Great Sacandaga documentary a major media event

Story of reservoir's creation

“And I would think of the flood in The Bible,” said the late Northville historian Charlotte Duncan Russell recalling a childhood memory in an interview from the 1980s.

“And I really had nightmares about that. And I thought, ‘Oh they can’t do that to people.’ ”

But they did. In 1930, after a thousand people were evicted from the Sacandaga River Valley in the southern Adirondacks, Frank Sargent, chief engineer of the Sacandaga Reservoir project, closed the valves at the Conklingville Dam in Hadley and water began flooding the valley.

The intent, largely achieved, was to lessen downstream flooding on the Hudson River in Troy, Albany and elsewhere. The unintended consequence was creation of New York’s largest man-made lake that has become a destination for vacationers.

Glens Falls documentary producer Peter Pepe recorded interviews with Sacandaga residents in the 1980s, hoping to create a documentary.  That film never was produced but Pepe saved the interviews and other research.

Several years ago Saratoga County historian Lauren Roberts heard about Pepe’s work as she and Jason Kemper of the Sacandaga Lake Advisory Council were making plans for their own documentary on creation of what today is called Great Sacandaga Lake. Kemper is also Saratoga County planning director.

Pepe, Roberts and Kemper worked two years and debuted the film “Harnessing Nature: Building the Great Sacandaga Lake,” funded by the Lake Advisory Council, last Thanksgiving at two showings at Northville Central Schools.

Since then the 70-minute film has drawn capacity crowds to school auditoriums, town halls and historical societies. Fans have purchased an estimated 4,000 recordings of the documentary. The producers may approach WMHT to get the film on television.

The producers present the tension between the people of limited means evicted for the project with the need to prevent severe flooding in the cities on the Hudson.

Residents of the Sacandaga Valley had been skeptical as state work crews arrived in the 1920s to prepare for the project, cutting trees, tearing down farm buildings and villages, even moving cemeteries.

“They had to take the state estimates for their land,” late Fulton County historian William G. Loveday, Jr. told me some years ago. “This caused a lot of bad feeling. Other people could see the benefits of it.”

The merry-go-round with handmade horses at Sacandaga Park, operated by the Fonda, Johnstown and Gloversville Railroad, was disassembled and moved to the Shelburne Village museum in Vermont.

Another voice in the film is that of John Ferguson, a surveyor who has done work for the Hudson River-Black River Regulating District, which controls the lake today, “The quality of the work for the type of equipment that they had was really quite extraordinary,” he said.

Ferguson said the project cost $12 million in the 1920s and “and now you have this beautiful lake that attracts people.”

Russell Dunn, author of “Adventures Around the Great Sacandaga Lake,” wrote, “In the fall of 1929, many people deliberately drove through the Valley, winding their way along the interconnecting roads, through villages that no longer existed and past forests that no longer held trees, simply because they knew they could never do it again.”

Creation of the 29-mile reservoir enabled factory workers from Johnstown, Gloversville, Amsterdam and Schenectady to build inexpensive camps in the 1940s and 1950s.

Agnes Gilbert is said to have started the Ring of Fire tradition, with bonfires lighted around the lake each Labor Day weekend. She was inspired by a similar event around Keuka Lake. Her family placed fliers in restaurants, stores and bars around the Great Sacandaga and the first Ring of Fire took place in 1988.

Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 346-6657 or [email protected]

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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