Sunday, April 28, 2019

In 1969, Citizens Saved the Upper Hudson from Destruction

Fifty springs ago, the Upper Hudson River was conserved as a wild, free flowing river. The Schenectady Gazette’s writer Pete Jacobs reported the news in the April 17, 1969 edition of that newspaper:

“Without opposition, the Assembly gave swift approval to legislation prohibiting the construction of the Gooley Dam on the Upper Hudson River, branded by conservationists as a threat to the wild river country.”

In addition to Gooley, the bill blocks construction of any reservoirs on the river from Luzerne to its source in the Adirondack Park.

The estimated $57 million dam was proposed as a source of water supply for the long-range needs of New York City and other communities along the lower river.

Passed 121 to 0, the bill goes to the governor for his signature. Conservation-oriented groups including the Adirondack Hudson River Association, led by President Paul Schaefer of Schenectady, were prime opponents of the dam.

They claimed the reservoir would destroy a 25-mile stretch of the river, along with forests and lakes of the State Forest Preserve in the heart of the Adirondack Park.

In a brief statement after the vote, Schaefer said there had been a ‘mandate’ by the people to preserve the wild country and he lauded the legislature’s action. Schaefer had urged adoption of the measure to Assembly Speaker Perry R. Duryea, Jr. as well as other legislators….

The state water resources commission had endorsed the dam, saying surface water is the best source for New  York City and that the Gooley dam project had the greatest potential storage.

There was virtually no opposition at hearings on the legislation when Schaefer and others noted the Hamlet of Newcomb would be all but wiped out.

Senator Walter B. Langley, R-Albany and Schoharie Counties was co-sponsor of the bill, which was introduced by Sen. Bernard C. Smith, R-Northport, and Assemblyman Clarence Lane, Windham, conservation committee chairmen.”

The very notion of damming the Upper Hudson River might be viewed now as a complete non-starter, but that was by no means the case 50 years ago.  The first Earth Day was still in the future and New York had not passed its version of the national Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers System (that had to wait until 1972).

While their heyday was past, big dams were still being planned and in construction across the country. During the severe drought of the early to mid-1960s, New  York City officials considered the city’s water supply in crisis. Having already heavily exploited and dammed the Catskill Mountains in the 1920s, these officials –  City, State, plus the US Army Corps of Engineers – turned to the Adirondacks for their salvation. Numerous studies pointed to this as a solution. One commentator at the time, president of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks Arthur M. Crocker, noted that:

“The staff of the New York State Water Resources Commission completed a state-wide survey and a team of engineering firms, commissioned by the NYS Department of Health on behalf of New  York City and Westchester County, also issued a report. The two reports point to the Hudson River estuary as the logical and most economical source of water for the New York Metropolitan area; both point to the necessity to hold back the salt-front in the estuary to permit substantial withdrawals above Poughkeepsie during low-flow periods; both recommend dams on the Upper Hudson for low-flow augmentation, pointing to Gooley No. 1 as the most cost-effective dam for the purpose.”

Gooley # 1 dam was proposed just below the confluence of the Hudson and Indian Rivers, just above Blue Ledges.  As stated by Arthur Crocker, the dam’s purpose was, during the drought, to augment fresh water flowing into the Hudson River estuary and to push the salt-front below the City’s intakes.

Paul Schaefer, president of the Adirondack Hudson River Association, put the question this way:

“Because some municipalities pollute our rivers and streams, because some refuse to meter existing water supplies, because some allow the waste of water from antiquated and broken water mains and laterals, shall the people, as a whole, be forced to sacrifice lovely wilderness valleys and villages like Newcomb, which will be under fifty feet of water should this proposed Gooley dam be built?”

Schaefer went on:

“Are we willing to lose the best trout waters remaining in our state, excellent big-game hunting country, and some of our very best winter yarding grounds for deer? Shall we replace the challenging five hour white water canoe adventures through country federal officials have described as the ‘most spectacular river scenery in the East’ with boating on a wildly fluctuating millpond? Shall we drown out miles of fine hiking trails and wilderness campsites, replacing them with a cemetery of stumps and dreary mud flats?”

“We need to take a stand on the Upper Hudson, a stand that knows no compromise, a stand that will accept no halfway effort, nor be satisfied with any engineering study less than one needed to permanently preserve the  Hudson from destruction….We need the support of all who value the wild-forest character of the Adirondacks”

Similar to the Moose River (South Branch) dam wars of 1945-55, New York State officials were either supportive of damming the Upper Hudson, or heavily compromised. Most compromised of all was the Commissioner of Conservation (DEC had not yet been organized) Stewart Kilbourne. Arthur Crocker wrote in 1968 of the Commissioner that he “wears two hats in this controversy. In addition to his role as administrator of the Forest Preserve, he is Chairman of the NYS Water Resources Commission” which had commissioned the studies and was in favor of the dam.

In 1968, Commissioner Kilbourne wrote:

“Thus, the most recent investigations, designed to meet the projected water needs of an area now populated by some 11 million people…point clearly to the Adirondacks as the best source of water for eastern New York State. It is a source that will be needed desperately for water supply in the near future to insure economic growth and social well-being of future generations” (from the 1968 annual report of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks).

