Before the 20th century, the upper Hudson River was used commercially as a conduit to ship logs downstream to the mills along the river. Logs were stored in pens, behind temporary dams, and at streamside log landings until the spring melt increased the flow of the river – known as the spring freshet. When the flow rate was right, the the logs were sent careening downstream to the mills.
The Sacandaga River joins the Hudson River at Hadley, with each river providing approximately equal flows to that point. The watershed of the Sacandaga River alone is approximately 1,000 square miles, so the melt of the winter snowfall could provide a large amount of runoff.
Periodically there would be a combination of warm temperatures, high local rainfall, and deep snow cover that produced extraordinary runoff over a short amount of time. Flooding was also a major concern to the paper mills and other businesses along the river, causing severe economic dislocation
These floods periodically devastated the upper Hudson from Luzerne to Albany and points south. Some of the more notable were recounted in Joel Munsell’s 1850 Annals of Albany:
April 30th-May 3rd, 1639: “Whilst I was at Fort Orange, the 30th of April, there was such a high flood at the island on which Brand-pylen lived, – who was my host at this time – that we were compelled to leave the island, and go with boats into the house, where there were four feet of water. This flood continued three days, before we could use the dwelling again. The water ran into the fort and we were compelled to repair to the woods, where we erected tents and kindled large fires.” – Description of the Hudson flood of 1639 by a visitor to Albany named DeVrie
March, 1646. “The winter which had just terminated, was remarkably long and severe. The North (Hudson) River closed at Rensselaerswyk, on the 24th November, and remained frozen some four months. A very high freshet, unequalled since 1639, followed, which destroyed a number of horses in their stables; nearly carried away the fort, and inflicted considerable other damage in the colonie.
March, 1790. Flooding on the Hudson River, as described by the Albany Register for March 29th, 1790, was initiated by a week of heavy rains. “The weather for a week past being uncommonly moderate, and attended with considerable falls of rain and some slight snows, raised the river to such a degree on Saturday last, completely to carry off the ice; and as by accounts form Poughkeepsie, &c. the river has been some time since clear.
March, 1818. This flood appears to have been quite sizeable according to Munsell. “The water rose to great height in the river the night of the 3rd March, so that several families in Church St. would have perished if they had not been rescued. The water was two feet deep in the bar room of the Eagle Tavern, on the southeast corner of South Market and Hamilton streets. Sloops were thrown upon the dock, and the horse ferry boat was driven about half way up to Pearl Street. A family occupied a house on the island opposite the city, who were rescued by the people of Bath. So great a freshet had not been known in forty years.”
Flooding continued on a regular basis, but 1913 was to prove a turning point. At Fort Edward the highest recorded flood level – 34 feet – was reached on March 14th of that year, causing general devastation. The floods waters were severe enough that year to undermine the bridge connecting Glens Falls and South Glens Falls, which fell on the morning of March 27th. There was major flooding at Glens Falls, Waterford, Green Island, Cohoes, Rensselaer and Albany.
There were enough similar events, loss of property, and damage to infrastructure that the communities and businesses along the Hudson River petitioned the New York State Legislature to take action to control the water flow.
The Legislature responded in the Burd Amendment which allowed the use of 3% of the New York State Forest Preserve for the purpose of creating reservoirs to regulate stream flow. In 1922, the Legislature formed the Hudson River Regulating District (now the Hudson River – Black River Regulating District) with a purpose “To regulate the flow of the Hudson and Sacandaga Rivers as required by the public welfare including health and safety.”
In 1927 construction began on the 95-foot earthen Conklingville Dam at Hadley on the Sacandaga River. The dam was completed three years later and the flooding of the Great Sacandaga Reservoir began March 27, 1930.
Photo of 1913 flood takes out bridge at South Glens Falls courtesy Chapman Museum.
Fred Wilhelm is a retired General Electric engineer who lives along Great Sacandaga Lake. He has an interest in not only how the Lake was built and controlled, but WHY it was built-in the first place.