Thursday, October 8, 2020

The making of Great Sacandaga Lake (and the flooding of communities)

Like many beautiful Adirondack Lakes, the Great Sacandaga Lake is man-made.

It was created in 1930 when the newly constructed Conklingville Dam closed its valves and filled the valley with 38 billion cubic feet of water. The seed for damming the Sacandaga River was planted in 1874 when the New York State Canal Commission suggested that the “creation of reservoirs on the head-waters of the Hudson would allow control over its seasonal flow and prevent flooding of downstream communities.”

Albany flood 1913When the great Easter flood of 1913 hit Albany, Troy, and several other cities, the New York State Legislature finally moved to take direct action. Floodwaters of five feet or more had filled some city streets and remained for more than 3 days; fires caused by broken gas mains created even more damage in Troy than that of flooding; and Albany reported more than 180 cases of typhoid fever as a result of contaminated drinking water. The “Burd Amendment” to the New York State Constitution passed in November that year, allowing up to 3% of state forest preserve to be used for the creation of reservoirs.

Sixteen reservoir sites were planned with the Sacandaga site occupying the largest area, about the size of Lake George, at 42 square miles. Over a dozen hamlets now sit at the bottom of the Great Sacandaga Lake. Ethel Edwards grew up in one of the Sacandaga Valley hamlets. Osborn Bridge is long gone now and she remembered the feeling of utter desolation and heartache at having to leave all her childhood memories behind.

Another Northville resident, Charlotte Russell, remembers her family touring the destruction in their Tin Lizzie. It became a “popular pasttime [sic] for ‘Sunday drivers’ to motor around the roads of the valley, for whole families to see the progress being made… The beautiful landscape had become a “barren desert, the air thick with smoke and debris.”

The dark side of the lake

Over 12,000 homes in the valley were moved or destroyed. For four years leading up to the valley floor flooding, workers feverishly cut and burned timber, tore down fences, removed or burned down residences, and dug up and relocated over 1,000 gravesites in 22 cemeteries. Still, after the flooding, giant timbers up to four feet in diameter, occasionally rose to the surface of the lake. Sadly, even casket handles from unmarked and overlooked gravesites washed up on shore. Even though landowners were paid fair market value for their property everybody lost something.

While many fought hard to prevent the flooding of their precious valley, the government’s right of eminent domain ultimately claimed the region because, according to officials, “it would serve the greater good.” The Fonda, Johnstown & Gloversville Railroad put up the biggest fight because of their financial stake in the famous Sacandaga Park. This Coney Island-style playground was a Mecca for tourists as far away as New York City. It included outdoor entertainment venues that featured boxing matches, balloon rides, fireworks, and a huge midway that contained roller coasters and carousels. A miniature railroad carried visitors to and from a large island that contained a baseball diamond and picnic areas. Some of the most popular entertainers of the era performed at Sacandaga. Al Jolson, W.C. Fields, Eddie Cantor and band leader John Philip Sousa all drew huge crowds to the park. The park also had four large hotels that served over 90,000 visitors each summer. Now, it is all just a memory.

Despite the trauma many experienced in losing their homes some people jumped at the opportunity to take advantage of other’s misfortunes. Landsharks invaded the area as early as 1923 and started buying up property to resell to the Water Regulating District. Many homeowners, as well as the Sacandaga Park officials, stopped making repairs and maintenance on their property well before the valley was flooded. The cutting of timber, razing of buildings, and overall lack of maintenance created a bleak landscape in what was once a pristine part of the Adirondack Park. By April 1930 it was all under water.

Sacandaga today

In the 1960s the Sacandaga Reservoir’s name was changed to the Great Sacandaga Lake in order to promote tourism. Today, the Great Sacandaga Lake and surrounding region is once again a Mecca to travelers seeking outdoor recreation. The New York DEC maintains four boat launches on the lake and the nearby DEC campsite on the Sacandaga River has 143 campsites. Canoeing and kayaking, boating and sailing, fishing and swimming are just a few of the activities offered here in abundance.

Editor’s note: A recent sign project will place 15 markers around the lake to pay tribute to its history. Read more.

Photos: A view of the Great Sacandaga Lake from a nearby overlook/courtesy of Wikipedia.

