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August 2002

The Sacandaga Saga

How the creation of New York's eighth-largest lake left a flood of memories

IN SUMMER, BOATERS, ANGLERS AND SWIMMERS delight in Great Sacandaga Lake’s blue waters and 125 miles of shoreline. (“Lake George without the crowds!” tout real estate ads.) But old-timers will tell you this massive reservoir on the southern edge of the Adirondack Park—twenty-nine miles long, covering forty-one square miles—wasn’t always a water wonderland.

The rumors surfaced around the turn of the last century and swirled with the annual floodwaters. Rumors of a flat-lander scheme so earthshaking, literally and figuratively, that most Sacandaga Valley residents dismissed them altogether. After all, surveyors prowled the region more than once in the early 1900s, but nothing ensued.

Charlotte Russell of Northville grew up with the rumors. She recalls nightmares about a deluge of biblical proportions—or so it seemed to a little girl—that would inundate the whole area. “Back then, children didn’t ask questions,” says the ninety-six-year-old former historian for the Town of Northampton and Village of Northville. “They listened to elders and drew their own conclusions. I suffered with that feeling: that we’d be flooded, and everybody was going to die.”

Loggers and tanners here were familiar with the Sacandaga River’s capaciousness. Each spring, rising waters from North Country snowmelt floated logs from Northville and Day to paper- and sawmills at Corinth and Glens Falls. The same freshets, laden with ice and debris, wreaked havoc throughout the valley before the Sacandaga spilled into the Hudson at Hadley. Bridges collapsed, and mail-
men were forced to use rowboats.

Big cities on the Hudson fared worse. Streets bled canals. Factories suspended operation until the waters receded. Losses from property damage, disrupted transportation and unemployment ran into the millions.

Spurred to action by the great flood of March 1913, the state legislature authorized the creation of river management districts. In 1922 the new Hudson River Regulating District (HRRD) proposed a spate of reservoirs in the Hudson watershed, starting with the Sacandaga. (The Sacandaga reservoir, which controls nearly a quarter of the Hudson’s drainage area, was the only one built.) Stored water would be released in summer, when flow in the watershed declined and mills and factories dependent on water power shut down.

Bonds were sold to fund the twelve-million-dollar proect (around $115 million today). “No state or federal tax dollars were used to build the reservoir, [or] have ever been used to operate the system or maintain its facilities” the Hudson River–Black River Regulating District (HR–BRRD; the two districts merged in 1959) emphasizes in its handbook, issued to forty-five hundred access-permit holders whose property borders the lake. Instead, businesses and utilities on the Hudson that stood to gain from consistent waterpower agreed to shoulder ninety-five percent of the costs. Albany, Watervliet, Troy, Rensselaer and Green Island shared the remainder in exchange for flood protection.

Disbelief turned to outrage in the valley as plans got under way for a dam at Conklingville, where the river flowed deep through a gap six miles west of Hadley. Between 1925 and 1927, the HRRD bought twelve hundred parcels of land totaling twenty-nine thousand acres.

“There’s still a lot of older people in the town” who remember, says Town of Day historian Ruby Marcotte. “They never really understood the politics of the whole thing. What they saw was rich farmland being lost.”

Marcotte’s eighty-one-year-old mother, Frances White LaPier, recalls the walk past her grandparents farm in Day Center on the way to school. At sugaring time in spring, she and her siblings stopped by the farm for maple syrup on their way home. All that changed when LaPier was ten.

On March 27, 1930, the gates of the new dam were shut, and 283 billion gallons of water quietly flooded the lowlands. LaPier’s school, along with the homes of her aunts, friends and neighbors, the farm, stores, businesses—even cemeteries—were lost to the reservoir’s rising waters. Day Center was gone.

So were the communities of West Day, Osborn Bridge and Parkville. Most of Batchellerville, Edinburg, Munsonville, Fish House, Cranberry Creek, Conklingville and Sacandaga Park met the same fate. Parts of Broadalbin, Mayfield, Northville and Hope Valley were also leveled and submerged.

