Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Raquette River History: Setting Pole and Piercefield Dams

Seneca Ray Stoddard photo “the Cut” with Simon(d) Pond and Mt. Morris (1888)Over the past several years I have been involved with the Raquette River Blueway Corridor (RRBC), which organizes Raquette River Awareness Week,  a week of events along the river from its source at Blue Mountain Lake to the St. Lawrence River at Akewesasne.

The staff at The Wild Center have also been involved, by helping to educate the public about the natural history of river with a week of river-related activities, and a river clean-up from “The Crusher” boat launch on Route 30 between Tupper Lake and Upper Saranac Lake, to Simon(d) Pond. This section of the Raquette includes the Oxbow and “The Cut” (an area just north of Simon Pond).

“ The Cut” was an intentionally dug channel to “straighten the river,” so that logs could be floated (driven) straight into Simon Pond, thus avoiding a shallow and meandering section of the Raquette River known as Moody’s Flow.  From Simon Pond the logs were floated into Tupper Lake, through the “sorting gap,” and into Raquette Pond. At this point logs for the Tupper Lake mills were culled out and the remainder went on down the river to other factories and sawmills. The lumbering firms along the river marked all logs. Lumberjacks manned the floating catwalks of the sorting gap and separated the logs into the owner’s holding booms. Logs not marked for Tupper Lake mills were allowed to continue downriver.

Raquette Pond is also a RRBC clean-up site along the Tupper Lake section of the Raquette River. Usually there are only two or three of us in canoes picking-up litter along the shore as we paddle towards Setting Pole Dam. One might ask, where is Raquette Pond? Raquette Pond is the body of water that one sees as one looks across the municipal park in Tupper Lake from McDonalds. There has always been a body of water here, just not as large as it is today. Old maps and descriptions refer to the smaller pond, with the Raquette River running through it, as Whitney Pond, Lothrop Stretch and Lough Neagh or as Adirondacker’s say “Long Neck.”

The character of Long Neck Pond changed from that of a small pond to that of a greater industrial area in the early 1850’s. Potsdam lumberman (or at least down river lumberman) wanted an easier way for logs to get to their sawmills. The first dam was constructed slightly down stream at a section of rapids called Setting Pole Rapids. This mid-1850’s dam was a log crib dam,  three or four feet high, that backed-up water into Long Neck Pond, (Raquette Pond) connecting it to Tupper Lake, and a now larger Simon Pond. The rise in water level was also noted further upstream on the Raquette River. Higher water levels meant more logs could be floated to the sawmills, which might translate into greater profits.

Seneca Ray Stoddard, “The Drowned Lands”, 1888, (Moody Flow)According to Fredrick J. Seaver, author of Historical Sketches of Franklin County and its Several Towns (1918), a much larger crib dam was constructed by the Potsdam lumber interests in 1870. “ Its height was ten (10) feet above still water . . . The result was the flooding of lands for a distance of nearly 30 miles up river . . . (all the way to the base of Raquette Falls). Of course the fine timber lining the shores was killed, transforming a beautiful section into a dead forest indescribably desolate in appearance.”  The new dam burst in May the following year (1871) and resulted in flooding and destruction, especially in Potsdam. The Reservoir Dam (Setting Pole Dam) was rebuilt in 1872 at a lower level and in 1885 a “vigilante” group of “Moody Boys” lowered the dam even further. The ugly, foul-smelling, extensive and lasting damage had been done however, as evidenced in “The Drowned Lands of the Lower Raquette” a photograph by Seneca Ray Stoddard taken in 1888.

In 1883, writer and paddler George Washington Sears (also known as Nessmuk) described the banks of the Raquette River as having millions of dead and decaying trees. The Raqutte for Sears was “ a sluggish, sullen stream, with miles on miles of dead timber an unnatural marsh, is not the stream to linger on.”  He caught one of the steamers that made daily trips between Trombley’s Landing (Sweeney Carry) and the hotels on Tupper Lake, loaded his canoe on-board, and wrote that he wanted to “get down and out in the quickest possible time.”

In E. R. Wallaces’s, Descriptive Guide to the Adirondacks: Land of the Thousand Lakes (1894), the avid angler George Dawson of the Albany Journal reported that the “glory of the Raquette above this point [Reservoir Dam at Setting Pole Rapids] had departed.” He went on:

“The high water thus caused is working great mischief in all this region. It has produced the overflow of tens of thousands of acres. The result will be that the beauty of the Raquette, once one of the most lovely streams in America, and its connecting lakes will be marred by the destruction of the most beautiful evergreens and maples which line their banks, and rendered them so wonderfully attractive and picturesque. But that is not all. The receding waters in midsummer must leave this whole region a reeking mess of decaying vegetation filling the air with fever-exciting miasma, and making a sojourn in the midst of it exceedingly hazardous. Its effects are already seen in the thousands of dead trees which mar the beauty of the river’s banks, and the coming seasons will demonstrate its pernicious influence upon the comfort and health of visitors, and the scattered residents upon its boarders. Anglers are chiefly aggrieved by this destruction of the free flow of water, because it has destroyed several trout haunts.”

The dam was eventually lowered to about its present height, but the dead and decaying trees along the river were never reestablished to their former grandeur. In-fact the dead trees were used as a source of firewood by local inhabitants for many years. Today when paddling the shores of Simon Pond, Tupper Lake, and Raquette Pond one would never know of its past ugliness. We take it for granted that the present water level is the way it has always been. The original river course was about free or four feet lower than that of today. Before the 1870’s the wetlands that we see while traversing the “the causeway” Route 30 bridge, would have been higher, dryer, forested land. Seasonably flooded but not permanently underwater.

