Charlotte Duncan Russell was 8 years old when clouds of eye-stinging smoke drifted over the Sacandaga River Valley. This was no accidental fire. Houses and barns were set ablaze to clear the land.
“Smoke, smoke all over. It seemed so destructive and so inhuman,” Russell remembered.
In 1930, the Conklingville Dam was built, and controlled flooding turned a river into the Great Sacandaga Lake, the largest reservoir in New York state.
People had to leave their homes and begin a new life somewhere else. Farms, churches, schools, lumber mills, general stores and taverns disappeared. Caskets were unearthed from cemeteries and the remains of loved ones moved to higher ground. Every structure was destroyed, taken apart or slowly moved uphill by teams of horses until the land was bare.
Not even a hitching post was left behind.
When it was all over, 10 communities, with names like Fish House and Parkville, Osborne and Sacandaga Park, were gone forever.
The land and roads where they once lived were covered in up to 70 feet of water.
Charlotte Duncan Russell is just one of the many voices in “Harnessing Nature: Building The Great Sacandaga,” a documentary funded by the Great Sacandaga Lake Advisory Council and created by Pepe Productions of Glens Falls.
The 80-minute film tells both sides of the story: how the dam was constructed on the Sacandaga River, the largest tributary of the Hudson River, to control flooding in cities along the big river; and how the project changed the lives of people in the Sacandaga Valley.
Today, the 29-mile-long Great Sacandaga Lake is a paradise of Adirondack recreation. In the summer, camps and cottages open their doors.
Tourists fish, swim and speed across the water, or just sit back and admire the view.
“The people in the valley never really had their voices heard,” says Saratoga County Historian Lauren Roberts. A graduate of Northville High School, Roberts grew up on the Fulton County side of the Sacandaga and now lives in Edinburgh, on the Saratoga County side.
“It was inevitable that something had to be done to control the flooding. The Sacandaga was the obvious choice. However, the way they went about taking the land by eminent domain, there could have been quite a bit more sympathy for the people who were really losing everything.
With this film, those individual voices who echo the thoughts and feelings of the many who lived in the valley, they are finally being heard. Their stories are being told.”
Jason Kemper, director of planning for Saratoga County, produced the film with Roberts, and like her, he’s a Northville grad who lives on the Sacandaga. He’s a board member for the Great Sacandaga Lake Advisory Council.
“There’s a lack of appreciation for the sacrifices made by those in the valley,” says Kemper. “It was important to me to get the project done for that reason, to tell both sides of that story.”
‘Bit of mystique’
Since November, when the film debuted at free public screenings in Northville, it’s been drawing standing-room-only audiences around the Capital Region.
“The response has really been overwhelming,” Roberts says.
In Northville, the two events sold out. “There were 200 people at each viewing,” she says.
“We showed it in Charlton, at the Town Hall, a couple of weeks ago, and we had 120 people show up. I showed it in Galway on a Monday night. We had over 100 people show up, standing room only.”
The DVD of the film is also getting snapped up, both online and at convenience stores, sports stores and historical societies around the lake.
“We have sold about 4,000 copies of the DVD already, which is shocking. We never expected that number,” says Roberts.
Online buyers hail from all over the country, says Kemper. “By Christmas, we were in Florida, Texas and the middle part of the country. Just after Christmas, we hit California and Alaska. It was almost like a wave, once it got out there.”
And why is the film attracting so much attention?
“The Sacandaga holds a bit of mystique,” says Roberts. “Because of some of the myths that are going around … people have heard stories from neighbors or found things on the beach.” While many have researched the dam project, she says, this is the first time it’s been in DVD format, where “people can sit down and get the whole story.”
Most people know “only bits and pieces,” says Kemper. “We were able to give the average audience a clear picture of exactly the facts surrounding the flooding of the valley.”
Nearly 90 years later, talk of the earthen dam can still stir emotions.
“In generations now, they still harbor some bitterness over what happened, that their grandparents or great-grandparents were treated unfairly,” Roberts says.
“Harnessing Nature” is a blend of archival film, historical photos, voices from the past, interviews with current historians and residents and contemporary shots of the Great Sacandaga.
Some of the oldest footage and most dramatic, from before the dam was built, shows the burning of buildings and floodwaters inundating downtown Glen Falls.