Two flooded Indian settlements live on in Don Bowman’s book Go Seek the Pow Wow on the Mountain (Greenfield Review Press, 1993), a collection of his letters to Joseph Bruchac edited by the late Adirondack folklorist Vaughn Ward. Native Americans roamed these parts long before the arrival of revolutionary war veterans and families from New England. Ten thousand years ago Paleo-Indians hunted mastodon on the shores of a glacial Sacandaga lake. The banks gradually filled in, leaving a fertile river bottom and a vast marsh thick with sedge. The “Longhouse People” of the Mohawk Valley twenty miles south came to hunt and fish in the Sacondog (“land of the waving grass”), which is now the large but shallow southwestern basin of the lake.

By the 1920s the marsh was known as the Vly (Dutch for “low, swampy ground”). Indians intermarried with Caucasians and blended into the work force. Native housewives sewed gloves at home for Johnstown and Gloversville factories. Braves in overalls and slouch hats worked as lumberjacks and teamsters, guides and trappers.

Like everyone else, “Barktown squatters,” whose ancestors held no deeds, received notice to vacate. Some went to Canada. Others took to the high country or settled in Greenfield, Corinth and Saratoga, where their descendants “keep a low profile,” notes Bruchac, an Abenaki storyteller in Greenfield Center. A few, though, stayed on to clear the valley.

They shared legends and traditions with “the Kid,” as Bowman was known, a seventeen-year-old runaway from Long Island who had signed on to help prepare for the reservoir. “Our demolition crew had gotten to Munsonville in 19 and 28,” Bowman wrote six decades later to Bruchac. “We had eighteen houses, plus barns and sheds to tear down, also Warren Perrego’s store and post office. As we sat around a campfire and ate our ‘noonin,’ the stories of panthers, wolves, Indians, the Vly and Munsonville were told.

“Not far from the village there was also a cluster of shacks, shanties and log cabins that we would do next that had been an Indian settlement on the edge of the Vly, toward Benedict. The Indians had all moved elsewhere when we got there, also the Munsonville folks. They were like two ghost towns under the skies.”

With a woodsman’s instinct, Bowman squirreled away details of the Abenaki settlement at West Day: “I was told it was left alone by whites and used by small bands of Indians that came to the river to hunt, fish and dry fish. They hunted herbs and went up river to the Big Vly to gather and save bullrush [sic] leaves and the cattails for weaving the rushes. Some Indian bands stayed long enough to plant, tend and grow corn.”

Wickiups here were the stuff of the Kid’s dreams: “They were sturdy, made out of second growth spring poles placed and bent over when green to dry. They were covered with canvas, bark from yellow birch or skins. These were real honest to goodness places of real grown-ups.” Along with shacks and shanties, the traditional Algonquian shelters fell before Bowman’s ax.

“[In all we cleared] nigh onto forty-two square miles of trees, brush, barns, houses, business places and such like, and had fires goin’ for almost two years,” he recalled.

Charlotte Russell was away at college in Albany when demolition crews were at work. On her weekends home in Northville, the family piled into their Tin Lizzie to tour the destruction. “It became a popular pasttime [sic] for ‘Sunday drivers’ to motor around the roads of the valley, for whole families to see the progress being made,” wrote Schenectady historian Larry Hart in The Sacandaga Story: A Valley of Yesteryear (1967). The lush landscape was a barren desert, the air thick with smoke and debris.

“It was pitiful,” says Russell. “Many buildings were burned, some moved, some partly moved, some torn down. I can think of all the people that lived in [Parkville].” A mile upriver from Northville, Parkville derived its name from the Park Tannery, built around 1850 on the river’s east bank. It was Fulton County’s largest tannery in 1874, the year it burned for the second and last time. By then the hemlock stands were shrinking. In an all too familiar Adirondack scenario, valley logging and mill towns fell on hard times. Parkville residents “had to move and make do,” says Russell. “They had no comeback; they had to take what was given to them. They were all cheated.” The HRRD wanted the land only. Homeowners could move boards or buildings beyond the “take line,” but few had the means to do so.

