Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Dam History: The Oxbow Reservoir Project

Proposed Oxbow DamThe Raquette River, from Raquette Falls to the State Boat Launch on Tupper Lake, is one of the nicest stretches of flat-water anywhere in the Adirondacks.  Paddling this river corridor under a clear cerulean blue sky, on a sunny autumn day with the riverbanks ablaze in orange and red, is exquisite.  For me, though, the river’s history is as captivating as its natural beauty.

Countless people have traveled this section of river over the centuries.  There were native peoples who hunted, fished, and trapped, the hinterlands of Long Lake and further into the Raquette Lake area, long before whites appeared on the Adirondack Plateau.  There were the early farmers and families wanting to start a new livelihood.  There were the guides and their wealthy “sports”, (and later the families of these sports) desiring adventure and recreation.  There were people seeking better health and relief from the despair and disease of the cities.  There were merchants, hotelkeepers, charwomen, day labors, ax-men, river drivers, and a host of others. There were the famous, the not so famous, and the down-and-out.

All of these people, and many others, used the Raquette ( Racket or Racquette ) River as a transportation highway.  The number of footfalls on the carries at and around Raquette Falls is limited only to the imagination.  In his book Adirondack Canoe Waters: North Flow, Paul Jamieson refers to the nearby Indian Carry, at Corey’s separating the Raquette River system from the Sacanac River system, as the “Times Square of the woods.”  ( Note: In the Adirondacks one “carries” around rapids and waterfalls, one does not “portage.” )

From the Piercefield flow, down river through Colton and Potsdam to Akawesane on the St. Lawrence, the Raquette River watershed is very narrow and confining.  It was first a workhorse river providing power to local mills along its banks, it later provided the state with hydroelectric power and flood control with its 20 dams for the most part constructed in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Here the Raquette River drops over 1200 ft in approximately 30 miles, as it tumbles off the Adirondack plateau, making it the most dammed river in New York State.  The upriver section of river from Piercefield to Blue Mountain Lake is geographically a large, relatively flat glacial basin, with occasional but substantial rapids and waterfalls.

Over the several years that I have paddled the Raquette River I have read and learned much of the history of the river and I am fascinated by stories of what might have been.  One such story involves a very extensive series of dams proposed for the Upper Raquette River watershed at Tupper Lake.  My research took me to two studies complied in the early 20th century: The Fourth Annual Report of the New York State Water Commission, for the year ending, February 1, 1909, and the State of New York’s 1916 Conservation Commission’s Report on the Water Power and Storage Possibilities of the Raquette River.  One of the particularly fascinating dams planned for the area of the river was known as “The Oxbow Dam”.

It is difficult to visualize the extent of the Oxbow Dam project, appearing in the reports and on maps as Dam #3.  (Yes, there were proposals for a Dam #1 and a Dam #2 between Tupper Lake and Raquette Pond, but that is another story).  Dam #3 would have been constructed just down river from the Oxbow, near the Wild Center’s two observation platforms. Standing on the observation decks one is able to see the glacial outcropping on both sides of the river that would have served as the anchor points of the dam.  The first proposed dam (1909) would have raised the water level of the Raquette River almost 20 feet.  The second proposed dam (1916) would have doubled the height of the first dam and raised the present level of the river 42 feet.  Either dam would have flooded the river valley and created a very large reservoir, which both reports refer to as “ a magnificent lake”.

This “magnificent lake “ would have been very large indeed.  The impoundment would have been approximately nine miles long, and almost as wide, with several large islands and it would have covered the entirety of the “Oxbow swamp.” About eighteen miles of the meandering Raquette River would have disappeared under the waters of the new “lake”. According to the 1916 Report on the Water Power and Storage Possibilities of the Raquette River:

“The new Lake will be very irregular in shape and will have a shore line and nearly 180 miles long.  When full it will be exceedingly beautiful and far more attractive than the present lakes . . . Most of the land of the proposed reservoir is valueless swamp, covered with small brush and trees of worthless varieties common to wet land, though around the margins of the basin there is a considerable amount of fair timber land.  The only buildings affected are a summer hotel and a few modest cottages and farm buildings.”

