For Whitney Hoppes, it was one of the more curious permit applications she had ever worked on in her role as Environmental Quality Analyst in the Bay City District Office: Would the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) approve retrieving a nearly century-old steam shovel from the now exposed bottomlands of Wixom Lake?
EGLE has reviewed many permit applications in Gladwin and Midland counties related to the aftermath of last spring’s dam failures in mid-Michigan, but for Whitney, who has been with the department just over a year, and the rest of her office colleagues, this was one of the more unusual ones.
With Wixom Lake drained, many items are exposed that previously had been under water: tree stumps, docks, debris and vegetation. Even with the lake drained, any disturbance of the bottomlands needed not only approval from Boyce Hydro, which owns the lake bottom, but also EGLE.
"We hadn't seen a permit like this before, so I had to check with my bosses to see how we should proceed," Hoppes said. "If the lake was still there, we probably would not have approved the permit since it likely would have affected water quality and aquatic species."
The disappearing lake was an opportunity for Mike Oberloier of Beaverton to fulfill a long-time family quest: Retrieve a Thew Type O Automatic Steam Shovel built in the early 1900s from its watery resting place. The piece of machinery was one of those used in the construction of the Edenville Dam and the contours of Wixom Lake.
"The steam shovel became stuck in the mud in 1925 as the reservoir was being finished," Oberloier said. "The guys operating it left it there, went off to hunt and when they returned, the water had risen enough to cover the steam shovel."
When Oberloier's father found out about the sunken machine, he obtained ownership in 1975, but eventually lost interest in getting it to dry land.
"It was the Loch Ness Monster of Wixom Lake," Oberloier said. "Everyone knew it was there and could see it as the water levels fell. But no one ever saw it lately."
When the lake drained in May, Oberloier, a field technician for Michigan CAT, which sells and services earth-moving equipment, got excited about fulfilling his father's wish.
He first had to get permission from Boyce to dig on their property, then clarify that his family owns the steam shovel and finally apply to EGLE for a permit to dredge the bottomlands to free the machine. Hoppes in August approved the permit to dredge 71 cubic yards of Wixom Lake under Part 301, Inland Lakes and Streams of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, 1994 PA 451, as amended (NREPA). Since then, Oberloier has gone to the site about 500 yards north of the Edenville Dam breach to retrieve by hand parts such as the boiler and steam motor before anyone else got to them. The rest of the steam shovel and its unique digging arm was pulled from the lake bottom on Oct. 24.
"This is a piece of history that has to be saved and not left down in the bottom of the lake," Oberloier said.
Initially, he intended to ship the steam shovel to an out-of-state collector, but had misgivings. "I thought, 'I can't do this to the community, ship it out to Pennsylvania, where it will no longer be seen by locals,'" he said.
For now, the steam shovel is housed at the Midland Antique Engine Association on Meridian Road in Merrill, where it's been power washed of decades of mud and zebra mussels. The quest to unearth the Thew even has its own Facebook page: Wixom Lake Steam Shovel, which has followers worldwide.
Oberloier said he'll spend the winter in his shop fixing up parts of the vehicle with the intention of eventually making it so the steam shovel can dig again after 95 years under water.
Hoppes was very good to work with during the permitting process, Oberloier said, asking important questions, making sure the plan protects the environment and requesting the necessary approvals and documentations to make the project a success.
As for Hoppes, COVID restrictions have limited her ability to work out in the field so she was not onsite when Oberloier and a crew of volunteers removed the historic relic from the lake.
"I would like to go see it once it's all cleaned up and on display," she said.