As a teenager, Harry “Bob” Van Arnam watched in awe as teams of horses inched a couple of buildings from Parkville down the riverbank to Bridge Street into Northville. “That day, they moved about fourteen feet,” recalls the eighty-eight-year-old Van Arnam, whose family goes back nine generations in Northville. “They blocked the roads. They wouldn’t stop with a house halfway through an intersection. The houses were on skids, and horses walked around a spindle held by chain to a tree. Somebody stood on the roof. They had ladders all over.”

In the Town of Day the Conklingville Community Church was moved to its present site on North Shore Road; the Day Country Store (today a private residence) was hauled up a steep bank to North Shore Road at the alarming rate of a foot a day. During the move, it remained open for business. “All they lost was one can of green beans,” says Marcotte.

In Cranberry Creek the summer kitchen and carriagehouse of the home built by village founder Samuel Gilbert were resetted. Today they form part of the lakeside home of Samuel’s great-great-granddaughter Agnes Gilbert.

From her window, Gilbert, eighty-four, can see across the bay to the new HR-BRRD Mayfield office—a reminder of the days when fires forced Cranberry Creek residents to stay indoors. “I can remember when [the HRRD was] buying up properties,” she says. “Some people had tears in their eyes. This was their home, but they had no choice. They had to go. Everyone got paid, but the regulating board didn’t pay great big prizes.”

IF HOMEOWNERS WERE ANGRY, stockholders of the Fonda, Johnstown & Gloversville Railroad were steaming. The proposed reservoir would erase the lucrative Sacandaga line that crossed the valley from Mayfield to Northville. The FJ&G was a lifeline to local residents, especially in winter. “Back then, no roads were plowed,” says Dick Stewart of Mayfield. “We in the village were marooned. The only way out was the railroad.” On Saturdays, he hopped the one o’clock from Northville, along with a hundred or so other youngsters bound for Gloversville matinees. “We’d have a soda and come back on the six o’clock train.” Adults who imbibed stronger stuff burst into song on the ride home, says Stewert.

Stewart rode the train to high school in Gloversville. That’s how he met Margie Beeker, who boarded near her Cranberry Creek farm. (The couple celebrated their seventy-fifth wedding anniversary in September 2001.)

There were outings to the hugely popular Sacandaga Park, known as “the Coney Island of the North,” which the FJ&G built just below Northville on the west side of the river. “For a dollar on Children’s Day, they gave you a round trip ticket, and a ride on everything in the park” Stewart reminisces. Thousands flocked to the amusement park on weekends, many on excursion trains from New York City. But by the Roaring Twenties, the automobile was cutting into profits. Even so, the FJ&G rejected a district offer of a half-million dollars for eight miles of line, the Cranberry Creek and Mayfield stations, and most of Sacandaga Park.

When the HRRD tried to appropriate the lands, the railroad sued the district; the comptroller of the State of New York; Adirondack Power & Light, Schenectady; the Indian River Company; Finch, Pruyn & Company, in Glens Falls; and Union Bag and Paper, in Hudson Falls, on the grounds that the district “was not serving the public purpose of regulating the flow of the Hudson River to alleviate the flood conditions, but was in fact using as a subterfuge the provisions of the Conservation Law for the promotion of the private interests of certain power companies and individuals, by the creation of a huge potential water power,” according to HRRD documents from 1930.

The district initiated condemnation proceedings, but litigation stalled the project. After the court awarded FJ&G $1.5 million in damages in the spring of 1927, contracts flew. Construction began on the dam by the end of the year. The state, however, refused to pay for a new right-of-way around the lake. Grudgingly, the railroad handed over deeds in 1929 for $1.7 million in compensation.

