Courtesy Nancy Allen, The Daily Standard

A car engine.


Washing machine.

Whiskey bottle.

State dredges have picked up an array of items from the bottom of Grand Lake in the last six decades.

The giant muck-suckers have been used since 1952 to keep the 13,500-acre, shallow, man-made lake navigable for boaters. Sometimes the devices pick up more than just mud.

"I’ve gotten bicycles, a washer and dryer, an outboard motor housing and all kinds of pots and pans you could think of," said dredge captain Dan Gillis, a nine-year operator. "Wood and rocks are the worst. I’ve spent up to two hours trying to get stuff out that’s got stuck."

Most large items don’t get any farther than the rotating cutter head on the front of the dredge. But once in awhile, something, usually a rock, makes it past the cutter head and into a several-foot-long section of pipe in front of the pump.

Crews then have to attach a cable to a backhoe and tie it around the item to yank it out, Gillis said. Crews have lost hours and sometimes days when debris has gotten really jammed.

Stumps also cause down time, he said.

Constructed in the 1830s and 1840s to feed water to the Miami & Erie Canal, the lake is located on a formerly swampy, forested area that stretched from the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania to the Illinois prairie. All the trees were cut down, but some of the hundreds-of-years-old stumps remain.

Steel, cone-shaped beer cans and whiskey bottles found in the lake line the counter at the state park office in Auglaize County. Twisted, rusty license plates from 1936, 1937, 1938 and 1944 also are kept there.

The cone top cans contained Burger, Burkhardt’s and Brucks Jubilee brand beers. Burger beer, originally brewed in Cincinnati, was synonymous with the Cincinnati Reds baseball team. When people ordered a "Burger" at Crosley Field, it was a beer, not a sandwich.

St. Marys State Park Manager Brian Miller said the dredges have dug up several cone top cans in the last 25 or 30 years.

"The ones we’ve kept are because they’re in such good condition," said Miller, a former dredge operator. "We find them all the time still."

Celina resident John Lake, 62, recalled fishing on the lake with his grandpa years ago before moving to the area. Growing up he saw many people enjoy a cold one and then inconspicuously let the can fill with water and sink to the lake bottom.

"Guys would take their five or six horsepower boat out on the lake and sit back and drink a beer," Lake said. "Occasionally, some of the bottles and cans would find their way into the lake."

Much of what goes into the lake doesn’t come out until it’s dredged.

The grossest thing Gillis has encountered are pockets of raw sewage in channels. Human waste from hundreds of homes was dumped into the lake for years. Most homes were connected to a centralized sewer system by 1986. A few remaining residences on the lake’s north side were connected recently, Mercer County Commissioner Jerry Laffin said.

"As soon as you hit it, you know," Gillis said of the sewage. "You get a stench from it like you wouldn’t believe."

Gerry McClellan operated the now retired Grand Clam bucket crane for 12 years before he retired in 2002. The machine was mounted on a barge and dug out channels.

"We found a shotgun when we picked up a bucket of mud; the butt end was sticking out," McClellan said. "We did find a safe one time."

It was open and empty, he added.

Unearthed boat anchors were kept on the barge and were available for free to boaters, McClellan said. Crews also found numerous boat propellors stuck in stumps and a car engine.

McClellan said the most unusual item he found was the wooden platform and a pipe from an oil derrick from a time when hundreds of derricks dotted the lake. He found it in 1980 between Big Chickasaw Creek and Behm’s Landing. The first offshore well in the world was erected in Grand Lake off Villa Nova in 1891.

The muck from the lake is pumped to dredge material relocation areas (DMRAs) – earthen structures built by pushing up soil to form a giant bathtub. When the structures are full and the water drains out, the state flattens the area. The soil that remains is among the richest anywhere, Miller said.

Farmers whose land has been used for DMRAs love it, he added.

Dredges will be used more this year since state funds for dredging were tripled. The extra money will allow for an additional 40 hours of dredging per month.

The state park received about $450,000 for dredging in 2010. This year, an additional $150,000 was offered to support a third dredge, the Eagle. The park also will receive $1.5 million this year and $1.5 million in 2012 to pay for dredging and support projects such as building new DMRAs, Miller said.

"It can be a big challenge when we get stuff stuck really bad," Miller said. "That’s why we always tell people to dispose of their trash properly because if we ever dredge in that area, we might hit it."