Monday, August 17, 2015

Fish House: Great Sacandaga Lake’s Underwater Mysteries

47One of the real pleasures in researching and writing When Men and Mountain Meet was exploring the actual sites of the historic places mentioned in my book: the little town of Castorland on the Black River, the LeRay Mansion at Fort Drum, Gouverneur Morris’ Mansion at Natural Dam and David Parish’s house, now the Remington Art Museum, in Ogdensburg. And then there was finding Zephaniah Platt’s grave in the Riverside Cemetery in Plattsburgh, in Lake Placid the site of the 1813 Elba Iron and Steel Manufacturing works , Charles Herreshoff’s flooded iron ore mine in Old Forge and the complex of building foundations that made up John Thurman’s 1790 development at Elm Hill.

There was one site, however, that was a little harder to locate than the others; Sir William Johnson’s fishing camp “Fish House”.

Fish House was built for Sir William Johnson in 1762. At the time, Johnson was one of the largest landowners in America, exceeded only by the massive holdings of the Penn family in Pennsylvania. Johnson’s fishing camp was built overlooking the Sacandaga River just south of its confluence with Vlaie Creek, about eighteen miles from Johnson’s primary residence at Johnson Hall in today’s Johnstown. On the camp’s roof was mounted a hand carved wooden weathervane in the shape of a fish. So his many guests could travel in comfort to the fishing camp, Johnson had a carriage road built to the camp later known as the nine-mile Tree Road. If the fish weren’t biting, guests could retire to “Castle Cumberland”, a summer villa Johnson had built two years earlier at Summer House Point in honor of Lord Cumberland, in many ways his benefactor. Fish House was burned during the American Revolution, perhaps by Sir William Johnson’s own son, Sir John Johnson, who had remained loyal to the Crown and led a Tory raid into this valley in 1780 and 1781.

Around the ruins of the old Fish House a community was established after the American Revolution. As Mrs. Charlotte D. Russell notes in her Northampton: Times Past, Times Present, “Fish House did not grow like other villages, since its early inhabitants were for the most part wealthy, conservative people who did not wish their larges estates to be carved into building lots…(in time the town would become known for its) elm-lined street, the classic homes, the magnificent two-laned bridge…before 1900 there were five sawmills, a shingle shop, two chair factories, two tanneries, a glove shop, two harness shops, a skin mill, a cheese factory, a cheese box factory, four shoe cobblers, a gunsmith, several blacksmiths, two tailors and a clock maker….a school, three churches and four hotels.”

So where is Fish House today? You likely will not find it on any road map. Unfortunately for the town, the perennial flooding of the Sacandaga River was its undoing; there was serious flooding in 1902 and three flash floods in 1913 which triggered health epidemics in that area. In 1922 the State Regulating Board was created which authorized the purchase of twenty-nine thousand acres around Northampton. Buildings were to be razed and the cemeteries emptied. A dam was built at Conklingville measuring 115 feet high and on March 27, 1930 the gates were closed.

Fish House Great Sacandaga Lake MapToday Sir William Johnson’s Fish House, and the community that developed around it, lies of the bottom of Great Sacandaga Lake. A state sign along County Route 110, near its intersection of County Route 109, indicates that “Fish House” lies about “1500 Ft. northeast of this marker”.

County Road 109 runs in a straight lie in a northeasterly direction. If one extends a line from that road, along that same course, 1550 feet from that marker you will find yourself in the lake between that road intersection and Sinclair Point across the lake.

Last summer I headed out on the lake and motored to where I believe is the site of the town under water. With my fish finder I could detect what appeared to be the old course of Vlaie Creek. I believe this to be the spot, or near the spot, of Sir William Johnson’s Fish House.

I seem to recall the depth of the water was not much more than forty feet. Has anyone ever scuba dived the lake to locate Fish House? I am sure all of us would love to hear from them if they have; especially if the water was clear enough for any pictures. There is said to be a train locomotive down there, too. The local railroad, F.J. and G., fought the damming with law suits and figured if they left a locomotive on the tracks the State would not flood the town. They were wrong.