A vintage photograph in The Fonda, Johnstown, & Gloversville Railroad: Sacandaga Route to the Adirondacks by Randy Decker (Arcadia, Images of America, 1998) shows the roller coaster and parts of the Sacandaga Park midway being set to the torch.

Engine #12 made its last freight run just nine days before the lake was flooded. Another photograph in Decker’s collection shows engine #8 apparently steaming across the lake in 1930. Actually, the water was only inches deep when the locomotive tried to retrieve some boxcars still on the line. The water rose so quickly that workers were unable to completely remove the rails.

THE EARTHEN DAM AT CONKLINGVILLE was an engineering marvel. A $1.6 million contract specified “a spillway weir 400 feet long, a logway, an outlet structure including two siphon spillways 8 feet by 18 feet, a control house, an arch bridge having a single span of 60 feet, three Dow valves each 8 feet in diameter, an approach and spillway channel, gaging [sic] stations, together with gravel highways adjacent to the dam site.”

Don Bowman was part of the “Dentist Gang” drilling the riverbed in preparation for the dam’s construction. He described the scene to John Bennis, author of Edinburg: A Town Divided (Edinburg Historical Society, 1998): “There were teams of horses working, motor trucks, steam shovels, and the new things called ‘Bulldozers,’ scraping off not just the topsoil but the earth itself down to the mother rock.”

Today’s scenic North Shore and South Shore Roads, dotted with summer homes, were built for transporting supplies to the dam. Forty-three miles of new road we made by 1930; seventy-five miles of existing roads were inundated.

Vandenburgh Road off Route 30 in Mayfield, for example, didn’t always end in a point of land jutting toward the Trap Islands. The 1905 Atlas of Montgomery and Fulton Counties shows Vlaie Street continuing past Perrego’s store and Frank Vandenburgh’s place in Munsonville. The road skirted the southern edge of the Vly, passing Summer House Point on the way to Fish House.

The Mohawks, Bowman wrote, believed a star fell into the Vly, creating a “Great Sky Hole” of mystical powers where fish grew to thirty-foot leviathans. These Adirondack “Jaws” snatched beaver, rabbits—even the white man’s cattle and horses—that drank at the pool.

A more prosaic explanation for the disappearances—aside from rustling—is that the animals drowned while crossing the marsh. In his memoirs, reprinted in Louis Decker’s Fulton County: A Pictorial History (Donning, 1989), the late Clarence Gorthey recalled that the Vly “resembled nothing so much as the Florida everglades on a smaller scale. Wild rice grew in the shallows. Pond lilies abounded as well as a host of other aquatic plants. There were ducks. geese, snipe, blackbirds and hundreds of other species of wild life — including deer and once in a while a bear. Some misguided people called this area worthless.”

Certainly, the sports who flocked to Harvey Benedict’s boardinghouse at Summer House Point didn’t think so. Magical or not, the fish in the Vly were legendary in size and number. (A forty-six-pound, two-ounce northern pike pulled from here in 1940 holds the North American record.)

The one-legged “Peg Leg” Ferguson, who lived in a shanty near the point, rented rowboats and guided anglers. “He could tell them whether it was best on a particular day to use slabs of pork or live bait to catch the 40-inch pike that lurked in the marshy grasses at the edges of the streams,” wrote Hart.

Benedict’s boardinghouse stood on the site of Sir William Johnson’s Castle Cumberland. Indian guides led Johnson through this region en route from the Mohawk Valley to Lake George during the French and Indian War of the 1750s. The British Superintendent of Indian Affairs liked the Vly enough to build a summer retreat where the Mayfield and Kenyetto Creeks converged to form Vly Creek. In 1762 Johnson added a lodge called Fish House where Vly Creek entered the Sacandaga.

The eponymous village sprang up around the lodge. Instead of ending at South Shore Road (Route 110), Fish House Road (the “Dyke Road”) ambled through pastures to a two-lane covered bridge. As the lake filled, villagers lashed the 380-foot structure with steel cable to stumps in hopes of enshrining it near the dam. (The bridge did become part of a museum, though not as envisioned. Wind and six-foot waves toppled the landmark off its piers; the arches were resurrected as part of a tavern at Old Sturbridge Village, in Sturbridge, Massachusetts.)