The impoundment would have reached up-river to the base of Raquette Falls.  It would have flooded the area of Axton Landing and Corey’s, including the area of Stony Creek, the Stony Ponds, and the lower section of Ampersand Brook.  Follensby Pond would have no longer existed.  At Trombley Landing and the State boat launch known as the “crusher” the flooded lands would have stretched north to include Deer Pond and the Deer Pond Marsh.  In this area two retaining dykes would have had to be constructed to keep the spring melt waters of the Raquette watershed from flowing into Upper Saranac Lake and the Saranac River system.  An additional dyke would have had to be constructed at Corey’s to serve the same purpose.  The “man made” Oxbow impoundment would have been over three times the size of Upper Saranac Lake.

The Oxbow Dam project was just one of several proposals in the late 19th and early 20th Century to regulate water resources for commerce, industry, agriculture, and transportation (inland navigation and canals), as well as helping to prevent downstream flooding.  Between 1909 and 1916 there were many additional “containment” dams proposed for the Upper Raquette River watershed, including dams at Blue Mountain Lake, Raquette Lake, Forked Lake, Brandreth Lake, Long Lake, South Pond, Little Tupper Lake, Round Lake to name but a few.

So, What happened?  Why was the “Oxbow Lake” not constructed?

Well, there is no easy or clear-cut answer.  According to two former Tupper Lake historians Bill Frenette and Louis Simmons there were a number of factors involved with these dams not being constructed.

Perhaps the most important, is the fact that a good rock foundation for the dams was not found.  In 1908 dams were being considered between Tupper Lake and Raquette Pond (Dam #1 and Dam #2) and at the Oxbow site ( Dam #3 ) Test boring were done at each site.  At the Tupper Lake – Raquette pond site test these borings went down to 90 and 100 feet without hitting rock.   At the Oxbow site test boring were driven to 30 feet without finding rock.  By 1916 the Oxbow site was considered the better of the two sites, but there was still no solid rock base.

Another reasons, perhaps equally important, was that hydroelectric power was fast becoming a necessity, and the best location for hydro-power plants was at the point of the most vertical drop or “head”.  A “containment reservoir” that stored water from the spring melt (some flood control) and released water as needed in the late summer and fall was no longer needed.  The smaller power dam reservoirs could  store water and could more efficiently generate power while regulating spring flooding, all at the same time.  Thus there was an economic shift away from large containment reservoirs to smaller power producing dams.

There was also a land use concern.  Private land owners opposed construction of the Oxbow Dam because they did not want to lose their land to dam construction and the resultant impounded waters. At the same time the newly formed Adirondack Park had to conform to the “forever wild” provision of the New York State Constitution, which would have significantly complicated the flooding of lands owned by the State. In short, a number of factors working in combination ensured that these dam projects were never constructed.

It is important to note that engineers conducted surveys, drew maps, and worked on other river systems within the state such as the Genesee, Delaware, Susquehanna, and Niagara Rivers as well.  However, in the Adirondacks state engineers developed additional and very extensive plans for dams on the Hudson, Schroon, Sacandaga, Saranac, Moose, and Black Rivers to name but a few.  On each of these rivers there were several different dam proposals that would have created many, not so. “Magnificent Lakes.” We can all be thankful that most of these dam proposals were never constructed.

Mike Prescott

Mike Prescott

Mike Prescott is a former history teacher and secondary school principal who found a new retirement avocation in paddling Adirondack waters and exploring their history.

Mike is a New York State Licensed Guide, and also volunteers with the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, the Raquette River Blueway Corridor, the New York State Trails Council and with the Adirondack Mountain Club.

Feel free to contact him at mjpaddler@gmail.com


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3 Responses

  1. Mike says:

    The proposed lake looks a lot like Cranberry Lake, which was enlarged and further flooded by the 1865 dam.

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  2. […] Adirondack Dam History: The Oxbow Reservoir Project […]

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  3. […] between Tupper Lake and Upper Saranac Lake, to Simon(d) Pond. This section of the Raquette includes the Oxbow and » Continue […]

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