The state’s ongoing purchase of some 65,000 acres from the Nature Conservancy brings to mind the largest land purchase for the Forest Preserve in history. In 1896, the needs of the Erie Canal resulted in the state’s purchase from Dr. William Seward Webb of 74,584 acres.
The story begins with the Black River, which starts primarily at North Lake reservoir and travels in a route that begins southwesterly then turns northwesterly around Forestport to ultimately end at Lake Ontario. At 115 miles, it is the longest river running completely within New York’s borders. Bodies of water adding to the Black River’s water volume include Otter and Woodhull Creeks, and the Independence, Moose and Beaver Rivers. In the 19th century, Watertown and other river towns grew from villages to industrial centers with factories and mills relying heavily on water power.
The Erie Canal, after more than eight years of construction, began operations in 1825. According to Frank Graham, its opening brought about two almost immediate consequences: (1) opening the west to an economical and efficient means of immigration, travel and commerce and (2) bringing about a rapid drop in the value of speculators’ lands in the North Woods. Sensing this revenue loss, the Black River counties appealed for state funding of canals to connect the Black River to this money highway .
Also, the Erie Canal’s managers soon realized a need to add more water volume not only to compensate for dry seasons, but also for larger boats and traffic volumes resulting from the new canal’s popularity, requiring enlargement of the canal itself. After many years of surveys, debates, authorization bills and then resurveys, the decision was made to build a Black River Canal “feeder” to Forestport ( a prettier name than its former Punkeyville). Construction started in 1837 and it opened for traffic in 1850, with the state also building a new dam at Forestport to replace a former sawmill dam. It extended to Carthage by 1855.
Additional measures were enacted in 1851 to perform surveys for replacing the water taken from the Black River for the Black River Canal. It would come from the lakes upstream from the Black River, and from the Moose and Beaver Rivers, including an Old Forge dam. In 1799, John Brown had placed a log dam at the site of the present Old Forge dam to create a waterfall to operate his sawmill and gristmill; this created the Old Forge Pond. When George Desbrough and J. Milton Buell purchased the Forge Tract from the Lyman Lyon estate in 1871, they obtained the right to improve the dam but could raise it no higher than 3 feet. The 1851 laws proposed a dam 16 feet high to back up the first five Fulton Chain Lakes.
In the next decades, an industrial invasion hit the North Country in the form of lumber mills and manufactories requiring water for turning waterwheels and transporting logs. Lower river regions such as Carthage and Watertown, growing into large towns and cities, also needed adequate water flow from the Black River for their own mills and factories, reduced by the Erie and Black River canal draws. Erie Canal engineers did contemplate the need for reservoirs if water volumes proved insufficient for traffic volume, but did not expect the combined draws for industry and feeder canals to grow so soon.
The Forestport dam, depending on natural river flow, encountered fluctuations in water volume depending on the changing seasons and the rainfall counts. O’Donnell informs us that even when several reservoirs were put into operation, the Erie Canal never received more than a half or so of its basic water needs. Industries and towns, facing loss of commerce and local employment, began suing the state.
Already authorized by the 1851 laws, reservoirs were built at North (1855), South (1861), and Woodhull Lakes (1860). But engineers for these failed to consider the Black River Canal feeder requirements, needed to fill the Erie Canal’s needs. By 1881, the Bisby Lakes and Twin Lakes had reservoirs. The theoretical addition of water supply from more reservoirs was offset by vandalism by lumber companies, dam mismanagement and lack of proper maintenance.
During the 19th century, lumber company interests persuaded the legislature to define important log driving waterways as “public highways” for floating logs and timber. Raquette River was declared one in 1810, Black River in 1821, Moose River in 1851 and Beaver River in 1853. Also, the state funded obstruction clearing and improving river flow to better the movement of the felled product on these “highways”, proof that the state endorsed such usage for these rivers. In fact, Dr. Webb’s 1895 witnesses testified that $10,000 had been spent in 1864 to blast rocks in the Beaver River, straighten its bends and build a small dam near Lake Lila (then Smith’s Lake) to add water flow for timber when necessary.
In the period of 1850-1880, railroad projects began in the North Woods in the hopes that more timberland would be made available to the lumber companies along with the means to transport them. The state encouraged railroads with tax-free land offerings. In addition to loss of land for railroad construction, large tracts of land were denuded for lumber and tanneries, then allowed to be abandoned for nonpayment of taxes and ownership then transferred upon payment of due taxes. Often confusing land boundaries enabled thievery of lumber from state lands. Land prices stayed reasonably low.
According to History of the Canal System of New York State by Noble Whitford: “In 1880 necessary steps were taken to increase the water-storage capacity and surveys were made of the Fulton chain of lakes, numbering seven, and in 1881 these new reservoirs were brought into use. For the purpose of further restoring to the Black river its natural supply and to furnish the requisite quantity of water for the Black River canal and the Rome level of the Erie, and for the owners of the mills on the river, an act (chapter 336) was passed in 1881, authorizing the construction of reservoirs upon the Independence and Beaver rivers.”
This act authorized purchasing any needed land surrounding the new dams. A new dam was built at Old Forge in 1879, establishing the Old Forge Reservoir containing the first four lakes and the Sixth Lake Reservoir in 1880 containing Sixth and Seventh Lakes. Nessmuk would later describe the scene at the 10 foot Sixth Lake Dam as one of “desolation” where “the shoreline of trees stood dead and dying, while the smell of decaying vegetable matter was sickening”.