A shot of Central Avenue from the Great Albany Flood of 1913, courtesy of Albany Group Archive.

The Conklingville Dam controls floods, generates hydropower and regulates the shoreline on Great Sacandaga Lake in the southern Adirondacks. Cindy Schultz/Adirondack Explorer file photo.

The midway in 1912. From the Sacandaga Park, NY Postcard Collection, Northville Public Library, Northville, NY. 


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Gary Peacock grew up just north of the Blue Line in Chateaugay, NY where he became an avid camper, hiker and biker at a very young age. After he closed his Record Store in Plattsburgh, he took several long - distance bicycle trips in France and the Adirondacks before attending college at Plattsburgh, where he earned a degree in Adirondack History. This article is part of a series of papers he wrote while earning his degree.

28 Responses

  1. John P Chazik says:

    Not good!

  2. Charlie S says:

    I never knew this! Interesting! I learn something new every day!

    “the government’s right of eminent domain..”
    This is another story in itself!

  3. James M Schaefer says:

    Three items for the story: 1. The Sacandaga River near Mayfield was one of the fishing haunts of young adult (Sir) William Johnson in the 1700s. One wonders what he would have thought of the flooding!
    2. As I understand it, periodically a bolus of water is released from the Great Sacandaga Lake to purge saline water in the Hudson near Poughkeepsie when necessary. 3. Timbers from historic “Bow Bridge” at Fish House are currently a preserved architectural feature in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Fact checking would be appreciated.

  4. Alicia says:

    Where are the 4 DEC boar launches? There is one in Broadalbin, another in Northville and a 3rd in the town of Day. Where is the 4th please?

  5. Joan Grabe says:

    Why the negativity ? It sounds as if this project means a safer Hudson River ! One that does not threaten the states’s capital periodically or regularly with climate change. All my childhood we vacationed on Lake Efner in Corinth and altho I knew there were villages and hamlets under the waters I thought the Sacandaga was so beautiful. Let’s just look at this as a big plus for the area and the communities down stream.

    • Coleen Edwards says:

      There is no plus to this. It took away livelihoods, homes, businesses and employment. Why are downstate people more valuable than those in the Adirondacks?

  6. Joel Marcellus says:

    I remember my mother telling me about the construction of the dam. Also, by the way, the man who designed the dam, Robert Sargent, is buried in Edinburgh cemetery.

  7. Jeremy says:

    Our 5th generation water well drilling company is in upstate New York because of the reservoir an conkinville dam. My great great grandfather started drilling oil wells in Oklahoma an when the maked tanked in the depression, he packed up his cable tool rig and headed north. He drilled the pilings for the dam an stuck around in hadley to drill local residents water wells. Hawk Drilling Co. Was born. Today we still serve the Sacandaga Valley and are located in Ballston Spa. Not all history is bad.

  8. James M Schaefer says:

    I think there is a built-in negative reaction to altering the natural flow of water. Man-made dams are at the top of the list. There is a long history of preservation and conservation of our Adirondacks to keep these lands “Forever Wild.” It runs deep in all of us. There is a long list of individuals who fought to keep the Adirondacks wild. Many of the battles were fought over the attempts to control life sustaining water from flowing freely. Fortunately there are NOT many man-made lakes — contrary to the author’s statements. If Robert Moses and his cronies had their way 75 years ago there would be some 38 reservoirs, many generating hydroelectric power. Take a peek at legislative battles led by my late uncle Paul Schaefer and his grass roots allies. A good place to start — the Black River Wars fought over plans to build a huge dam near Panther and Higley mountains.

    It should not be surprising that we are predisposed to messing with Mother Nature.

    Great Sacandaga Lake? No. Honestly, it is a reservoir.

    • mjash says:

      What number would you consider as “many”? It seems there ARE quite a few dammed and regulated “lakes” in the Adirondack Park – and adjacent. Even some of the biggest – Fulton Chain, Blue Mountain and down the Raquette River flow, Tupper. The Saranac lakes… Indian… So, if not “man made” certainly man maintained.

      • James M Schaefer says:

        What percent of the 2,500?

