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Cudmore: Bridge dams along the Mohawk River

Cudmore: Bridge dams along the Mohawk River

By spring 1913 all the bridge dams on the Mohawk River were completed except the dam at Lock 8 in Scotia, when an unexpected flood wreaked havoc at Lock 13 between Randall and Yosts and elsewhere in the valley.

Michael Riley details the story in his new book, “Bridge Dams on the Mohawk: David A. Watt’s Marvelous Creation.”  Riley is president of the American Canal Society.  Watt was the British-born engineer who designed much of the Barge Canal System.

The Barge Canal replaced the Erie Canal, which had been a big ditch that avoided bodies of water like the Mohawk River.  The project, approved in 1903, was to make New York’s canals deep and wide enough to handle freight barges. 

The major effort, compared by some to digging the Panama Canal, canalized a long stretch of the Mohawk and other bodies of water. 

The bridge dams consist of metal bridges across the Mohawk at many locks.  Metal plates are suspended from the bridges that can be lowered when the canal is in use, holding back the water to create a more placid surface and easier navigation. 

The heavy metal plates can be raised in the winter during ice jam season or raised during severe weather to allow the Mohawk to flow freely in an effort keep storm debris from clogging the locks and bridge dams, which can lead to severe flooding.

Ice was gone from the river on March 8, 1913 and Riley said “permission was given to lower the frames and gates” for bridge dam number 9 at Lock 13 in Randall, now a scenic stop on the New York State Thruway.  By March 24 the bridge dam gates at Randall and Tribes Hill’s Lock 12 were being lowered.

Riley said “unknown to the engineers and dam tenders, a large winter storm” was approaching. 

The storm hit the Mohawk Valley March 25, collecting lumber and other debris from upstream.  Workers in Tribes Hill noticed the water was rising although only about one-third of the dam was in place.     

Riley wrote the river rose dramatically the night of the 25th and “when the work crew arrived in the morning they found water (at Randall) two feet over the lock walls and rising.”

As the waters rose, head dam tender James Breslin and other workers were able to get to the bridge deck one by one in a small boat in the rushing water to raise the gates.  Debris built rapidly and some dam gates were allowed to fall into the river.  The last large piece of debris, Riley wrote, was the undercarriage of a baggage car from a train that had fallen into the water.

After the flood, Riley said, the public was told that “damage to the dam was minor.”  An internal report on April 14, though, stated that damage to the dam at Randall was “considerable,” adding that “some of the material is so badly damaged that it will have to be replaced.”  The report added repairs were possibly needed for other parts of the dam but the damaged parts were still underwater.

Finished in 1918, the Barge Canal project cost $96.7 million.


My mother Julia was born in December 1913 in Randall to Margaret and Yates Cook.  He was a storekeeper who died suddenly in 1915.

The outbreak of World War I and the need for my grandmother to feed soldiers guarding the canal made it financially feasible for her and her three children to remain in Randall for the duration of the war, when she moved to Amsterdam to operate a boarding house.

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].

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