Residents endeavor to restore Blenheim after flood

More than a century ago, the tiny hamlet of North Blenheim served as a main trading post for a wide

More than a century ago, the tiny hamlet of North Blenheim served as a main trading post for a wide reach of farms in the southern Schoharie Valley town of Blenheim and beyond.

By 1872, North Blenheim featured two schoolhouses, two church buildings, a post office, two hotels, two stores, two blacksmith shops and a harness shop.

Historian Fanchon Dewell Cornell wrote in “Blenheim History” that the hamlet also had a shoemaker shop, a tailor, a paint shop and a gristmill, two sawmills and a water-powered factory that made blinds.

There have been major changes since then.

In 1973, the New York Power Authority began operating its Blenheim-Gilboa hydroelectric facility. The project took roughly 1,475 acres of land off the tax rolls.

That multimillion-dollar project, which creates millions of dollars in electricity, provides no host community benefits to the town of Blenheim whatsoever.

In 1990, the pipeline that carries pressurized propane beneath the town exploded, killing two people and leveling North Blenheim, destroying or damaging half of the hamlet’s buildings.

In all of Blenheim today, there’s no store in town, no restaurant and no gas station. The post office remains, situated in the municipal building on Main Street that also serves as the firehouse and town hall.

The town’s population of 2,725 back in 1840 dwindled to roughly 377 year-round residents by 2010.

In early August of 2011, about all that was left of the sleepy town were residents, farms and the historic Blenheim Covered Bridge, considered the longest single-span covered bridge in the world.

By the end of August, North Blenheim — an historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 — was nearly washed away by flooding from Tropical Storm Irene.

Town hall, the fire house and post office were all severely damaged, and the historic bridge no longer spanned the Schoharie Creek — its remains were scattered along the shores after it was picked up by the flood and smashed into pieces.

Vast acres of farmland, the municipal building, 30 homes and remaining businesses were damaged in the flood, as was the United Methodist Church building on Main Street.

Despite the most recent disaster and its toll on what was left of the town, residents and officials are embracing the fact that they didn’t lose their most important asset — the people of the town of Blenheim.

Long-term recovery

Several Schoharie County towns were severely hurt by the flooding, but Blenheim stood alone when residents agreed to take part in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Long Term Community Recovery program, an “Emergency Support Function” the agency calls ESF-14.

Blenheim resident Don Airey, who has a full-time job running a company, reluctantly took on a leadership role for Blenheim’s Long Term Recovery Committee.

He drafted residents into the committee and formed a core group of 15 people who drew town residents to meetings and formulated a new plan for Blenheim.

Subcommittees formed to focus on infrastructure and mitigation, community resources and identity, and economic development, and today, the town has a plan.

It’s a multimillion-dollar plan with goals that include the development of a business incubator, the restoration of cultural resources like the Blenheim Bridge and the town’s historic tiny schoolhouse museum, and the development of a park and creekside trail that one day will greet guests and residents who visit the bridge townspeople want rebuilt.

“We took advantage of an opportunity created by a disaster,” Airey said.


One of the primary goals of the plan is to improve telecommunications infrastructure like cellphone and Internet coverage.

It wasn’t a new thought. Black holes in mobile phone coverage in the mountainous region have been the focus of talk for years.

But Blenheim Town Supervisor Robert Mann Jr. realized in August 2011 how important it is to have telephone or Internet service in the town.

Tropical Storm Irene’s flooding shut down state Route 30 — washing it away in some parts.

Other roadways were inundated and washed out. The town’s designated Flood Evacuation Route is up West Kill Road — that road was washed out, as was Bear Ladder Road, another escape.

Mann and others were trapped, although he said people could escape floodwater by running up the nearby mountain.

Some did just that, he said.

The town’s municipal building, set near the confluence of West Kill Creek and the Schoharie Creek, took on the brunt of floodwater.

And in the wake of the disaster, Mann said he was basically cut off.

In order to make a phone call, people had to walk up the road and hope for a signal.

“We operated that way, I think, for the first four or five days,” Mann said.

FEMA eventually provided the town with a satellite phone to use, but it had to be attached to a vehicle in order to work.

Communication was so difficult that the entire town never even heard the false rumor that spread through the valley suggesting a dam had broken.

“It was quite a challenging time,” Mann said.

People were still driving north on state Route 30 and creating difficulties with traffic because Mann said he was unable to get word out to higher-level officials that there was no conceivable passage through town.

Further complicating talk with county officials was the fact that the county’s emergency management command post had been evacuated and moved during the flood.

“You couldn’t get the right person on the phone. It was a very hard struggle and it really amplified the need for cellphone coverage in the area,” he said.

It was the second time in just a few years when Blenheim needed to communicate.

The pipeline that blew up back in 1990 sprang a leak in 2010, forcing the evacuation of a 3-mile radius in nearby Gilboa.

“Again it was the same issue. It seems maybe the time is right. We can try and get something good out of this event and get some cellphone coverage,” Mann said.

Officials on various levels are making use of other means of communication — like social media — to get important alerts out to communities.

But there’s no high-speed Internet at all in Blenheim, so that doesn’t help either.

It’s not just during disasters — Mann said the town needs adequate cell coverage to communicate.

And Internet service is a must if Blenheim wants to attract residents and small businesses and return to the days when people worked and shopped in the town of Blenheim.

“That’s the reason I think [Internet service] is really high on the list. We need to be sustainable. We want to be able to balance that need for taxes, infrastructure spending with the right size population,” Mann said.

“It’s difficult for us because the population is so low and we don’t have a lot of assessed value. More services, cellphone and Internet, we think will help that,” Mann said.


A year before the flood, a committee was formed to develop a Comprehensive Plan for Blenheim, one of a few towns in the county that doesn’t have one.

These plans are often considered a precursor to requesting grant money — government agencies want money spent on organized planning efforts.

The effects of a declining population, few if any businesses and little modern infrastructure were already hindering progress.

“We were already reaching a critical point,” Airey said.

The road to recovery in Blenheim will be a difficult one, but Airey said the first step is in place: Blenheim’s Recovery Plan developed with the assistance of FEMA.

The federal agency covered the cost of the plan’s development and printing, and the work that went into the plan itself can be considered “in-kind services,” giving the town even more leverage as it begins the next step: seeking grant funding to make changes.

FEMA’s assistance came with a massive list of granting agencies that include some that Airey said people never knew provided financial assistance.

The town won a $50,000 VISTA grant, money that will pay for an administrator to help guide the town toward goals in its new plan.

“Now it’s up to us,” Airey said.


Discussions about Blenheim always lead to talk about the major attraction that drew people from all over the world — the Blenheim Covered Bridge.

“It all comes down to the bridge. We can’t get rid of it,” Airey said.

Before the Schoharie Creek smashed it up , the 210-foot wooden covered bridge, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966, was one of two engineering structures with national recognition — the other is the Brooklyn Bridge.

Engineers valued the bridge at $4.1 million, but its fate remains in limbo.

FEMA has told the county the bridge isn’t eligible for disaster assistance, and county officials intend to appeal that decision.

Airey said townspeople are already raising money in hopes of putting the bridge back together.

He said he didn’t realize how important the bridge was until the town held an art exhibit in 2011 and it drew 3,500 people.

“It was a constant stream of people,” Airey said.

Once the municipal building was gutted and put back together, some members of the committee took small but important first steps toward bringing Blenheim back.

They lined flood-hobbled Main Street, also called Route 30, with American flags.

And they built a new sign in front of Town Hall that holds a message board to share important information and meeting times with those who drive by.

“These are our first little steps,” Airey said.

Categories: Schenectady County

Leave a Reply