After my book was published in 2013 I heard an interesting story about Fish House and the town that grew up there. The story is second-hand, but it seems a few years ago amidst a drought we were having a fellow was enjoying boating down the lake. This particular fellow had an engineering temperament, if you know what I mean. He carried a full set of navigation maps with him at all times, as well as a gps, and religiously followed all navigation markers. He was meticulously careful in everything he did. Anyway, seems he was motoring down the lake when…WHAM! His boat stopped dead in the water. He was shocked; his charts and teh navigation buoys indicated he had plenty of water beneath him. What had he hit? He checked his motor and found that the motor housing below the waterline was torn apart. He checked his bilge and fortunately didn’t seem to be sinking. He then hailed a passing boat and was towed into a local marina.

The boater explained his bewilderment to the marina owner to which the marina owner simply replied “Chimney”. Apparently with the low water levels our boater friend had run into a chimney top from a building in the old town of Fish House/Northampton!

 


Glenn Pearsall

Adirondack historian Glenn Pearsall is the author of Echoes in these Mountains (2008), When Men and Mountains Meet (2013), and the Adirondack novel, Leaves Torn Asunder (2016).
In 2000, Glenn Pearsall and his wife Carol established and funded the Glenn and Carol Pearsall Adirondack Foundation dedicated to improving the quality of life of year round residents of the Adirondack Park.

When not pursuing a passion for history and philanthropy, Pearsall is a senior partner and Portfolio Manager for a wealth management team in Glens Falls, NY. He and his wife Carol live near the base of Crane Mountain in Johnsburg.




34 Responses

  1. Bruce says:

    Great article, Glenn. Your books will be next on my list.

    I’ve been reading “Bloody Mohawk” by Richard Berleth, which details the Johnson family’s doings and the part played by the Mohawk River in the settling and politics of early New York, up through the Revolution. I never thought that one family could have had such an impact on an area receiving the influx of immigrants it was. Upon reflection though, someone had to be “in charge” as it were.

    Next year, when we visit the Adirondacks on our annual vacation, we plan to visit the region and check out some of the locations mentioned in the book, starting with Fort Stanwix on our way through Rome.

    I was raised in nearby Oswego County, but never knew any of this until I started reading “Bloody Mohawk.”

    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

      I too have wondered who might have done any diving in the area of Fish house. It has to be fascinating – and a little scary!

      Bruce, if you visit Fort Stanwix, don’t fail to go to the little-visited Von Steuben Memorial nearby. It’s wonderful and though lesser-known, a critical story in the history of the Revolutionary period.

      • Dave Harblin says:

        I have lived in broadalbin my whole life which is pretty much where Fish House is. Unfortunately the water at that part is very cloudy and I doubt any photography under the water would be possible, but who knows with technology. I have a friend that is a diver though, I’ll talk to him and see what he thinks. We’re both self proclaimed history buffs.

        • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

          I’m sure we’d all love to hear if any dives were done. It’s make a great followup story for Almanack Readers. It’s a cornerstone part of Adirondack history, to be sure. Thanks!

        • Alice Crane says:

          Broadalbin is not Fish House. Fish house is about a mile stretch on county highway 110 about 8 miles out of Broadalbin. Fish House residence do have Broadalbin addresses though

  2. Glenn Pearsall Glenn L. Pearsall says:

    Bruce,

    Thx for the kind comments. If you have an interest in John Johnson and his raids you may also wish to check out “The Burning of the Valleys” by Gavin Watt. And for some interesting things you might not know about Oswego, check out pages 35-37 and page 58 in my “When Men and Mountains Meet” (available on Amazon.com).

    Agree with Pete Nelson’s suggestion on the Von Steben Memorial near Remsen, NY. Great exhibit too at Fort Stanwix Visitor Center in Rome.

    • Bruce says:

      Glenn, Pete, thanks for the info.

      As Rome and Remsen are both along my usual route to camp at Inlet, stopping by both places is not a problem. I’m of Dutch heritage, and so far I’ve traced back to Middletown, NY in the 1820’s, and to a great-great-great uncle in the Civil War, from Oneida County. Who knows what part my family might have played in all this, although as far back as I’ve gotten we’re generally listed as laborers on census records, so no notables yet.