        • mjash says:

          No. You claimed there are not many when the author stated that there were. I asked what number (not percentage which is altering the point) would constitute “many” – and suggested that there could be considered many including some of the largest and most popular and well known. It’s likely too the case that the use of dams and regulated lake levels helps preserve the Adirondacks as something people see as worth continuing to preserve and use. I realize as you implied, there are differing views on what is right and wrong on this matter and that preserving someone’s current lake shore frontage is not what others think matters in terms of preservation and/or “forever wild”. BTW, thanks for the historic refs – I’ll have to look into them.

          • James M Schaefer says:

            How about 1% — 25 might have some sort of dam or man made control of the annual flow. That leaves 3,475 or so natural lakes. That is my sense of MANY.
            What am I missing?

  9. Charlie S says:

    “Not all history is bad!”

    No it is not! Matter of fact a lot of the old history in this state alone, and the northeast in general, is chock full of interesting history and ‘boy’ were there some very interesting people who lived up in this area, people I have been discovering, and whose history I have been getting to know, the past some years. De Witt Clinton being one of them, Levi Beardsley, Henry Clarke Wright….etc, etc. Verplanck Colvin another! The list is long and our cemeteries are filled with people who were innovators and whose public spirit has lived on, who were charitable and who had foresight, good energy and influence. Some of them early political leaders were a class of politicians we just don’t see anymore, or hardly. Not only were they heads of state they were naturalists at the same time, philosophers, thinkers…. They were more enlightened than what we are in this day and age, they were less blind to beauty, and though many of them are silenced in their tombs, some of them left behind writings, or art, or their institutions still survive.

    • drdirt says:

      Luckily, there aren’t many statues of them around. Somebody would have to tear them down, or they might be admired for being so “interesting”.

  10. Peter says:

    Thanks for the article. I taught me something I didn’t know.

  11. John Rochford says:

    I grew up going up to Sacandaga Lake when I was a kid. We had a family cottage near the intersection of South Shore Road and kathan Road. Sacandaga Lake holds a lot of special memories. Times have changed, people have come and gone, but Sacandaga will always be there waiting for me to come back.

  12. Jim Schaefer says:

    Sorry I meant 2,475 not 3,475. Fingers and thumbs….

  13. My Sacandaga Valley Folk Art Show is now showing at the Northville Public Library until Thursday October 29th. It then moves to the Nigra Arts Center 11/12/29 to 1/21/21.
    A historic visual retrospective of the valley before, during and after flooding. All 14 paintings have been meticulously researched as to accuracy including the Boneyard Gang exhumed some of the 3,872 bodies relocated.

  14. Ken Seyboth ( Papabear) says:

    Been camping on North Shore for 30 yesrs.its hard to except the growing disregard for the reservoirs soon to be lost pristine condition if littering continues, worsening each summer.

  15. Kevin George says:

    It is New York most beautiful gem, awesome history,the Aderondack
    God s country, breath taking

  16. Lewis A. Sala says:

    I have to feel for those who lost a piece of their lives and history. I grew up in Amsterdam New York. The Mohawk valley is beautiful. It’s a shame that the Tristate area is so run down. Once filled with the carpet mills, the glove factory Mohawk Mills park etc. The Mohawk River once a sewage river has been upgraded to better water. I remember barges up and down it. The Great Sacandaga is a gem but
    It’s a shame that most of that area has been tossed aside poor government. They never tried to see any potential to keep the history of our beautiful towns. Guy Park in Amsterdam had beautiful homes kinda like Saratoga Springs. But those homes are run down. I don’t know what the answer was if even there was one, but we were a small town with a big city flare. We were people to reckoned with we had spunk and a drive. Glad the Sacandaga is there better than the empty run down city’s trying to rebound. Fingers crossed you all. For what it’s worth.

  17. George E Brown says:

    Beautiful area, great place to spend your teenage years.

  18. Terry Sturm says:

    Please research futher sir..i have the deed to property in the hadley area circa the pressure for sale during dam building. My family were wealthy hotel owners in Hadley..The Arlington Hotel..n were bullied n pressured to sell w threat of flooding as damn was built.please research futher..many residents were pressured to sell.i have original deed w sale notes! Scary…Sad!

  19. Mark says:

    Living in the summer on my camp on The Great Sacandaga, it was very interesting to read about the history of the building and flooding of the area to create the lake. I lived in Woodstock, NY for many years near the Ashokan Resovoir. It also has an interesting history.

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