Clearly, without the efforts of Schaefer, his Adirondack Hudson River Association, and its many allies residing in towns like Newcomb, Long Lake, Indian Lake, Luzerne, Warrensburg, North Creek and Lake George, the chances that Gooley #1 Dam would be built were substantially increased, despite the monetary costs involved (estimated at roughly $60 million at the time) and the fact that the NYS Constitution might require an amendment to build it. Some state officials fiercely disputed that it would need to be amended and feared the required public referendum. They simply wanted to act administratively. Remember that Governor Nelson Rockefeller was a builder of big things. For example, the St. Lawrence Seaway certainly bears his mark, and Gooley dam might have, were it not for upstate and Adirondack citizens prepared to defend the river.

Gooley dam would have flooded 35 miles of the Upper Hudson, 16,000 acres, including the Essex Chain of Lakes, Lake Harris and the town of Newcomb, including Rich Lake and the site of today’s visitor interpretive center. The huge reservoir would have fluctuated 50-60 feet regularly, leaving large areas of mudflat. Paul Schaefer wrote eloquently in the late 60s about Gooley’s impacts knowing that the impetus for building it came not only from the Governor’s officials like Kilbourne, from New York City and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE surveys of the dam site were underway in 1968), but from recreational motor boaters who favored a big lake on the Hudson, as well as nuclear proponents who wanted more cooling water for nuclear power plants.

Many ordinary citizens joined Schaefer in this successful fight and did extraordinary things. One was Schenectady County’s Ned Bigelow who wrote a detailed study of how New York City could replace every drop of water from Gooley reservoir if it metered its own water and plugged the millions of leaks in its massive water distribution system.  Another was Saratoga County’s Don Brightman who testified on behalf of our wild rivers like the Hudson to the United States Congress. Even the Holiday Inn in Lake George featured the issue and hosted a large conference of those opposed to the dam.

It was conferences, studies and testimonials like these that helped Senator Bernard C. Smith (Republican, Northport on Long Island), an angler  and a persuasive politician intensely devoted to the conservation of our state’s wilderness and natural resources. Senator Smith chaired the Senate’s conservation committee.  Thank our lucky stars for Senators – Republicans –  like him.  This spring, let’s salute such people living and acting on our stage 50 years ago as we enjoy every sparkling, frothing rapid and reflective stillwater of the wild Upper Hudson River.

Photos, from above: Hudson River in Newcomb; Hudson River near the Blue Ledges by Paul Schaefer, c. 1968; Extent of proposed Gooley dam reservoir, c. 1968; and Holiday Inn in Lake George sign.

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

8 Responses

  1. Boreas says:


    Thanks for the informative article. Did NYC survive?

  2. Ed Burke says:

    I’m unfamiliar with the Gooley Dam proposal but build mantras often chanted by politicians of that era led to many poor decisions. In 1965 one almost put a four-lane highway through the middle of downtown Saratoga Springs where the Rt. 50 arterials leading into and out of the city were supposed to connect, dividing the city and destroying historic Franklin Square. The Rt. 28 bypass around downtown North Creek was certainly unnecessary given the amount of traffic and that downtown has never recovered, traffic is what it needs. A few years after the dam proposal a four-lane highway was suggested to connect Lake Placid with the Adirondack Northway in prep for the 1980 Olympics. Certainly millions of dollars in asphalt at the crazy intersection south of Keene Valley could have been saved with a $200 stop sign like they have at the intersection north of Keene Valley. A lot of the plans had more to do with a short-term public money grab than long-term planning.

  3. Chris says:


  4. Worth Gretter says:

    Nice article! Now we just need to get rid of that culvert abomination that crosses the Hudson at Tahawus.

  5. Paul says:

    Was this proposed dam only for a reservoir? There were no plans to use it to produce hydro-power? The article only seems to talk about the “negative” impacts of the project?

    This older Almanack story also has some additional good information regarding “clean” power production that we didn’t get.

  6. Tony Goodwin says:

    Two points unrelated to each other:
    1) There was apparently no hydropower component because the water was just being saved for times of need, and all that water would do was be released to increase the flow in the Hudson enough to push the tidal salt threshold below the NYC pumping station on the Hudson. There was never any plant build a Catskill-style aqueduct all the way from Gooley Dam to NYC.
    2) Yes, there were several proposals to greatly improve the highways leading to Lake Placid before the 1980 Olympics, but none were ever seriously considered. The only improvement actually done was the passing lane on Cascade Pass. The major intersection south of Keene Valley was built in the early 60s before the Northway was built. At that time there apparently was a fatal accident about once every year as the Rt. 9 and Rt. 86A (as it was then numbered) merged at an acute-angled intersection that required drivers to look more than 90-degrees to the left or right to see if there was oncoming traffic.

  7. Mal Provost says:

    Remarkable and heartening history. Nice work and kindest thoughts to Paul Schaefer and his compatriots who had the foresight and energy to commit to this fight.

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