      I was primarily raised along the North shore of Oneida Lake, and although I know the area well, I’ve really only recently been getting into the early history of the region.

  3. Wally Elton Wally Elton says:

    Very interesting article. Please do more of a similar nature. I also will have to check out your book, including the references to Oswego where I was born a number of years ago.

  4. Justin Farrell says:

    I agree, very interesting article, thanks for sharing.
    Several years ago I remember rumors of a church steeple that was visible when the water level was low. I’ve been on the lake in the Fish House area many times, but never did see it for myself, and always wondered if it was true…??

  5. mimi says:

    Enjoyed this article. I have a question. If the buildings of the town were razed how could the boater have run into a chimney?

    • Bruce says:

      Mimi, sometimes after buildings themselves are long gone, chimneys and foundations often remain. According to Wiki, some structures remain standing in the lake, so it wasn’t all burned or knocked down.

  6. Brian Sowle says:

    I grew up just off of Rt. 110 and I always heard of a sunken bridge in the FishHouse cove right next to the Providence beach. People have said that they could swim under the bridge and the current would shoot them from one side to the other. Very dangerous because a lot of sunken logs were under there too.

    Brian

  7. Matt says:

    hey there! I will be getting my scuba license sometime between now and next summer. I’d love to make this one of my sites. Please contact me and maybe we can plan something. I’d love for you to even join me on this adventure. I look forward to hearing from you. Thanks
    Matt

    • Matt says:

      Although I have dived before I don’t have the license here in NY. Is there anyone willing to dive with me next summer? The buddy system is always great. The summer of 2016 that is.

      • John LaVallee says:

        Should be a good year to explore. Low snowfall amount may keep the lake water level lower than other years.

  8. Joanne says:

    Hello,
    Nice article, but I beg to differ. There is still some of Fish House left, along CR 110 and CR 109. Granted, there are no stores, but there are houses. Twelve houses were moved and six houses were torn down. Many of the moved houses were dragged up to an elevated ridge that was part of the Stead farm. That elevated area is now called Ryder Road. Many houses that were not moved and were high enough in elevation still stand today. As for a church steeple, not likely. A church steeple of the old Presbyterian church was taken down, but that church is high and dry on CR 109. The old stone supports for the covered bridge of Fish House are still there underwater. Fishermen like to fish around them. If the lake water is exceptionally low, you might be able to find one or two without scuba diving.

  9. Glenn Pearsall Glenn L. Pearsall says:

    Joanne, Thank you for your comment and the new information on the twelve houses that were moved before the Vlaie was flooded. I’ll be sure to watch for them next time I drive through the area. One house I did not include in my article is the historic Godfrey Shew House, a much under appreciated local treasure. Thank you too for your thoughts on the marine accident I referenced and the additional information on the church steeple and the old stone supports.

  10. Wendy Rowback says:

    Parts of Fishhouse are still there.Quite a bit actually. I grew up there. I have a couple books on subject. One written by Kathryn Sleezer..she knew a lot and had a collection of incredible pictures. .There are quite a few treasures there

  11. Alice Crane says:

    This is a nice article but you should have done some fact checking first. Fish House does have their own historian and the Fish House Community Center is a great place to learn about the history. In your article you portray Fish House as this lost underwater town. Most of the houses and shops were moved or burned down at the time of the flooding. There is not a town at the bottom of the lake, the most interesting thing you’ll find down there would be the foundations of some of the homes that were not moved. Some of the historic homes are still lived in today. Also a common misconception is that Fish house road is part of Fish House. Only a little portion of Fish House road is actually in Fish House.

    • Glenn Pearsall Glenn L. Pearsall says:

      Alice, thank you for the information. The information in my article on Fish House was drawn from my book When Men and Mountains Meet (Pyramid Press, 2013, available on Amazon.com and distributed locally through North Country Books). I regret your name and the Fish House Community Center did not come to my attention when I was “beating the bushes” in 2011 for information for my chapter on Fish House. I understand you also are a writer. What have you written and where is it available? Also, what is the contact information for the Fish House Community Center?

