Wednesday, January 31, 2024

A Dam We’re Glad Never Happened

An artist’s rendering of the dam proposed at Tumblehead Falls.

This is an artist’s rendering of the dam proposed at Tumblehead Falls. For our simulation of its impact, click here.

Many of us know the story of the Great Sacandaga Reservoir, created in 1930 by the construction of the Conklingville Dam at what is now the reservoir’s north end. Approximately 28,000 acres of land were submerged and 3,000 people were displaced to prevent disasters like the great flood of 1913 that inundated Troy.

To make the way for the reservoir, hundreds of homes had to be submerged and entire cemeteries had to be moved.

Twenty-five years earlier, Glens Falls industrialists Eugene Ashley and Elmer J. West had proposed to similarly dam the Schroon River, not only to manage flooding but to catch and retain spring meltwater so that the stored water could be released during the late summer and fall when it was needed downriver to power water wheels and turbines. Their vision called for a 70-foot-tall containment dam that would have raised the level of Schroon Lake by 30 feet and combined it with Brant Lake, and Paradox Lake, creating a reservoir larger than Lake George.

This dam was to be built at Tumblehead Falls, near Northway mile marker 71, about a mile south of Chestertown, at Hello Mountain. The proposal ultimately was defeated by the combined interests of businessmen, shoreline property owners, and wealthy patrons of grand Schroon Lake hotels such as the Leland House and Taylor’s.

Skidmore College senior Annie Kiernan and Warren County GIS Administrator Sara Frankenfeld simulated the impact of a 30-foot rise in the level of Schroon Lake.

Perhaps the most formidable opposition came from the inhabitants of Warrensburg, writes historian Mike Prescott.

“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. Similar events including the 1911 Austin, Pennsylvania dam collapses were never far from people’s minds either. The people of Warrensburg did not want to be added to 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 “Forever Wild” Forest Preserve, which the New York Legislature passed with landmark legislation in 1892. In 1916, the Conservation Commissioner’s office in Albany killed the plan, mandating that the level of Schroon Lake should remain at 804 feet.

“Developers Ashley and West continued pushing the idea of Tumblehead Falls, and it would last in and out of court for over 10 years,” Prescott writes. “In light of this setback, Eugene Ashley and Elmer West began searching for other dam sites within the Hudson River watershed. During the 1920s, their proposals for constructing three small containment dams on the Schroon River and its tributaries—which would not affect the lake level—were considered but rejected.”

Looking back, the Tumblehead Falls Dam appears to be one we surely can be glad was never built. But what if it had been built? Would “Great Schroon Lake” be regarded today as a mistake? Or would we think of it in the same way we think of the Great Sacandaga Reservoir — an important step in water management?

Using GIS tools, it’s possible at least to simulate the impact the Tumblehead Falls Dam would have had on the region’s landscape. Teaming up with Prescott, that’s just what Skidmore College senior Annie Kiernan and Warren County GIS Administrator Sara Frankenfeld did.

As their work shows, the villages of Chestertown,  Horicon, Paradox, and Pottersville all would have been partially flooded. The village of Schroon Lake would have been spared but much of the nearby shoreline would have been underwater.

“While the Great Sacandaga Lake has now long been a part of the surrounding landscape, it’s difficult to fathom what the Adirondacks would look like now if the Great Schroon Lake had come to fruition,” says Prescott.

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Driven by a passion for storytelling empowered by by technology, the First Wilderness Story Collaboration supports heritage tourism in Western Warren County. Dan's writing comes courtesy of this project.

6 Responses

  1. AdkH2O says:

    Very cool project. Kudos to Annie, Sara and Mike.

    It would be interesting to see this technique applied to other Adirondack proposed dam projects such as those previously reported by Mike:

  2. Amy Godine says:

    This was fascinating. Which department at Skidmore sponsored this very interesting research? Was it Environmental Studies?

  3. DonS says:

    On the location.
    When, what year, did the “Hello” sign go up on Hello Mountain?
    I suppose the date has to be after the the Adirondack Northway opened.

    And is there any information as to why the land owner did it?

    Been watching for the sign many years. I don’t recall when I first saw it. I suspect that in the past year a new sign was put up, just at a little higher elevation. Right now, due to snow cover, it is hard to get a glimpse of it.

  4. Ray Letterman says:

    From the Adirondack Almanack in 2013, another good article (by Mike Prescott) about another dam that got cancelled, this time in the 1960s thanks to Paul Schaefer.
    This dam would have regulated the flow in the Hudson to maintain the flow of fresh water into the lower Hudson high enough to keep salt water away from where New York City hoped to develop a supplemental supply. The early to mid 1960’s were a period of severe drought all over New York and the reservoirs of the Catskill/Delaware and Croton watersheds were going dry.

  5. Allen Lindsay says:

    This long-time vacationer at Brant Lake (itself much enlarged by a dam) sees the Great Schroon Lake idea as a disaster in the making.

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