Howle and Turner Dam

A worker demolishes the Howle and Turner Dam on Alabama 9 near Heflin. The dam is being removed this week because it's old and dangerous, officials and locals say. 

CHULAFINNEE — A rapid-fire jackhammer attached to an excavator chiseled away at the weathered concrete of the historic Howle and Turner Dam on the Tallapoosa River Monday afternoon.

By the end of the week, the jackhammer’s Gatling-gun sound and the dam should be gone.

According to Eric Spadgenske, state coordinator of Partners for Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is demolishing the dam because it’s no longer needed.

“We’re removing the dam for several reasons, one being fish passage, because it’s a barrier to fish moving up and down the stream. It’s also a barrier to other aquatic organisms that are important to the state,” Spadgenske said.

According to Spadgenske, the dam is also a barrier to people on kayaks, paddle boats and canoes who want to float and explore the river.

Hydraulic currents are also dangerous, he said, because the gates to the dam have been open for years. According to documents from 2006 on file with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, the gates on the dam were to remain open to increase water flow to handle the discharge from the now-shuttered Tyson Chicken plant upstream and the Heflin wastewater treatment plant.  

“The other reasons of course would be water quality. Water quality is compromised by dams because they allow sediment to drop out, they decrease the oxygen content in the water,” Spadgenske said.

Spadgenske said that the water is so deep that sunlight can’t reach the bottom of the stream, inhibiting vegetation and natural habitats.

The removal of the dam will also alleviate flooding because the water will be able to move freely downstream without being obstructed by the dam, he said.

An extensive study of the dam and the surrounding area was done by the University of Alabama Archaeological Research Department which documented the dam and the surrounding buildings, Spadgenske said. The dam area is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, he said.

The dam dates to the 1940s, when the moving water was used to power a cotton gin and grist mill. In the 1990s it was retrofitted to generate electricity for about a decade, according to Spadgenske.

“This was a hub of the community when the grist mill and cotton gin were in operation ... this was it, this was the place to be back in the ’30s, ’40s and probably the ’50s,” Spadgenske said.

The dam had the same namesake as the nearby Howle and Turner store. The building still stands and now houses a feed and seed store, Final Touch Outdoors.

Owner Sherree Turner said even though the dam is a piece of history, it needs to go.

“The dam’s not safe. It’s old, it’s falling apart. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons they’re taking it down,” Turner said.

Turner’s sister Donna Thompson, however, had mixed feelings.

“I think we’re losing a piece of history. As long as I can remember — I’m 65 years old — it’s been there since I can remember,” Thompson said.

Heflin Mayor Rudy Rooks said it’s bittersweet that the Howle and Turner dam is being demolished.

“That was the kind of the focal point for that community. That dam turned the grist mill where my family used to carry their corn down there to have it ground into meal,” said Rooks.

“But times are changing, and the dam is no longer useful for anything, so it’s really going to open that area up as far as our canoe trails that can float further on down the river now,” Rooks said.

“I hate to see a, something, with so much historical value as that dam be torn out, but it’s progress,” Rooks said.

​Staff writer Bill Wilson: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @bwilson_star.