Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Proposed Great Schroon Lake (or the Dams that Never Were)

Line drawing of the proposed Tumblehead Falls Dam (1895 )

Line drawing of the proposed Tumblehead Falls Dam (1895 )

I recently saw a Facebook post by singer/songwriter Dan Berggren in which he outlined the Rural Free Delivery route, of his Uncle Harry, in Minerva, N. Y. from 1915-1945.  The song “When Harry Carried the Mail”  reminded me of an article that I wrote for Adirondack Life, March/April, 2012 titled “Great Schroon Lake: The Dam Plan Would Have Altered the Park.”

In that article I wrote about the proposed dam that was to be constructed on the Schroon River at Tumblehead Falls, not far from Chestertown. (Great Schroon Lake: The Dam Plan Would Have Altered the Park) That dam was to be located at what has become to be known as Hello Mountain at mile marker 71 of the Northway. (On the mountain side across the Schroon River valley there are large white plywood letters spelling out the word “Hello” )  This was going to be the anchor of one side of a 70 foot-tall dam that would have impounded the Schroon River, all of Schroon Lake, Paradox Lake and Brant Lake.  However there is more to the story than appeared in that article.

In order for the reader to appreciate the end of the story, it might be important to review the facts, and start at the beginning.  During the late 1890’s there were, as far as the Hudson River, two major areas of concern for people residing in the Albany area and south.  One was spring flooding, and the other was the need of water for power.  Remember, these were the days before hydroelectric power.  The prevailing thought was to construct storage dams or “containment” dams to catch and retain spring melt water so that the stored water could be released during the late summer and fall when it was needed down river to power water wheels and small ” direct” turbines in order to power mills and factories.   Out of necessity, these factories had to be constructed near the Hudson River.  Factory owners feared that too much water with the spring melt would damage their mills, and in the late summer, early fall too little water would leave their mills inoperable.

In 1895 the State Engineer George W. Rafter proposed building containment dams on the tributaries of the Upper Hudson River.   In the Annual Report of the State Engineer and Surveyor of the State of New York, 1895, George Rafter proposed dams on the Indian River (Indian Lake), Sacandaga River, (Lake Pleasant, Piseco Lake and Hadley ), and The Schroon River (Tumblehead Falls ),   The Indian Lake dam was constructed in 1898. and a dam on the Sacandaga River would be constructed in 1930 ( With the Conklingville Dam., it is important to note that, in the 1930’s the lower section of the Sacandaga River was outside of the “new” Forest Preserve, and the forest preserve rules did not apply.).

At about the same time Glens Falls industrialists Eugene Ashley and Elmer J. West began constructing an impoundment dam directly on the Hudson River at Spires Falls ( 1900 ).  The Spire Falls dam was completed three years later and not only helped in regulating the spring flooding but also produced hydroelectric power for some of the down stream factories in Glens Falls , Troy and Albany.

Ashley and West were so successful with their Spire Falls dam that they began to look fer other dam sites.  One site under serious consideration was on the Schroon River about five miles south of Chestertown, at Tumblehead Falls.  ( Today known as the Hello Mountain )  A survey of the Hudson River watershed concluded that a 70 foot-tall containment dam constructed at Tumblehead Falls would impound the Schroon River valley at the 840 ft contour line.  According to an 1908 article in the Warrensburg News, the resulting reservoir would be larger than Lake George.  Schroon Lake, Brant Lake and Paradox Lake would be combined into one, the Great Schroon Lake.  This proposal was the subject of my 2012 article in Adirondack Life.

 

proposed lakes Map of the proposed Great Schroon Lake ( Rick Rosen )

The Great Schroon Lake would have been very large indeed.  The villages of Chestertown,  Horicon, Paradox, and Pottersville would have been flooded.   The level of Schroon Lake would have risen 30 feet, with a shoreline several times larger than that of present day.

But The Great Schroon Lake never happened: why?  Many Schroon Lake Hoteliers, businessmen, and shoreline property owners led by lawyer George Welwood Murray were opposed to the project. Tourists, especially wealthy patrons from Albany and metropolitan New York, traveled by railroad through Saratoga to Riverside (now Riparius) to summer in the grand hotels on Schroon Lake. The hotel owners of the Leland House and Taylor’s along with many village business and individual property owners were also opposed.  The Schroon Lake Association (still in existence today) was formed to oppose the Tumblehead Falls dam.

Perhaps the most formidable opposition however came from the inhabitants of Warrensburg.  While realizing that an upriver dam would maintain a constant source of waterpower, the people of Warrensburg saw the dangers posed by an upriver 70-foot dam.  Newspapers of the day described the 1889 Johnstown, Pennsylvania dam flood where over 2,200 people died and the 1911 Austin, Pennsylvania dam collapses were never far from people’s minds.  The people of Warrensburg did not want to be on that list . . .

Another problem faced by the supporters of the dam was that much of the land included in the plan was State-owned as part of the newly formed (1892) forever-wild Forest Preserve.  (Note #2) In the fall of 1916 a public hearing was held at the Conservation Commissioner’s office in Albany to discuss the feasibility of the Tumblehead Falls dam.  The outcome was that the level of the lake was to remain at 804 feet, killing the proposal. The Schroon Lake Association and its supporters had won the day.

And now, here is the rest of the story . . .

In light of this setback, Eugene Austin and Elmer West began searching for other dam sites within the Hudson River watershed.  During the 1920’s they proposed the construction of three smaller containment dams on the Schroon River and its tributaries, which would not affect the 804-foot Schroon Lake level. or greatly impact Forest Preserve lands.

