A Reservoir Revealed

by Michael Cunningham | June 2002

WHEN THE Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recommended repairs be made to the dam at Stillwater Reservoir, in the Town of Webb, the plan was to draw the water down gradually, beginning in spring 2001, with work to continue throughout the summer. The reservoir was scheduled to drop by about twenty-five feet, but the dry summer lowered it by as much as twenty-eight feet. It doesn‘t sound like a big difference until you consider that, at its lowest point, on August 10, the reservoir was less than four percent full. Some of the small lakes that had been obliterated by the damming of the Beaver River were visible and landlocked again.

Businesses that depend on the man-made lake saw their own drop-offs. Boating for the daring and creative may have been better than ever, but it was hard to convince some visitors that low water would provide something far more interesting than anything seen before or likely to be seen again in this lifetime. Hiking was otherworldly. Maps were only vaguely revealing of location, and the topography was virgin and ever renewing. What a visitor perceived in June was totally transformed by August.

For a few months even longtime residents were in territory that was both familiar and unfamiliar. The land was from the past; it had once been above water. Yet, it was not the same land: it had been smothered, molded, scoured, soaked and veiled from light.

THE BEAVER RIVER was first dammed after the Civil War to control the flow of water for floating logs to mills down the Black River. In 1890 William Seward Webb, builder of the Mohawk St Malone Railway, bought 115,000 acres of timberlands in the vicinity. The State of New York’s construction of a major dam at Stillwater to provide a constant flow for industrial needs downriver flooded part of Webb’s holdings. He sued for damages of $186,000. The suit was settled in 1896; the state purchased seventy-five thousand acres—some underwater and some uncut forest—made inaccessible by the flooding (now part of the Five Ponds Wilderness Area). The price was more than six-hundred thousand dollars, well above the going rate.

In 1924 the Black River Regulating District built the current dam to generate power and regulate water flow, enlarging the reservoir to 10.5 square miles. ‘The impoundment has forty-eight miles of shoreline and is home to one of the largest populations of common loons in New York State.

The water level has fluctuated over the years. Low water occurs naturally—but usually not so dramatically—in late winter or early spring. The drawdown of 2001 lasted from spring throughout a dry summer and into the fall. Whether snowmelt and rains will replenish the reservoir to normal levels this spring is only as predictable as the weather, says Duff Kitto, the administrator and operating engineer for the western regions of the Hudson River–Black River Regulating District. As spring 2002 began, Herkimer County was under a drought watch.

LAST SUMMER, what looked like solid ground—cracked and dried on the surface—was not to be trusted, sometimes sucking in would-be hikers and treasure hunters up to their waists. The concrete boat launch ended far short of the water, at first ten feet, then thirty feet. Trucks with boat trailers foundered in the mud. By August, water’s edge in some spots was four hundred feet from solid ground, and it was impossible to maneuver most motorized boats. Residents marveled at the swift and lush growth of fine grasses, flowers and seedlings that took with passion to the newly revealed soil. Artifacts were bountiful, and scavengers were in a fever. The silt disgorged a Model T carcass, lawn chairs, soggy cameras and expensive lenses. A silver tray appeared, and so too a 275-pound anvil. Outboard motors, an eighty-five-foot logging chain, wagon wheels and buckboard springs all muddied and rusted eventually turned up in the muck.

More than forty years ago a Chris-Craft went down in Stillwater: the wreck was found in the mud with a collapsed hull and a broken propeller shaft, a ghost of a fearful afternoon. The Stillwater Reservoir of 2001 revealed a landscape at once real and surreal. Now the water is coming back up, and the spirits of summers past will slowly slip back to rest, one by one.

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