Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Spier Falls Disaster: An Adirondack Tragedy

Adirondack history is naturally rife with river-related stories—wildly successful fishing trips, damaging floods, wilderness exploration, and dam construction. Rivers were the lifeblood of development:  settlements sprang up along waterways, where partial diversion of streams provided the wheel-turning power necessary to many industries. But freshets were so common and destructive that dams were introduced as flood-control measures, and then for hydropower as the electrification of society unfolded.

Recognizing the great financial potential of providing electricity to industries and the masses, power companies sought to develop dozens of potential reservoir sites. Among the arguments they used to justify building dam after dam was public safety. Ironically, the construction of a hydro dam was marred by one of the worst tragedies in Adirondack history.

The project was built on the Hudson River at Spier Falls, roughly seven miles southwest of Glens Falls, at a site named after William Spier, one of the city’s wealthy and prominent businessmen. In spring 1901, the Hudson River Electric Company was organized “to construct dams on the Hudson in Saratoga, Warren, and Washington Counties,” and expand onto other waterways, with the goal of furnishing electricity to at least ten counties from Albany north to the Canadian border.

The new company’s first endeavor, a huge dike at Spier Falls, was destined to become one of the biggest dams in the country (upon completion, it was tabbed the fourth largest). Overall, said Encyclopedia Americana, the wall was 1,800 feet long and 100 feet high. According to Engineering Record (June 1903), the wall’s highest section, measured from the river bed, was 154 feet. The 10 penstocks (water-carrying pipes) were 12 feet in diameter. The company purchased 1.5 million bricks from the Glens Falls Brick Company for building the powerhouse, which featured a wheel pit measuring 21.5 by 297 feet. To contain the wheel pit “room” meant the powerhouse had to be gargantuan, which it was: 71 feet wide and 392 feet long. To deliver the electricity to customers, the company purchased a million pounds of wire. One of the cableways carrying a 10-ton payload was the longest of its kind in the world, spanning 2,140 feet. The massive generator installed in January 1903 weighed 36 tons. Everything about the Spier Dam project was enormous—including, unfortunately, the death toll during construction.

Back then, losing men on physical-labor jobs occurred at an alarming rate, and a great number of victims were recent arrivals from other countries. While it’s true that immigrants built America, it’s also true that many of them died trying. When work at Spier Falls began, new arrivals in the country totaled about a million a year. Some came here permanently, while many made the trip several times to earn money and return home. Jobs were easy to find on mining, railroad, and all manner of construction crews.

Large groups of workers from a particular country were often employed under the padrone system. Since the majority of visitors or newcomers spoke only their native language, one or two men among them proficient in English—they were known as padrones—represented the group, which might be Italian, Polish, or any other nationality. Because of confusion among American workers trying to pronounce and spell a mix of foreign names, many companies assigned identity numbers to each individual, which simplified the payroll process. Checks or cash were turned over to the padrone, who, unlike company officials, knew all the workers by name and was considered best-suited to handle the distribution of pay.

But the padrone system had severe shortcomings, including woefully inadequate job training. Verbal instructions provided to the padrone were often token to begin with, and in many cases were minimally relayed to the workers or not shared at all. Safety was something learned through a combination of watching, doing, and common sense. The result was a plethora of unsafe practices leading to an inordinate number of immigrant deaths and maimings.

At Spier Falls, most of the work was performed by large crews of Italian workers, both skilled and unskilled laborers. Records are incomplete, but on July 11, 1900, a month after construction began, two of those men were lost to drowning when they slipped off a log while attempting to form a boom.

In late April 1901, with the Hudson swollen from heavy rain and melting snow, 100 feet of the coffer dam (the boxed-off area in the river where workers toiled, 900 feet long and 90 feet high) was wiped out, breaking a derrick’s guy ropes and sending two Glens Falls men into the water, one of whom drowned. Four months later, in late August, the collapse of another derrick killed a member of the Italian crew. Nine days after that, a point-blank dynamite explosion in a granite quarry blew both arms off Forest Bowman, known to all as “French Joe.” He succumbed two days later.

In February 1902, an Italian worker died when a steep bank of loose earth collapsed, and at the end of March, another of his workmates was killed by falling debris. In late August, a masonry inspector from Glens Falls was struck and killed by a train. In early November, seven Italian workers were riding high in the air in a cableway tram bucket when it accidentally struck the dam, dumping two of the occupants, just 16 and 17 years old, to their deaths on the rocks below.

The variety of situations that ended in fatalities demonstrate that the construction company followed the same management plan as railroads and mines: for the most part, employees were left to their own devices and held responsible for their own well-being. That way, companies were seldom found culpable or financially responsible for worker deaths or injuries.

Aside from losing several employees, the dam’s construction phase ran into only one major roadblock. When the wall stretched from the north bank nearly half-way across the Hudson, an immense depression measuring about 150 by 350 feet was discovered in the riverbed. Engineers determined that the huge dip, gouged out by eons of water-driven rubble action, could not be spanned by the dam wall. They eventually arrived at only one workable solution: filling it with cement and building on top of it.

It was a tedious, physically demanding, time-consuming job, best handled by methods employed in iron mining to remove solid rock walls. Rows of steel bars were driven into the rock, and when the bars were removed, each hole received five sticks of dynamite. Every blast produced large amounts of muck—rocks anywhere from fist-sized to several hundred pounds—that was removed via pick (to loosen clumps and break boulders), shovel, elbow grease, and tram cars.

The dam’s operational target, fall 1902, was moved back to spring 1903, allowing time for the additional work to be completed. The delay, as we’ll see, was costly, and not only in financial terms.

Next week, the conclusion: a catastrophe of major proportions.

Photos: Spier Falls Dam (Review of Reviews, 1903); Spier Falls construction scene (Engineer Record, circa 1902); Spier Dam powerhouse (NYS Archives, Conservation Dept.)

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

6 Responses

  1. Kathleen Moak says:

    I really enjoyed & appreciated this informative article on the dam at Spier Falls. The dam always fascinated me while growing up in Corinth. My dad worked there most of his life. He would tell us facts that he knew about it’s origin and stories that I supposed he had heard or witnessed over the years. I remember him saying that one of his friends was electrocuted working on a pole. He worked with a crew of 28 men, I believe.
    Also, my Mother walked approximately 5 miles each way from Fuller Rd. To Spier to teach in a small school there.
    Probably sometime in the mid to late ’20’s. She said there was a whole bunch of houses for the workers there. Walking home when it was dark, sometimes she could hear the wild cats screeching! My cousin ended up having one of the big old houses that she purchased, moved up on Folts Rd.
    Sorry to ramble on, but I wanted you to know we local people have a lot of memories of that dam and the people who worked there. Thanks for the great read!

  2. southcove says:

    Enjoyed this. Looking forward to the next installation.

  3. Shawn.Dudley says:

    Very interesting story. Looking forward to Part II.

  4. Tony O. says:

    I have spent a lot of time in the woods around the dam. It’s interesting to poke around the old foundations along the river

  5. Kim Stangle says:

    Wow — I had heard of construction fatalities but never read this detailed explanation —thanks for sharing !

  6. Great reading , not many realize how many perished building these marvels of the century.