There was however one more threat to the Tupper Lake, Upper Raquette River area. In the early 1900’s The New York State Water Commission surveyed river systems in the State of New York to determine locations for containment dams. Containment dams were designed to impound the spring run-off and assist with spring flood control, and to store water for a gradual release in the dryer late summer–early fall months. One such project was known as the Tupper Lake Reservoir.  The Tupper Lake Reservoir project consisted of several options outlined in the Fourth Annual Report of the Water Commission (1909). One of the sites considered was at Piercefield. The relatively new (in 1899) dam would be increased in height by 15 or 20 feet. Another site was the old “Reservoir Dam” (Setting Pole Dam) which was proposed to be raised 10 to 12 feet. Actually much of this idea sounds like the old 1870 Potsdam lumberman’s proposal.

But by 1900 the area had changed. Former Tupper lake historian, Louis Simmons wrote “The earliest logging operations in the Tupper Lake area centered around the east shores of Raquette Pond . . . probably no other body of water in the Adirondacks saw such extensive lumbering operations.” The low-lying area around Raquette Pond was now an industrial and transportation center. Tupper Lake Junction, “the Junction” or Faust was the point where Dr. Seward Webb’s, Adirondack and St. Lawrence Rail Road (Adirondack Division of the New York Central) and John Hurd’s, New York and Ottawa Railroad met.  According to the Water Commission Report:

“If either of these dams in the vicinity of Piercefield was to be built, even to the least height stated above, it would submerge the little village of Faust, and the present location of the New York and Ottawa Railroad for a distance of 2.5 miles, and the Adirondack Division of the New York Central Railroad for a distance of perhaps four miles, also it would flood the present site of four large saw mills with their lumber yards and tracking facilities. It would also inflict considerable damage on the lower margins of Tupper lake village. . . . Although no exact valuation of the damages on this property has been attempted, the amount is obviously so large as to render it a very serious obstacle to such a proposition at this time.”

Label Test2(1)The impoundment would have included Little Wolf Lake and during high water the flooding could also include Big Wolf Lake. (on the map, dams #1 and #2 in yellow). If the dam were to be constructed at the Setting Pole site an additional earthen dyke would also have to been necessary so that water didn’t flow through the low lying area of Underwood and flood the Piercefield flow. Tupper Lake and Simon Pond along with the Raquette River, upstream towards Trombley’s Landing, would have also been flooded again , increasing the lake levels by 15 to 20 feet. But the social, economic, and political upheaval was too great, so another idea would have to be sought.

A new site was considered. On the map included here, dam #3 and dam #4, (red) or in the 1909 Water Commission report and maps dam #1 and dam #2. (Just a point of confusion and preparation for the next part of the dam story, the third installment of the saga of the Tupper Lake Reservoir dams, is forthcoming).

The height of Setting Pole Dam was for many years the source of local friction. The water level of Raquette Pond, Tupper Lake, and Simon Pond was hotly debated for several decades. Village board resolutions were passed in 1896 and again in 1899 to rebuild Setting Pole Dam “to a sufficient height that a uniform level of water can be maintained.” But there was never the necessary business support when it came time actually do something. This situation lasted nearly 40 years until 1933 when the Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided the funds and labor to rebuild the dam. The concrete dam was completed in 1934 and a uniform water level established. Setting Pole Dam was reconstructed in 1965 – 66 and additional work was done in 1969-1970, but the water level has remained relatively consistent since.

But the dam story is not over. The “Tupper Lake Reservoir Dam(s)” will be the topic of my next installment here at Adirondack Almanack as our series on Adirondack dams continues.

Additional Notes:

The Piercefield Dam, initially a wooden crib style dam, was begun in 1896-97 and completed in 1899. It was reconstructed as a concrete dam in stages from 1926- 1957. The timber crib spillway was replaced with concrete in 1960. Additional work on the dam was done in 1991 and 1997. Brookfield Power (current owner and operator) installed new floodgates and a pneumatic flashboard system in 2007. But, through all of this, the height of the dam and the surface height of the Piercefield Flow has not changed since its initial construction in 1899.

Setting poles were used by native peoples and early Adirondack guides to “push” a boat or canoe up- stream, through a light, shallow and rocky section of rapids. Typically a setting pole was 12- 14 feet long, about two inches in diameter and made of spruce of tamarack. The guide stood in the boat as he navigated up-stream. There are still rivers in Maine where the “art” of navigating by the use of a setting pole is still taught.

Simon Pond, (Simond Pond, or Lake Simond) as well as Little Simon(d) Pond were named after Revolutionary Captain Gardner Simonds and / or his relative Elijah “Lije” Simond (1812-1900). According to contemporary accounts “Lije” Simond was one of the greatest of Adirondack Guides. In typical Adirondack fashion, spelling often changes over time.

Illustrations:  Above, Seneca Ray Stoddard photo “the Cut” with Simon(d) Pond and Mt. Morris (1888); middle, “The Drowned Lands” [Moody Flow] (1888) by Seneca Ray Stoddard; map created by Rick Rosen.


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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 retired 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 mpresco1@nycap.rr.com

One Response

  1. Big Burly says:

    Mike, an interesting read that fills in knowledge blanks about the area for me. Thanks.

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