Special Report: Saving Fishtown

It may be November and the visitors here at Fishtown may be fewer in number, but what’s not gone are the high water levels and the concern surrounding what will happen next.

“It’s been like nothing I’ve ever seen,” said Amanda Holmes.

This year’s high water levels are new territory for Holmes, Executive Director of the Fishtown Preservation Society since 2007.  Between the near record high level of Lake Michigan and frequent seiches washing into the Leland River, Fishtown has not been able to catch a break since May.

“Basically, every other week, there are seiches.  Starting in September, we started having them multiple times a week,” said Holmes.

A seiche is when strong winds and atmospheric pressure force water from one side of the lake to the other.

Seiches have brought water even further up into the historic fishing shanties.

“The Morris Shanty for over 2 months, it’s had standing water pretty much the whole time and high as a foot and half inside of that building,” said Holmes

The effects of the high water aren’t just seen at the water’s edge. The Village Cheese Shanty’s roofline is slanting forward and its chimney is tipping over.  The victim of frequent flooding, the popular cheese and sandwich shop was forced to close for the season in early October, several weeks ahead of time.

“They tried to stay open as long as they possibly could.  And I think, on reflection, they were wondering how they managed to stay open as much as they did in the summertime,” said Holmes.

Why is the water so high? The answer lies at the top of the Great Lakes chain, Lake Superior.

“They get a lot of snowpack up there.  When that melts, that helps drive it. And then of course, the extra rain, the extra precipitation that’s come in this year,” said      Mark Breederland, an educator with Michigan Sea Grant in Traverse City.  He said 2019 has almost been a record-breaker.

In 100 years of keeping track, there was only one other year where Lake Michigan’s level was higher.

“1986 were our record highs and Fishtown was a bit under water,” said Breederland.

Much of it has been under water this year and the Morris Shanty is most in danger of falling into the river. “That is our oldest building.  It’s from 1903 and basically, since early May, it’s had water in it.  For over 2 months, it’s had standing water pretty much the whole time and high as a foot and half inside of that building.”

Right now, there’s an ongoing fundraising effort to save the buildings. “It’s not replaceable.  These are original buildings that could have an impact and if you were to put something else there, you would no longer have these amazing, original buildings.”

They need to lift the buildings off their foundations, raise them and set them back on top. There are several hoops to jump through before that can happen.

“You just can’t go in and lift a building or put in a new foundation,” said Holmes.

Permit applications have to go through several different agencies.  Emergency requests have been put in to speed up the process.

“Can we not worry about every single project we have in Fishtown that we’d like to move ahead and just focus on these two structures,” said Holmes.

That means time is of the essence.  “2020 is a time to potentially tighten your seatbelts even more,” said Breederland.  He doesn’t believe water levels will go down next year, “I think our best case scenario would be about what we’re at in 2019.”

They need to lift the buildings off their foundations, raise them and set them back on top. There are several hoops to jump through before that can happen.

“You just can’t go in and lift a building or put in a new foundation,” said Holmes.

Permit applications have to go through several different agencies.  Emergency requests have been put in to speed up the process.

“Can we not worry about every single project we have in Fishtown that we’d like to move ahead and just focus on these two structures,” said Holmes.

That means time is of the essence.  “2020 is a time to potentially tighten your seatbelts even more,” said Breederland.  He doesn’t believe water levels will go down next year, “I think our best case scenario would be about what we’re at in 2019.”

Fishtown preservation has already gathered nearly $1 million of the $2.5 million dollars needed to raise the docks and jack-up the buildings. “What we’re hoping for is that we can complete the projects, as they’ve been designed and planned.  Which would mean that the cheese shanty could open in the spring and we’d be good with that building for the long, foreseeable future,” said Holmes.

Which they would like to get done before winter sets in, because ice presents a whole new set of problems.”If the water were to freeze, it would freeze up all inside of the foundation structure and then if you all of a sudden had the water levels change, which happens regularly and this is how things get ice-jacked.  If the water level then, from where it was frozen, pushed up a foot, that would pull that building off of its foundation,” said Holmes.

For now, all the preservation society can do is monitor the situation and do the best they can to prevent any further damage.