Transitions No. 158   August 23, 2006

In the last Transitions article, there appeared an 1888 photo, “The Drowned Lands of the Lower Racquette River,” taken by famous Adirondack photographer Seneca Ray Stoddard. The photo, generously provided by the Adirondack Museum at Blue Mountain Lake, shows a guide sitting in the midst of drowned trees, and in the apt words of the photographer, was “a scene of malodorous desolation in what had been a most beautiful place.”

Stoddard showed that picture, among 225 others, at a meeting held in 1892 at the Assembly Chamber of the State Legislature in Albany. The real purpose of the meeting was to obtain favorable action on pending legislation that would create the Adirondack Park. That legislation was later passed, and history tells us that the Stoddard photos and lecture played an important part in laying the groundwork toward the preservation of the Adirondacks.

Long before the floodwaters were put under control (the water level was to be maintained at 1,544 feet above sea level, or nearly four feet below the high watermark), the downed timber remained lifeless, ugly and hazardous to boat travel. There was one slight redeeming feature, however. Bill Johnson, my neighbor on Racquette River Drive, recalls that when he was a youngster the residents would obtain excellent firewood in winter by simply walking out across the ice and cutting the standing derelicts. It was an easy and effective way to obtain necessary fuel, and the surface made for easy transport of the firewood to the homeowner’s woodshed.

For many years, the local officials had tried in vain to control the area’s water level, which fluctuated from flood stage – entirely drowning the road to the Junction – to extreme low levels that prevented boat traffic, isolated docks and prevented access to shoreline, etc.

In the Depression year of 1933, several simultaneous situations, when knitted together, helped drive an opportunity for finally achieving water level control.

The first situation was the fact that with no dam in place and an exceptionally dry summer, the lake and river levels reached an unusual low. Ugly, foul-smelling flats appeared. Boathouses and water lines on the lake were left in a sea of muck, and to add to this desolate scene, millions of fish spawn were lost.

This deplorable situation prompted the second driving force: the approval by the government for a WPA project to reconstruct the dam. It also helped that a state biologist said Racquette Pond and surroundings were “an eyesore to everyone and a reproach to the Village of Tupper Lake.”

With the approval to give the green light to the dam’s reconstruction, Frank McCarthy, the mayor, and Frank Seigel, the chamber president, continued pressing the IP Company for land and flowage rights, making repeated trips to Boston and New York, often at their own expense, to branch offices of that company, then known as Systems Properties, Inc. Those negotiations finally succeeded and the necessary deeds obtained.

In October 1933, the Free Press carried the announcement that “a new stone and concrete dam would be built immediately on the site of the old Setting Pole dam at a cost of $30,000.”

Relief labor and state reimbursement lowered the cost to local taxpayers to the $12,000 - $14,000 range, a few cents per annum to smaller taxpayers and a few dollars to larger taxpayers, which, according to one report, “would be a lasting benefit of incalculable value.”

With the announcement that water levels would be controlled, owners on the lake took advantage of that 1933 low water. Big Tupper Lake owners such as Amberman, Ferguson brothers, Townshend, Levy, Downing, Baker, Sheppy, Slater, Wheeler, Ketchum, Goodman, LaRocque, McGill, Hutchins and Alexander built new boat houses, constructed retaining walls, cleared debris and extended water supply lines in anticipation of the New Deal dam project.

In addition, the dam project, with its promise of stable water levels, prompted the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), another work-relief agency that had a camp at Cross Clearing called S-15, to employ many of the enlistees at that camp to work many weeks clearing rocks, stumps and debris for miles up the Racquette River, allowing that once magnificent waterway to again become navigable to boat traffic.

The builders of the 1933 Setting Pole dam would no doubt be amazed that today there are no less than seven dams in the next 38 miles of river below Piercefield, making it the largest hydroelectric installation on New York State’s inland waters. The new owners, Brookfield Power Company, have continued the enhancement of recreational opportunities afforded by the resulting reservoirs.

To visit the location and remaining evidence of the historical, once-thriving CCC camp, park at the Deer Pond trailhead below Wawbeek corners. Walk across Routes 3 & 30 to where there are two separate spans of guardrails. Go east to the beginning of the second span and locate a well-defined path that will lead to the former S-15 encampment clearings in a little over a hundred yards.

Here, wooden barracks housed hundreds of men who found gainful employment during the troubled years of the Great Depression.

Many years ago, before the federal government controlled the Allagash waterway in Main, a patrolman at the IP Realty Company gate would not allow Mrs. Frenette and I entry to the river until we obtained what was known as a setting pole used by all Maine guides and watermen at that time and considered essential to running the shallow and rocky section of rapids in that great river. Typically, 12-14 feet long and two inches at the butt (preferably of spruce or tamarack), such setting poles were also used by early Adirondack guides and Indian parties in the rapids of the Racquette – such as found at the present Setting Pole dam location. Hence the name given to the dam.