April 2012

Great Schroon Lake

The dam plan that would have altered the park

NEAR NORTHWAY MILE MARKER 71, about a mile south of Chestertown, is a hill with a sign made of large white letters. Partially hidden by evergreen trees, it spells out HELLO. Hello Mountain has been a landmark for decades. But a century ago—if an am­bitious plan had come to fruition—the hill and the nearby Schroon River would have been part of a massive project altering com­merce downstream and communities next door.

In the late 1800s New Yorkers were fearful that there would not be enough water for the increasing demands of the times. Cities needed clean drinking wa­ter; canals required consistent supply for navigation; industry used vast amounts for water wheels and for the new technology of hydroelectric turbines. There was concern about not having enough water in the summer and early fall, and too much water with early spring runoff. The idea of preserving the Adirondacks that evolved after the Civil War included saving vast watersheds. One tactic would have been to bring the region’s waterways under closer control by carefully engineered dams.

Glens Falls industrialists Eugene Ashley and Elmer J. West began constructing an impoundment on the Hudson River at Spier Falls in 1900. Completed three years later, the 1,570-foot-long dam was said to be the fourth largest in the world. It generated electricity for Glens Falls, Albany, Troy and Schenectady; in summer and fall it provided water to the Champlain Canal. In early spring it also offered some regulation of the Hudson’s annual flooding, which often left Troy and Albany under water.

Ashley and West were so successful at Spier Falls that they began to look at other dam sites. One under serious consideration was on the Schroon River about seven miles north of Warrensburg at Tumblehead Falls. The hill on the east side of the river—Hello Mountain—and the hill on the west side (today’s Northway bank) are very close to one another. As early as 1895 state engineer George W. Rafter proposed building a containment dam there.

A survey of the Hudson River watershed had concluded that an ideal site for a 70-foot-tall containment dam would be at Tumblehead Falls. Impounding the Schroon River at the 840-foot contour line would create a reservoir larger than Lake George, according to a 1908 article in the Warrensburgh News. Brant, Paradox and Schroon Lakes would combine into one.

Great Schroon Lake would have been very large, indeed. The settlements of Chestertown, Brant Lake, Paradox, plus almost all of Pottersville would have been flooded. The level of Schroon Lake would have risen over 30 feet, with a shoreline five or six times larger than present day.

But it never happened. Hoteliers and shoreline owners, led by businessman and lawyer George Welwood Murray, were opposed to the project. Tourists, especially wealthy patrons from Albany and metropolitan New York, traveled by railroad through Saratoga Springs to Riverside (now Ri­parius). From there they rode a stagecoach to the foot of Schroon Lake, boarded steamboats and were deposited at grand hotels such as Taylor’s or the Leland House. The dam would kill this thriving tourist industry that also supported boardinghouses, inns and village shops. The Schroon Lake Association—still in existence today—was formed to oppose the construction of the Tumblehead Falls dam.

Another problem dam supporters faced was that many of the properties in­cluded in the plan were newly created Forest Preserve lands. How was it possible to incorporate state-owned lands in such a plan when they had just become, in 1892, part of the Adirondack Park? Legislation protected against cutting the forest and altering the landscape. In the early 1900s the mechanism to amend the New York State Constitution did exist, but there was fear of a “great Adirondack land grab,” as the motives of many dam supporters came to be known. In 1913 the Burd-Merritt Amendment was passed, providing limited state-land use in the park, including three percent for water storage purposes. This facilitated dam construction on the Raquette River, but the Tumblehead Falls dam project failed to reach this stage.

The last problem, perhaps the most difficult for the proponents to overcome, was resistance from Warrensburg residents. While realizing the benefits of a dam in maintaining a constant source of waterpower, people also saw the dangers of a 70-foot dam just a few miles up­stream. Newspaper articles describing the 1889 dam collapse in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, which led to the deaths of more than 2,200 people, and the disastrous 1911 Austin, Pennsylvania, flood were never far from the Adirondack community’s collective memory.

In fall 1916 a public hearing was held at the conservation commissioner’s Al­ba­ny office to discuss the feasibility of a Tumblehead Falls dam. The outcome was that the level of Schroon Lake was to remain at 807 feet. The Schroon Lake Association and its supporters had won the day.

In light of this setback, Eugene Ashley and Elmer West began searching for other dam sites within the Hudson River watershed. During the 1920s another proposal for constructing three small containment dams on the Schroon River and its tributaries—which would not affect the lake level—were considered but rejected.

There was, however, a proposal outlined in the 1895 George Rafter survey for a different site on a different river—an impoundment that could control some of the extensive flooding and also had potential for generating power. This was a spot where there were few large hotels and where the downstream population was not in opposition and lived on land mostly outside the Adirondack Park. A containment and hydropower dam could be built on the Sacandaga River at Conklingville. In 1930 the dam on the Sacandaga River was finished, creating a reservoir, Great Sacandaga Lake.

Mike Prescott is a retired principal of North Warren high school, in the district that would have been submerged by Great Schroon Lake. He lives in Chestertown.

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