As mentioned earlier, industries in Watertown and bordering Black River towns were considerably damaged by lack of natural river flow resulting from constant draws for the Erie Canal and Black Canal feeder. According to a Lowville paper, Watertown mills shut down for 6 weeks in 1881. Damages from dams, lumber industry practices such as clearcutting forest lands and a growing need for protection of the North Woods resulted in the state’s cancellation of tax sales of denuded forest lands. Land values now rose with the state holding onto the land, wealthy landowners establishing private preserves and the 1885 creation of the Forest Preserve.
With these interests merging into a new era of Adirondack preservation and the state’s desire to acquire more Forest Preserve lands, the Beaver River dam story with its litigations began.
Although the 1881 law specified it to be built in Lewis County, the Beaver River dam was built 8 miles into Herkimer County, nine feet high-six inches above low water, in 1886 at Stillwater. A harbinger of a later development, 1,594 of the 9,500 acres of Mary Lyon Fisher’s surrounding lands were taken or overflowed by this new dam and she sued the state, recovering $9,970.
In 1891, adding to his massive land holdings, Dr. William Seward Webb purchased 77,000 acres in Hamilton and Herkimer counties which brought his total forest acreage in the Beaver River area to about 120,000 acres. During 18 months in 1891 and 1892, Dr. Webb built his famous railroad through the region. By 1892, he had a great camp on his 40,000 acre private preserve at the headwaters of the Beaver River called Nehasane Park. Dr. Webb used the Beaver River to raft his logs to mills below. Though 275 acres were considered flooded by the first dam in 1886, any damages incurred were considered assumed by Dr. Webb’s 1891 purchase price.
In 1892, again facing damage claims by downriver Black River industries not receiving adequate river flow for mills, Governor Flower signed legislation (1892, Ch. 469) authorizing the raising of Stillwater Dam an additional 5 feet, indirectly ratifying its incorrect 1886 location in Herkimer County. According to Dr. Webb’s witnesses, this increased his flooded area from 275 to 1,327 acres for a river distance of 10½ miles. Furthermore, the additional height precluded the “public” highway use of the Beaver River both in river flow to move Dr. Webb’s log rafts and unrestricted passage of the logs beyond the dam, originally only a half foot obstruction.
In 1894, Dr. Webb sued the state for $184,350.60 in damages resulting from the new dam to 65,836 acres that couldn’t be lumbered by natural river flow. Of this acreage, 21,678 were considered inaccessible for lumbering by railroad transport and 44,157 acres could be lumbered by railroad but at an estimated triple the normal cost. He also claimed damages for shoreline acres that could have been used for camps and cottages.
Faced with this suit, Black River industries’ damage claims, the rise in land values after stopping tax sales (1885) and land purchased for large private preserves (1871-1894) reducing purchasable forest land needed for the Forest Preserve, the state enacted a solution, Chapter 551 of the laws of 1895, on February 21, 1895.
This law authorized the Forest, Fish & Game Commission, upon approval by the Commissioners of the Land Office, to purchase tracts of lands located within the Forest Preserve, not exceeding 80,000 acres, where owners sustained damages resulting from construction of dams for canal purposes or to restore waters taken for canal purposes. The purchase was to take into account damages done to the owners by the dams and required that the owner release the state from damages to any lands not included in the purchase. An initial amount for purchase was provided in the amount of $50,000, with any remaining amount allowed to be paid in annual installments for 10 years with 3% interest. Dr. Webb then offered the only tract that qualified.
In an abstract dated July 10, 1895, Dr. Webb detailed proofs of his damages, pending in the state’s Board of Claims, to the Forest Commission and the Commissioners of the Land Office. He also presented an offer to sell approximately 75,000 acres in the Beaver River watershed proximity for $600,000, releasing the state from any claims for damages on these lands and on the lands he retained. He “permitted” the raising of the Stillwater dam for up to 13 feet higher than the 1892 level, excepting the right of way for his Mohawk & Malone Railway.
Also, easements were provided for two contemplated “highways”: one from Clearwater Station to Raquette Lake and one along the north shore of the Fulton Chain from Old Forge to Eagle Bay. Other exceptions allowed three 1894 lumbering contracts to complete timber removal before those lands transferred to the state. The settlement included the historic “Webb Covenant”, a list of protective land use restrictions on any retained lands by Dr. Webb and any future owners of those lands.
During the month of July 1895, a party of state officials including the Secretary of State Palmer, State Engineer Adams, the Forest, Fish & Game Commissioners, representatives of the Land Board, the Black River Water Commissioners, legislators and other “distinguished” representatives did a grand tour of the Beaver River and Moose River country to inspect the offered lands. They hunted, fished and dined at Nehasane Park, took a steamer to the dam (the steamer malfunctioned causing a muddy tramp back), were entertained by Paul Smith at Saranac Inn, dined at the Forge House and said hello to ex-President Benjamin Harrison at Second Lake.
At year’s end, the state accepted the offer and in a deed dated January 16, 1896, Dr. Webb and his wife conveyed 74,584.62 acres to the state for terms amounting to $600,000 plus interest.
In summary, the Erie Canal, shortly after beginning operations in 1825, required the waters of the Black River to support its water volume needs. The Black River Canal, then reservoirs were built in the 1850s to 1870s to support the Black River Canal, but not the Black River flow for the down river industrial mills. The Beaver River dam at Stillwater – and dams at Old Forge and Sixth Lake – was dedicated to restore the water flow to the mills, damaging Dr. Webb’s lands. To satisfy Dr. Webb’s claims and ensure continued control of the Stillwater dam and a chunk to the Forest Preserve, the state made the largest ever purchase of Adirondack park land.
Photo: Abandoned locks on the Black River Canal in Lewis County, New York. Photo courtesy Wikimedia user Ebedgert.