  12. Kym says:

    I grew up on fish house road, there are several old foundations underwater and the remnants of the old covered bridge as well. When the water is low you can see some of the foundations. My brothers and father are divers and have been down several times.

    • Kurt says:

      Where exactly are these foundations? I would love to get out and fish around them, but have no exactly been able to find them, or don’t think I have found them. Any GPS coordinates or just general directions?

      • Glenn Pearsall Glenn L. Pearsall says:

        Map in book “When Men and Mountains Meet”, but just general location. Approximately 1500′ NE offshore from the intersection of County Route 110 (South Shore Rd) and County Road 109 (Fish House Road) as you look towards Sinclaire Point. Good luck fishing!

  13. Christopher Downs says:

    Where can I buy the book?

    • Glenn Pearsall Glenn L. Pearsall says:

      All 3 of my books are available at most book sellers throughout the Adirondacks. If you have no luck there they are also available on amazon.com. The book featuring the story on Fish House is in “When Men and Mountains Meet” (Pyramid Press, 2013). Thanks for asking

  14. Gavin Murdoch says:

    Do you know how Sir Wm Johnson acquired the land? Well the story goes that a Mohawk sachem came to visit Sir Wm at Fort Johnson and spent the night. When they sachem was leaving the next morning, he told Sir Wm about a dream that he had that night. The sachem said that he saw Sir Wm gifting him his red military jacket. Since Sir Wm. knew the importance that the Iroquois placed upon dreams he gave him his jacket. That’s how Chief Red Jacket got his name. Well a short time later Sir Wm was traveling west to visit the Seneca Nation and stopped at Red Jacket’s village, near Canajoharie, to spend the night. The next morning as Sir Wm was preparing to leave, he said to Red Jacket, “last night I had a dream and in the dream you gifted me all the land around the Sacandaga Vlaie.” Red Jacket, knowing that Sir Wm had him, proceed to gift him the land. As Sir Wm was getting in his dugout to leave Red Jacket said,”my brother, we shall dream no more”. And that’s the story of how Sir Wm got the land.

    • Glenn Pearsall Glenn L. Pearsall says:

      Thanks for sharing! Great story I have read before. Not sure if it is really true, but does accurately reflect Native American tradition of gifting.

      • Gavin Murdoch says:

        If that wasn’t how it went it should have. To be alive at that time in out Valley’s history. What a huge man Sir Wm was to the development of the colony.

  15. Kris Ackerman says:

    Did you know the nine mile tree road was named because route 29 the original road was built by Sir William Johnson and was marked with mile markers so the Nine Mile Tree Road gets its name because it was at the Nine Mile marker.

    • Glenn Pearsall Glenn L. Pearsall says:

      Kris, Didn’t know that, but it makes perfect sense. Pleased with all the comments that keep coming in on this story. Glenn

  16. Glenn Pearsall Glenn L. Pearsall says:

    Hear Sacandaga Reservoir is so low right now some of the old foundations and stone walls of Fish House/Northhampton are visible –

  17. Rick says:

    I grew up in the 1970-80s going to a family camp a bit down the road from Fish House, near the Bacherllerville Bridge. We used to find rusty horseshoes, antique broken bottle necks and china pieces, and rusty square nails all the time on the beach. In the Fall, when the water was down, you could walk around the outlines of old building foundations; one even had stairs. There was a whole row of big tree stumps underwater in front of our place that I presume lined a road before the flooding; throughout most of the summer the stumps were in 15’+ of water. I have a local history book (circa 1970s, golden yellow cover- The Sacandaga Story- A Valley of Yesteryear, by Larry Hart) that has a photo of a locomotive with water lapping up at the wheels during the flooding of the vly- it filled quicker than planned. I often wondered if it’s still there, under the water, or if they moved it at the last minute.

  18. Glenn Pearsall Glenn L. Pearsall says:

    Rick appreciate your comments and additional information. Very pleased what a “long life” this article has had.

    • John Warren John Warren says:

      The water was only inches deep and steam locomotives can run on flooded tracks. Some rails might remain (I doubt it) but the locomotive – an expensive piece of equipment – was not abandoned.