Civil engineer also had love for history

C. Robb DeGraff of Amsterdam supervised construction of the 1930 Batchellerville Bridge over the Sac

C. Robb DeGraff of Amsterdam supervised construction of the 1930 Batchellerville Bridge over the Sacandaga Reservoir.

DeGraff’s bridge over what is now known as Great Sacandaga Lake was replaced by a new, higher span Nov. 15, 2012. The original bridge, more than 80 years old, is being torn down.

In 1956, DeGraff drew a detailed map of the area flooded for the reservoir with numerous historical references. His map focuses on Fish House.

“Fish House was an old stamping ground of mine,” DeGraff told the Recorder. “I had relatives who used to operate a country store in that vicinity.”

Fish House got its name because Colonial leader Sir William Johnson had built a path in 1762 from his estate in Johnstown to a good fishing spot on the Sacandaga River.

In January 1894, Fish House was the scene of a murder. DeGraff said, “The feud by hotel owners Walter Brown and ‘Hi’ Osborne resulted in murder of Osborne by Brown. The Osborne Hotel burned in 1895.”

Fish House had a covered bridge over the Sacandaga River built in 1818 that was destroyed by the 1930 flooding that created the reservoir. Two-thirds of Fish House was flooded. Fish House residents had wanted the 1930 bridge built in their area, but officials chose Batchellerville instead. DeGraff said people in Fish House were never really satisfied with the reservoir construction.

An engineer’s life

A native of Utica, DeGraff was born in 1882. His family moved to Amsterdam, and he graduated from Amsterdam High School, then studied civil engineering at New York University. After college, he worked for the Schenectady Railway Co. on trolley lines connecting Schenectady with Troy and Ballston Spa.

In 1905, he began almost 20 years of service with the New York State Engineering Department. He was engineer in charge of highway and Mohawk River/Barge Canal projects, including construction of canal lock bridges in Canajoharie, Amsterdam, Cranesville and Rexford. He married Eloise Milmine of Amsterdam in 1916. They had two children.

In 1923, DeGraff left civil engineering for several years and became an official at a textile plant in Fall River, Mass.

When the Sacandaga Reservoir was created in 1930, DeGraff was appointed resident engineer for the Hudson River Regulating District to supervise construction of the Batchellerville Bridge.

He was commissioner of public works for the city of Amsterdam during the administration of Republican Mayor Robert Brumagin from 1932 to 1934. In the late 1930s, DeGraff became area director for New Deal Works Progress Administration public projects in seven counties, with his headquarters in Utica. In the 1940s, he was district engineer for the New York State Health Department.

Amsterdam bypass

One of DeGraff’s last acts of public service was to put forward an alternative to the highway plan proposed for Amsterdam after construction of the Thruway. In 1957, DeGraff sketched a proposed arterial highway that would have put a new bridge over the Mohawk River east of Amsterdam near Widow Susan Road. Route 30 traffic would use that road to bypass the city.

DeGraff outlined his proposal during a Rotary Club speech, and historian Hugh Donlon noted that a “considerable number” supported DeGraff’s bypass proposal. Donlon wrote people were starting to realize “that arterials passing through the core of the city would necessitate drastic community surgery.”

In a newspaper article, DeGraff said his proposal may have defects but it would not cause the “congestion, expense and inconvenience” of building a new Route 30 through Amsterdam.

DeGraff died in 1958. The highway plan that ultimately prevailed ignored DeGraff’s idea and sent Route 30 traffic through the center of Amsterdam.

Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach him at 346-6657 or [email protected]

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