That film documenting the fires came from the Hudson River-Black River Regulating District, which was established by the state Legislature to regulate the flow of waters in two Adirondack Region watersheds.
“Harnessing Nature” got rolling more than two years ago, when the Great Sacandaga Lake Advisory Council had the old footage digitized, then proposed the making of a movie about the building of the lake. A film committee was formed and met with historians around the lake from both Fulton and Saratoga counties.
Roberts contacted Peter Pepe of Pepe Productions, not knowing he had worked on a Sacandaga project in the 1980s, filming interviews with older residents who actually lived through the building of the dam.
“They never finished the film,” says Roberts. “Peter had donated a copy of what he had to the Adirondack Research Library of Union College.
But he had kept and digitized those interviews. Most of the interviewees from the 1980s are long gone.”
Pepe and Roberts wrote the script and interviewed local historians, authors and residents. Pepe signed up the narrator, Donald James, whose voice will be familiar to many viewers from TV and movies. James actually drove around the Sacandaga before he did the narration.
The film, which follows a timeline from Native American habitation to the present day, dispels many of the myths about the lake. “I hear all the time that people still believe that are still towers down there, and their boat props got caught on the church steeple,” Roberts says.
During the making of the film, a dive team with cameras was sent deep into the lake.
So many stories
One of the contemporary voices in the film is Don Williams of Gloversville, a lecturer and author of books about the Adirondacks.
When Williams was interviewed by Roberts, he showed her a casket plate and dried flowers that came from a cemetery that was moved before the flooding of the valley. His grandparents had buried young children in that cemetery.
“His grandfather went out and watched them move those graves,” Roberts says. “And when they exhumed the little coffins, he took out the casket cloth and some of the dried flowers. He took off the plate and had it framed.”
Roberts also tracked down pieces of the Fish House Bridge.
The two-lane, 400-foot-long covered bridge, which was destroyed during the controlled flooding, can still be seen on old postcards.
“They tried to save it, they tried to cable it to either side. They were hoping the water would come up and lift it off its piers and they would be able to swing it over and save it,” she says. “Well, that didn’t happen. A windstorm came and broke it in half. A lot of it washed up on shore.”
Roberts found a newspaper article from the 1960s that said the bridge was at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. When she traveled there, she discovered that the trusses of the bridge had been used to build the cafeteria. “The painted advertisements for businesses in Northville are still present on those trusses.”
Roberts took pictures, but they did not make it into the film. “There were so many stories like that, but you can’t include everything.”
Roberts and Kemper hope the true story of the Great Sacandaga is remembered not only by current generations but those to come.
“The Sacandaga has become so popular as a recreation destination that sometimes that back story gets lost,” says Roberts. “Because of all the tourists that visit it now, it’s so important that they know what these people sacrificed so they have this beautiful gem to enjoy. In the summer if you are a boater, in the winter if you are a snowmobiler. And for people like us who love it year-round.”
‘Harnessing Nature: Building The Great Sacandaga’
WHAT: Documentary film about the Conklingville Dam project that flooded the Sacandaga River Valley in 1930 and created Great Sacandaga Lake
WHERE: Buy the DVD for $20 at businesses around the lake, in Gloversville, Johnstown and Broadalbin and at Brookside Museum in Ballston Spa. Or go to www.thegreatsacandagalake.com, where it’s $12 to download a video to your computer or $5 for pay-per-view streaming on your computer, tablet or Smartphone.
Admission is free to all events:
Academy for Lifelong Learning, SUNY Empire State College, Saratoga Springs. 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.
Galway Senior Citizens Club, Galway Town Hall, 1-3 p.m.
Heritage Hunters of Saratoga County, Town of Saratoga Town Hall, Schuylerville, 1-3 p.m.
Thursday, June 7
Fulton County Historical Society & Museum, Gloversville, 7 p.m.
Tuesday, June 12
Town of Hope Bicentennial, Hope, 7 p.m.
Wednesday, June 13
Piseco Lake Historical Society, Piseco, 7 p.m.
Wednesday, June 27
Charlton Seniors, Charlton Community Center, 10 a.m.
Thursday, Sept. 27
Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Reunion Group, Town of Ballston Community Library, Burnt Hills, 2 p.m.
Wednesday, Nov. 14
Crandall Public Library, Glens Falls, 7 p.m.