The Dyke Road continued north along the river’s east bank. Past Ziny Cook’s log boom, a 250-foot covered bridge brought motorists into Osborn Bridge. (Another covered bridge spanned Vly Creek at Fish House; this old stage route paralleled the Sacandaga’s west bank to Cranberry Creek and Osborn Bridge.)

Gold was discovered in Osborn Bridge in 1892, but not enough to restore prosperity to the village. Once, river drivers pushed off a hundred rafts—each a thousand logs—in spring. Coopers kept Albany in barrels. “No occupation but farming is carried on here now,” Ethel Wilbur Edwards commented sadly in a 1915 high school paper. Edwards’s rather, George Wilbur, ran the general store and post office at the four corners. Fifteen years later, even the farmers were gone. Wilbur’s store was the last building standing before Osborn Bridge vanished beneath the lake.

New resting places were found for Abram Denton and Calvin Osborn, village founders who feuded over its name (Osborn prevailed with his log “floater” bridge chained to the river banks).

Across the valley, the “men in white coats” who haunt Frances White LaPier’s childhood memories—they were called the Bone Yard Gang—came to dig up graves. Between 1928 and 1930, 3,872 graves from twenty-two cemeteries were relocated. “Some remains were shoveled into burlap bags and then placed in a box,” Bowman wrote. “Most were just skull and bones. On some of the more recent burials, the bodied [sic] were ‘ripe’ and the workers would tie handkerchiefs over their faces.”

In a few cases, Bowman claimed, tannic acid from nearby trees preserved the dead. “The remains were found intact as when first interred, except that the skin was brown like saddle leather.” Other bones showed “teeth marks, not by so-called ‘vampires’ or ‘witches,’ but by rats, mice, woodchucks and such.

“I’m sure there are some unmarked graves at the bottom of the reservoir,” Bowman confided to Bennis. “Most of those buried in a church yard were listed in a book or chart of the cemetery. That is what often gave us the needed information. Farm graves, however, were another thing.”

Where names could not be deciphered on gravestones, the deceased were assigned numbers and reinterred with one-foot square stone markers. Indians with white spouses, said Bowman, were buried under their Christian names in church cemeteries. However, graves in the Indian burial ground across the river from the Abenaki settlement “had natural stones, unmarked—at the place where the head and feet would have been.”

But the bones of the “true people,” Tom Sly Fox Palmer informed his fellow gravediggers, lay in forest caves or the quagmires of the Vly where the rising waters would cover them forever.

CONTROVERSY SURROUNDING THE LAKE flared anew in 1930, this time over its name. An HRRD proposal of “Sargent Lake”—in honor of Edward Sargent, the dam’s chief engineer—met with letters of protest. In a newspaper ballot, the public voted overwhelmingly for “Sacandaga Lake.” But since Lake Sacandaga already existed near Speculator, the state Committee on Geographic Names settled on “Sacandaga Reservoir.”At the urging of local boat clubs, the reservoir was officially christened “Great Sacandaga Lake” in 1968.

Ethel Edwards, though, preferred another name. “Ma called it the ‘Lake of Destruction,’” says Guy Edwards of Edinburg, one of Ethel’s seven children. “How can words express the feeling of utter desolation and heartache which comes over you when you know that your home, the place where you were born, brought up and lived has been left for the last time & you can never return?” Ethel wrote in 1930.

“[The lake] was a sore subject,” agrees Edinburg town historian Priscilla Edwards, who married Guy’s brother, Jay. “My  mother-in-law didn’t talk about it.” In fall 1991, when lake levels were exceptionally low, the Edwards clan headed out in four-wheel-drive vehicles for tailgate picnic at the site of Osborn Bridge. Ethel refused to go.

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