Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Moriah’s Ensign Pond and the Great Flood of 1869

moriah map

Running between North Hudson and Moriah Center is a quiet, thirteen-mile section of County Route 4 known as Ensign Pond Road. Drive seven miles down this road from North Hudson and you will reach its namesake, Ensign Pond. This roughly ten-acre pond is a tranquil sheet of water which is guarded over by Harris Hill to the north, and feeds Mill Brook to the east. As you drive toward Port Henry on this county road, it will change names a few times, becoming Dugway Road, then Plank Road, and, finally, Broad Street. From Ensign Pond, County Route 4 follows Mill Brook as it flows towards its final destination: Lake Champlain at Port Henry.

To ride along the county road from Ensign Pond is to travel on a path taken by a great flood which occurred over 153 years ago. By all accounts, this flood reaped horrendous destruction over its course. It was also one of many disastrous floods which occurred across the northern part of the state and parts of New England in April 20-24, 1869. The rapidly-melting snows of winter, along with heavy rainfall, caused dams to break and rivers to overflow. Newspapers reported flooding of the Mohawk River in Utica, the Black River, Woodhull Creek, the Moose River, and the Beaver River, as well as the Connecticut River in Springfield, Mass. Dangerously high water levels were reported in Montpelier, Vt.

Prior to this great flood, Ensign Pond measured about one mile in length and 1-1/2 miles in width – almost ten times larger than it is today. It also had two outlets: one to Mill Brook, and the other to the Upper Hudson River. Both outlets were dammed, resulting in this larger version of the pond. The outlets may have been dammed as far back as around 1830 by John T. Ensign, a settler of Moriah who made a living in the flour and lumber trades. According to Essex County deed records from 1828 (Book G, Page 37) and 1835 (Book N, Pages 88-89), John acquired lots which include today’s Ensign Pond, located in a much larger land tract called the Paradox Tract. In a deed from December 30, 1846 (Book BB, Page 67), John sold to Ephraim P. Heuder (spelling unclear) Lot 343 and part of lot 365 of the Paradox Tract (near Ensign Pond) for $700. The deed mentions “John Ensign Mill & Pond” and “Mill Pond,” so John likely ran a sawmill by the pond that bears his name.

A view of Ensign Pond by the south shoulder of Ensign Pond Road. The shoulder of Harris Hill is shown on the left

A view of Ensign Pond by the south shoulder of Ensign Pond Road. The shoulder of Harris Hill is shown on the left. Photo provided by John Sasso

The 1858 residential map by W.O. Shearer and E.A. Balch, titled Map of Essex Co., New York, shows Ensign Pond and at least nine sawmills dotting the shores of Mill Brook (hence, how the brook earned its name). These sawmills are denoted “S.M.” or “S.Mill.” From newspaper accounts of the flood, some of these sawmills were owned by Bostwick Baldwin, Hiram Sprague, Herman F. Barton, and two men given only by their last name: Acome and Edward.

Sometime around seven o’clock in the morning on Wednesday, April 21, 1869, the east dam at Ensign Pond burst open. One of the first sawmills to be taken out by the massive torrent of water belonged to Baldwin. It was widely reported how Baldwin performed an act reminiscent of Paul Revere’s at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Mounting a horse he rescued from his stable before it was swept away, Baldwin rode toward the hamlet of Millbrook (today’s Moriah Center) in advance of the floodwaters, warning residents to evacuate. People who lived near the brook were able to flee just before the flood took out whatever building they were in. When Baldwin reached Millbrook, he woke up the gentleman who ran the post office just in time for him to save the mail and the town’s public records.

The floodwaters gained on Baldwin as he headed toward Port Henry, giving him little time to warn the residents of the oncoming deluge. So relentless was Baldwin in his pursuit to sound the alarm of the impending torrent that according to one report, “his horse fell with him three times in jumping the stumps and hurdles.” Thanks to his valiant efforts, not a soul drowned in the flood’s wake.

Of all the newspaper accounts of the great flood, a letter penned by “Boz,” published in The Plattsburgh Sentinel shortly after the event, presents the most illustrative sketch of the disaster at Port Henry. Residents of this Lake Champlain village saw a sudden rise in the level of Mill Brook, followed by a solid mass of water some eight-to-ten feet high and one hundred feet wide. This terrifying front, described as a “black mass of water, mud, rocks, trees, timbers, barrels of flour and barrels of whiskey, and all imaginable articles mingled together in one moving pile,” swept away everything in its course. Trees were uprooted “as if they were pipe stems,” and massive boulders were overturned “as if they were pebbles.”

All dams and bridges along Mill Brook were washed away as the floodwaters headed toward Lake Champlain. The aforementioned sawmills along Mill Brook – among many others – were effortlessly demolished by the flood. By some good fortune, the mills belonging to Edgerley and Collins were spared, but Mother Nature did not grant a total reprieve to both men. Two of Edgerley’s buildings in Millbrook were eradicated, one of which stored merchandise and a “considerable amount of whiskey.” Collins lost a large quantity of flour stored near his mill. The town clerk’s office, a cabinet shop, and a barn were also washed away.

