plan involves destroying it. “History is essential to understanding our government and future!” one signer wrote of a mill that absolutely no one is going to touch.

The Stakes

For the environmentalists, it’s all about the money, honey! If the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County rejects the DRSCW’s plan, the state will be forced to implement the much pricier one. “I’m a scientist, I’m a tree-hugger,” says Stephen McCracken, director of watershed protection at the DRSCW. “But I cannot excuse frittering away $200 million in taxpayer money.”

For the petitioners, the stakes are: no running water for their Instagram photos! “Hard to picture an historic Mill with no water running past it!” Bushy’s petition proclaims. It’s true that water will no longer touch the mill, but according to the Trib, the wheel hasn’t turned in about two years due to accumulated debris. So wait, scratch that — the stakes are just that the nice river will look slightly different from before. Bated breath over here.

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