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.”
When 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.
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.