The Lake Champlain & Moriah Railroad Company had a portion of their railroad bed along Mill Brook, ready to have tracks laid upon it, washed away. The beds of the Whitehall & Plattsburgh Railroad also suffered damage. The Moriah Plank Road, which ran to Port Henry, was so badly torn up that iron ore operations along it had to be suspended until the road and bridges could be repaired.

Boz, Port Henry’s on-the-scene “reporter,” recapped the havoc wrought by the flood:

“You cannot imagine the consternation and terror of our people to hear the roar and thunder of the mass of debris, as it was forced over the rocks and down the bank, and to see how perfectly powerless they were to stay the torrent in its mad career, or to stop the destruction going on before their eyes. If any illustration was wanted to show man his utter helplessness and insignificance, compared with the power of the elements, a single glance at the thundering mass as it tumbled over the precipice, just east of the residence of Mr. Gookin, would be sufficient, and one that would make the stontest heart grow faint, and the cheek turn pale.”

Over a two-hour timespan, the great flood completed its destruction. When all was said and done, it was estimated that the damage incurred by the flood was around $150,000 (or approximately $3.2 million in today’s dollars). It is interesting to observe that on the map of Moriah in the 1876 Atlas of Essex County, many of the sawmills once shown along Mill Brook are no longer denoted.

More on John T. Ensign

The biography of the man for whom Ensign Pond is named is a brief one but shall be expounded upon here for the sake of completeness. John was born in Stillwater, NY on March 25, 1784. He married Esther Woodworth around 1810, and the couple had six children: Phebe, Charles W., Sarah, Hilan, Mary, and Helen.

John was described as a smart, enterprising man who was engaged in the lumber and flour trades in Moriah. He also owned several boats on Lake Champlain and was a deacon for several years at a Baptist church in the town. He later moved to Des Moines, Iowa where he died on September 17, 1847.

Among John’s children, his first son, Charles, is perhaps the most well-known. Charles was born on December 15, 1813 in Stillwater, and later relocated to Moriah with his parents when just a boy. He married Harriet Tarbell in 1837, who bore him three children: Edgar, Mary, and George. He was elected Sheriff of Essex County in 1852, a position he would serve from 1853 until 1855. He would later move to Des Moines, where he died in August 1894.

  1. Warner, Charles B., and Eleanor Hall. History of Port Henry, N.Y. 1931, p. 73.
  2. “The Black River Flood.” The Ogdensburg Journal. April 27, 1869, p. 2.
  3. “The Northern Floods.” The Saratogian. April 29, 1869.
  4. Boz. “Local Correspondence.” The Plattsburgh Sentinel. April 30, 1869, p. 3.
  5. “Destructive Flood – Damage $150,000.” Evening Courier & Republic. April 22, 1869, p. 4.
  6. Rafter, George W. “Hydrology of the State of New York.” New York State Museum Bulletin No. 85. May 1905.
  7. Ingalls, Lotus. “The Waterways of Jefferson County.” Growth of a Century: As Illustrated in the History of Jefferson County, New York, from 1793 to 1894. 1894, pp. 9-18.
  8. “The Freshet.” The Malone Palladium. April 29, 1869, p. 2.
  9. “Great Destruction of Property at Port Henry.” New York Herald. April 22, 1869, p. 9.
  10. The Elizabethtown Post. June 18, 1903, p. 4.
  11. Nelson, Martha Eunice Ensign. Record of the Descendants of James Ensign, the Puritan: 1634-1939. 1939.

At top: A portion of the 1858 residential map by W.O. Shearer and E.A. Balch, titled Map of Essex Co., New York, showing Ensign Pond and at least nine sawmills dotting the shores of Mill Brook. This is the earliest map found denoting Ensign Pond.
(Source: Library of Congress, French, J. H. Map of Essex Co., New York. Philadelphia: W.O. Shearer & E.A. Balch, 1858. Map.

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John Sasso is an avid hiker and bushwhacker of the Adirondacks and self-taught Adirondack historian. Outside of his day-job, John manages a Facebook group "History and Legends of the Adirondacks." John has also helped build and maintain trails with the ADK and Adirondack Forty-Sixers, participated in the Trailhead Steward Program, and maintained the fire tower and trail to Mount Adams.

4 Responses

  1. James M Schaefer says:

    Exciting description and well researched! Sound like an excellent story for champions of eco-tourism in Essex County and the Lake.

  2. Amy Godine says:

    What a great story! Whiskey barrels rolling along with the boulders and uprooted trees! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Beverly Baker says:

    Very interesting..

  4. Michael Vaughan says:

    Did this flood affect the Cedar Point Road, or was that already gone?

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