Altona Flat Rock is a large area of discontinuous bare sandstone pine barrens that stretches along the Champlain Valley into Quebec. Gazing at the rock formations, visitors to the area can easily imagine the long-forgotten retreat of glacial ice from the Champlain Valley. The area is home to the rare ecosystem of jack pine barrens.
Locals recall wildfires on Altona Flat Rock with anxiety, but the jack pines require fire. The heat of fire opens the pitched covered cones allowing the barren to reproduce. Fire on Altona Flat Rock is a curse and a blessing.
The Altona portion of Flat Rock (Altona/West Chazy) is a local blueberrying haven. Joseph C. Burke, in William H. Miner-The Man and the Myth, states that “Flat Rock may have been isolated and barren, but it had become a bonanza for blueberry pickers.” A History of The Altona Flat Rock by Larry Gooley details the evolution of Flat Rock berry picking beginning with the industrious individual Peter Barnaby Sr. to large landowners like the Trombley Brothers and the Woods Brothers.
The latter employed local families to stay and pick each summer. Most families resided in one room wood shacks that were hastily assembled and disassembled. Pickers were paid an average of five to ten cents a quart by large buyers who sold the harvest throughout New England and Canada.
William Miner’s name has grown synonymous with North Country philanthropy and his farm at Heart’s Delight in Chazy, now The William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute. Much of the Flat Rock property owned by the Institute today was purchased by Miner in the 1910s. He changed Altona Flat Rock forever in 1910, when he eyed the site for a hydroelectric dam.
Miner bought land and razed camps from the site of the future dam and constructed a boarding house, a horse barn, a building known as the “Italian Camp,” two engine houses, a blacksmith shop, a store house, and a crusher plant. Local berry pickers continued each summer, as immigrant laborers from Bulgaria, Italy, Poland, and Russia toiled at the dam.
William Miner’s dam was nicknamed “The Million Dollar Dam” and was completed with astonishing speed by as many as 500 men working day and night. The concrete dam had a maximum height of thirty feet, and was 2,300 feet long with a storage capacity of one and a half billion gallons of water. In January 1915 the Flat Rock powerhouse began producing electricity, only as a backup facility.
By 1922, the Flat Rock Dam proved to be costly and inefficient due in part to the sandstone and cobblestone bedrock of the region, and maintenance of the powerhouse.
William Miner did not abandon the region. He kept a small company-town alive. He hired John Murphy of Willsboro, Louis Barnaby of Altona, and Melbourne Parker of West Chazy to maintain order on his lands. Miner paid ten cents a quart for berries. According to Altona resident Bertha Rabideau, Miner’s camps had wooden floors, bunk beds, a stove, and a large kitchen. Pickers also used facilities left over from the dam works.
Miner shipped berries much as the Trombleys and Woods had done before. He was able to use his wealth to improve wages and living conditions but the seasonal life largely ended by his death in 1930. A small number of pickers and buyers remained for a few decades, but nothing on so grand a scale.
Today, Altona Flat Rock is a quiet wilderness where families visit and pick berries and researchers study the unique ecosystems. An abandoned dam on a cobblestone
ridge with some workmen’s footprints fading into the cement remind us of the history.
Illustrations, from above: Sandstone pavement barrens at the nearby Gadway Sandstone Pavement Barrens, also part of the Flat Rock (photo by Gregory J. Edinger, courtesy New York Natural Heritage Program); Blueberry camps at Alton Flat Rock (courtesy Chazy Historian); and Altona Flat Rock Dam Construction Underway (courtesy Clinton County Historical Association).
Kristina M. Parker is the Town of Altona Historian. She is a direct descendant of Altona Flat Rock warden John H. Murphy. Other works by Ms. Parker regarding William H. Miner have been published by the Clinton County Historical Association and the Lake Champlain Weekly.