One of the “new” (1922) sites under consideration on the Schroon River was at Schroon Falls.  The following was noted in the Report on the Water Power and Storage Possibilities of the Hudson River, New Water Power Commission, 1922 and in again in State of New York Hudson River Regulating District: General Plan for the Regulation of the Flow of the Hudson River and Certain of its Tributaries, 1923.

For many years it has been noted that there were storage possibilities  in Schroon River Valley above Schroon Lake.   Late in the fall of 1917  this site was surveyed. About four miles north of the Schroon Lake village the State high way crosses the Schroon River at what is known as “Schroon Falls.”  The proposed site as about three-quarters of a mile above Schroon Falls, where the valley is narrow with steep hills on each    side.  The reservoir basin extends in a generally northerly direction for a distance of about ten miles above the dam site. About 300 acres of the  3,310 acres would be flooded. 

Today the Northway (Rt 87 exit 28 to exit 29) runs roughly along what would have been the west shore of the proposed reservoir.  The other landmark would be the old site of Frontier Town (today’s Frontier Town State DEC Camp site).

The dam would have been an earthen dam approximately 100 feet in height, with the capacity of 6.0 billion cubic feet of storage.

Map of The Great Schroon Lake ( Rick Rosen )

The second “new” site (1922) proposed by Austin and West was on Trout Brook.  The Trout Brook Reservoir would have been constructed roughly at what is today known as the Stone Bridge and Caves.  The following description of the Trout Brook Reservoir is also from the report referenced above.

The steep hills rising from the stream on both sides offer a suitable location for the construction of a dam. This reservoir would extend from the dam site almost to Olmstedville along the distance up Alder Brook and Trout Brook.  The major cost of construction of the Trout Brook Reservoir is the dam itself.  The 100-foot dam and spillway would be constructed of earth, stone, and concrete and rather expensive.  This reservoir would have the capacity of about 3.6 billion cubic feet of storage. About 100 acres of State land would be within the flow line.

In short, if the Trout Brook Reservoir had been constructed, the Stone Bridge and Caves attraction could not have been developed; Pete Hornbeck’s Boat works would have needed to find a different location; and Dan Berggren’s uncle “Harry” would have had to change his mail route.

trout brook dam

The third “new” site (1922) on the Schroon River would have been just north of the village of Warrensburg. The following description of the Warrensburg Reservoir is also taken from the above-cited report.

Above the Village of Warrensburg the Schroon River flows through a long flat valley for several miles.  The greater portion of the valley is cleared land and is used chiefly for general farm purposes. In 1920 the                dam site was surveyed at the upper end of the Village of Warrensburg. The dam would be about 80 feet in height and about one mile of the  Hudson Valley Electric Railroad would have to be relocated.  It the                storage capacity estimated that the capacity of the Warrensburg Reservoir would be 5.0 billion cubic feet. No State lands would be involved. 

 By today’s measure the proposed Warrensburg Reservoir would run from McDonalds Restaurant in Warrensburg, exit 23 to exit 24 along the Northway.

warrensburg

An interesting observation is that if any one of the three proposed Schroon River reservoirs had been breached or had faltered the Village of Warrensburg would have been totally flooded with potentially great loss of human life and property.  This is of course the same concern that helped kill the Tumblehead dam proposal.

There was however, a proposal outlined in the 1895 George Rafter survey for a different site on a different river: An impoundment that could help control some of the yearly Hudson River flooding and also had the potential for generating power.  The site was a spot where there were few large hotels or affluent summer guests; a site where the downstream residents were not in opposition to the construction of a large dam.  That was (at the time) outside of the Forest Preserver so the “forever wild” clause of the New York State Constitution did not apply.  A site where Ashley and West could build their containment dam and now after World War l, a hydroelectric power producing dam.  The site was on the Sacandaga River at Conklingville, and thus the Great Sacandaga Lake was created.

 Notes:

1) Written permission was obtained from Dan Berggren to use his song ” When Harry Carried the Mail ”

2) The Burd – Merritt Amendment (1913)  allowed for only 3% of the Forest Preserve lands to be used for dams etc.

3)  The Edward H. Sergeant report  State of New York Hudson River Regulating District, General Plan for the Regulation of the Flow of the Hudson River and Certain of its Tributaries, 1923, makes reference to an earlier dam proposal on Minerva Stream at Olmstedville. (date unknown )

Works consulted:

Adams, C. W, Annual Report of the State Engineer and Surveyor of the State of New York, for the year ending September 1895.

Berggren, Dan, FaceBook post, Music ” When Harry Carried the Mail” with accompanying map, 16 March 2021.

New York, State Water Supply Commission of New York, For the year ending February 1909.

Prescott, Mike,  Adirondack Life,  ” Great Schroon Lake: The Dam Plan That Would Have Altered the Park”, March/April 2012.

Sargent, H. Edward, (Engineer), State of New York Hudson River Regulating District, General Plan for the Regulation of the Flow of the Hudson River and Certain of its Tributaries, June 1923.

State of New York, Report on the Water Power and Storage Possibilities of the Hudson River, 1922.

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Mike Prescott

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 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 [email protected]





2 Responses

  1. Tom Harris says:

    Well written, interesting and informative. Thank you.

  2. Ron Turbide says:

    A very interesting article. It reminds me of a dam and associated lake proposed to be built just South of Malone on the Salmon River in the early 1960s. The project was called the “Huckleberry Lake” project and while the actual dam was outside of the Blue Line, the resulting lake would have extended over the Park boundary and the opponents used this fact to scuttle the project. Score another win for Article XIV, the Forever Wild clause of the New York State Constitution.

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