Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Sacandaga River History: Piseco, Lake Pleasant Reservoirs

pamphlet cover for The Forest Preserve 5 Association for the Protection of the AdirondacksThe Sacandaga River valley has been used as a transportation and communication corridor since before Europeans arrived. It was a native trail, a military road, and a proposed canal and railroad route. Today it’s home to Route 30. The river is a provider of power and recreation, and a powerful force of nature.

Just after the Civil War, a N.Y. Canal Board report (known as the McElroy Report) noted the damage along the Hudson River caused from annual flooding and suggested reservoirs upstream for flood relief and water power. Proposals were made at that time to dam many of the tributaries of the Upper Hudson, including the Sacandaga, but the New York State Legislature took no action.

In 1874 Farrand N. Benedict and Verplanck Colvin issued the Adirondack Storage Report, detailing areas where storage or containment dams could be constructed to minimizing Hudson River flooding in the spring and retain water for late summer and early fall release and use when it was needed in the communities downriver.

After the U.S. Federal Census of 1880, Dwight Porter of MIT detailed the need for public and private funding of dams along the Upper Hudson River and its tributaries. Professor Porter noted that at Palmer’s Falls, now Corinth, NY, and at Mechanicville (in Saratoga County) there were significant changes in flowage from early May through late August affecting the mills and other industrial operations in those area, all of which relied on water power.

Porter wrote that water could be stored at Indian Lake, Schroon Lake, and in the Sacanadaga River region, all up-river of Palmer’s Falls (Corinth), Glens Falls, and Mechanicville. This report along with the others finally spurred the New York State Legislature into action. In the 1895 Annual Report of the State Engineer and Surveyor of the State of New York, George W, Rafter wrote an extensive report on the storage capacity of the Upper Hudson detailing the possibilities of dam construction on the Indian, Boreas, Schroon, and Sacandaga river systems. He even went so far as to describe possible dams within each of the tributaries.

One site they seriously considered in 1895 was on the Schroon River at Tumblehead Falls below Schroon Lake. The location was surveyed, but local opposition, including litigation by the Schroon Lake Association of property owners, contributed to the project’s abandonment. The Indian Lake Dam, on the Indian River, was built in 1898. Additional dams and reservoirs were proposed along the Hudson, Indian and Sacandaga Rivers, including plans for dams along their feeder streams.

Map of the Piseco Lake Arietta ReservoirA set of storage dams was proposed to create a Piseco Lake Reservoir as early as 1895. The Dam would have been constructed on the West Branch of the Scanadaga River, about a mile down stream from the confluence of the Piseco Lake Outlet, at Little Falls (just before the entrance to the West Branch Gorge). The dam would have been approximately 76 feet in height and about 300 feet long at its crest.

The resultant impoundment was expected to raise the level of Piseco Lake 16 feet above its normal level (including Big Bay and Spy Lake, 1659 feet to 1674 feet). It would have covered a large swampy meadows known as the ‘Arietta Flow’ with about 25 feet of water. The Piseco Lake Reservoir would include all of Piseco Lake including the Piseco Outlet (Big Bay), and eight smaller bodies of water: Vly, Fall, Spy, Trout, Little Trout, Chub, and Good Luck lakes.

“Nearly all of the buildings in Rudeston, Piseco, and along the north shore would have to be moved to higher ground,” the plans read. “The new shoreline would consist of sandy beaches and the remainder would be rocky. The low bottomlands to be flowed in the Piseco outlet and the Arietta flow are either bogs or unsightly stumps and water killed timber, or low meadows with scattering thickets of alders and other swamp growths. Where these meadows are open the almost worthless native grasses is chopped to a small extent. These lands are of little value for agricultural purposes and might better be covered with water and continuously kept so.”

A reservoir at Lake Pleasant was also proposed, an impoundment on the Middle Branch of the Sacandaga River. An excellent dam site was at a ledge outcrop on both sides of the river, about three quarters of a mile bellow the mouth of Kunjamuk River. A 20 to 25-foot masonry dam was proposed that would rise the water level of Lake Pleasant about 10 feet from 1724 to 1734 feet. Since Lake Sacandaga is at the same elevation connected by a short stream both lakes would be included in the new reservoir. In addition the impoundment would include the Kunjamuk River and Elm Lake, Burnt Place Brook and Mud Lake. In 1911 there were relatively few building along the shores of Lake Pleasant and Sacandaga Lake, the community of Speculator (then Newton Corners) was quite small. The rising waters would put ten feet of “water over this unsightly and worthless land and it need never be seen low enough to expose the same again to view.”

The proposed Lake Pleasant Lake Scandal ReservoirIn addition there were a few smaller dams proposed on the Upper Sacandaga River. One at Auger Flats, just above Auger or Austin Falls, and one at The Forks where the West Branch of the Sacandaga and the Middle Branch meet, at today’s Sacandaga Campground.

Interestingly there was not a dam proposed at Wells. The dam there was began as a loggers’ crib dam. The citizenry of Wells decided in 1924 to create their own lake (Lake Algonquin) to enhance their community. The Lake Algonquin / Wells Crib Dam was replaced with a concrete dam in 1959 and in 1987 converted to produce hydroelectric power.

Although there was a crib dam for the tannery at Griffin, and another at Oregon or Foxlair between Johnsburg to the Sacanadaga, the East Branch of the Sacandaga River was not thought of as being conducive to an impoundment reservoir by the Conservation Commission in 1911.

The final result of all these efforts was the Great Sacandaga Reservoir, proposed and constructed by Eugene Ashley and Elmer West (who built the Spier Falls Dam and the proposed Tumblehead Falls Dam on the Schroon River). The Sacandaga Dam at Conklingville was begun in 1922 and completed in 1930 creating the Great Sacandaga Lake. That reservoir was built just outside the boundaries of the 1920s Adirondack Park.

Adirondack dam construction would slow during the Second World War. After the war, the Higley and Panther Mountain Dams in the Moose River Plains were proposed and defeated, but in the 1960s, new dams were proposed on the main flow of the Upper Hudson River (Gooley #1, Kettle Mountain, the Glen and Big Hadley dams).

You can read more about Adirondack dams and their history here.

Photos, from above: 1949 pamphlet cover for The Forest Preserve, the Association for The Protection of the Adirondacks; the proposed Piseco Lake /Arietta Reservoir, showing dam location at red triangle; and map of the proposed Lake Pleasant / Sacandaga Lake Reservoir.

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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

5 Responses

  1. Ed Pitts says:

    Great research and an excellent review of a key part of the history of dams in the north country. Thanks Mike!

  2. Dave Gibson says:

    Fascinating and detailed review, Mike. Thank you. Paul Schaefer often pulled out that proposed Piseco reservoir map. By the way, the Forest Preserve (magazine) you caption for Piseco Reservoir was published by Paul’s organization Friends of the Forest Preserve from 1945-55, not the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks. Friends continues today as Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve

  3. drdirt says:

    Oh my, all those paddling streams under a lake!!! Thanks for your great article .,.,,. makes us all want to support ‘forever wild’ even more.

  4. John Casadonte says:

    Very interesting info Mike. Thanks for researching and providing it.

  5. Michael Krieger says:

    I married a girl from Johnstown New York I’ve been Up There Numerous Times
    N we have property in the Town Of Day the Lake Is The Highlight Of Our Trip We Live In New Jersey n Can’t Wait Till I Retire N Move Up There For Good I’m Especially Fond Of The Town Of Speculator n Can’t Wait Till Thanksgiving When We Will Be Up There For 2 Weeks