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updated: 4/18/2014 5:14 AM

Blarney Island being raised above Chain flood levels

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  • Blarney Island had about 2 to 3 feet of water inside the bar during Chain O' Lakes flooding in spring 2013.

    Blarney Island had about 2 to 3 feet of water inside the bar during Chain O' Lakes flooding in spring 2013.
    Courtesy of Rob Hardman

  • Demolition of Blarney Island's enclosed tavern began in the fall 2013 and was completed in the winter.

    Demolition of Blarney Island's enclosed tavern began in the fall 2013 and was completed in the winter.
    Courtesy of Rob Hardman

  • The joists below the enclosed tavern of Blarney Island after the main structure was demolished in fall 2013.

    The joists below the enclosed tavern of Blarney Island after the main structure was demolished in fall 2013.
    Courtesy of Rob Hardman

  • Construction is expected to begin this week on the new enclosed tavern at Blarney Island in the middle of Grass Lake in unincorporated Lake County near Antioch.

    Construction is expected to begin this week on the new enclosed tavern at Blarney Island in the middle of Grass Lake in unincorporated Lake County near Antioch.
    Courtesy of Rob Hardman

 
 

When floodwaters crested on the Chain O' Lakes a year ago, Blarney Island owner Rob Hardman said the only place he was able to walk inside the century-old Grass Lake tavern was on the bar top.

"The very top of the bar was above water for the most part," Hardman said. "Any type of ripple would roll right over the bar top itself."

A large section of the enclosed tavern was ruined by water that caused rotting wood and damaged piers and other structures, delaying Blarney's seasonal opening by about four weeks.

Hardman said it was the worst flooding he had ever seen at the famous island tavern -- a bold statement considering the main structure last renovated in 1951 often would flood about three times a year.

"Most of the flooding we received (in the past) was about an inch or two in the lower bar," he said. "But at its very worst, the water can reach 2 feet to 3 feet deep inside the bar. It's bad for the building, bad for the contents inside, bad for the environment, and bad for business."

But officials are confident that won't happen again.

The final phase of the $2 million renovation of Blarney Island is set to begin this week to raise the enclosed tavern structure by 42 inches above the water line. The water around Blarney's is about 4 feet deep, Hardman said.

It's a project that officially began in 2004 when owners raised the height of washrooms and the main deck. However, the enclosed tavern remained unchanged for 10 years before the 2013 flood hit.

After the floodwater receded last year, Hardman pushed ahead with work to raise sections housing the prep kitchen, walk-in coolers and other areas.

When construction is completed by Memorial Day, the entire 14,000-square-foot structure will stand about a foot above the highest flood ever recorded on the Chain O' Lakes, he said.

"The Army Corps of Engineers and IDNR approved our renovations, and in total, we spent about $2 million to rise above flood levels," Hardman said. "When it's completed, it would take an absolutely catastrophic event for it to flood. We're talking, whole towns on the Chain O' Lakes being underwater."

During the worst of the 2013 floods, water levels on the Chain topped out at 7.9 feet -- 2.5 feet over flood stage. Experts said it was the worst flooding there in more than 50 years when water levels reached 8 feet.

Nearby, Fox Lake officials said more than 600 homes were damaged by the spring flooding.

The Chain was closed for 19 days during that period, though it took residents much longer to clean up after floodwaters receded.

Blarney Island is one of the most recognizable landmarks on the Chain because of high-quality music acts, its scenic water location and the weekly speed boats races in the bay to the north.

The island is accessible only by boat, and it attracts hundreds of boaters on a weekend night.

"It's hard to image the Chain O' Lakes without thinking about Blarney Island," Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor said. "It's a magnet for tourists and residents alike, so any improvements they complete will not only benefit themselves, but also add to the economic development of the Chain O' Lakes and the region."

Blarney was one of the hardest-hit areas by the 2013 flood because of how low it sat in the water and its location in the middle of a lake.

Hardman said the renovations will address those issues.

"It really will be a beautiful renovation," he said. "We're going with glass all the way around the tavern so everyone can see the Chain when sitting inside, and the windows will go up like garage doors on warm days."

Steel pylons will be driven into bedrock 130 feet below the lake bottom to secure the structure in place, he said.

Rafters from the now-demolished tavern building, featuring numerous business cards and mementos, have been preserved. Those items will be put back in place when the construction is completed, Hardman said. The tavern was demolished after the island closed for the season last autumn.

The total cost for the final phase of construction will be $500,000, he said.

"Hopefully, the work will preserve Blarney's for the next 100 years," Hardman said. "If we get flooded now, it means the nearby towns are gone. No roads, no bridges, anything."

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