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“History of Springwater” by Orson Walbridge

Early History of Springwater New York

Chapter 10 - Hemlock Lake State Dam - Removed by Springwater Boys.

by Orson Walbridge


In giving a brief account of the removal of the above mentioned dam I will go back and state why the said dam was built. About the same time of the opening of the Erie canal, which was in 1824, it was thought that the waters of the lakes might be needed to assist in feeding the canal, so they got a grant from the legislature of the state to build dams at the foot of the lakes, Conesus, Hemlock and Canadice; and the dams were built about 1825 or 1826, so as to raise the water some three or four feet above the usual high water mark; but in a short time it was ascertained by the canal authorities that the water from the said lakes were not needed as canal feeders, and they were never used for such purpose. But the mill owners on the outlet of Hemlock lake found the dam very convenient to hold back and reserve some four or five feet of water, so that it could be drawn off and used to supply their mills in the latter part of the summer, when owing to the dry season of the year the natural flow of water was not sufficient for their use. So they kept up the dams and kept the gates in the flumes where the water was drawn off until needed by them, which caused the water at the head of the lake to set back into the swampy woods at the south of the lake for some half or two-thirds of a mile, and by being kept back until the hot part of the summer and then being drawn down, it soon caused the timber in the swamp to die, and also left decaying vegetation and malarial substance which impregnated the surrounding atmosphere in such a manner that the inhabitants in the vicinity of the lake believed it to be the cause of the numerous cases of ague and malarial fevers that prevailed during the summers of 1828 and 1829, in Springwater, and about the head of the lake; and as the mill owners on the outlet having refused to take out the gates at the dam and let the water take natural course, and as the water in the lake in the spring of 1830 was very high, so much so that a person with skiff could easily pass up through the swamp south of where Caleb Buckner now lives, and about to the north line of Harlow Colegrove’s farm; and as there was no sign of relief from the foot of the lake, the people of Springwater and around the head of the lake decided to take the matter into their own hands and remove the dam. So a day was set and notice given for a general turnout to go down and accomplish the work. On the morning of the day appointed, which I think was about the first of June, there was a goodly number assembled and started from Springwater Valley to go down the lake, some on horseback, some in carriages, and such means of conveyance as they might have; and as they passed along, others fell in by the way so that when we arrived at the Half Way House, then kept by Abner Goodno, there were not less than two hundred men ready for such work as might be required of them. Here a council was called and Solomon K. Chamberlin was chosen captain or commander of the forces; and before starting from there was a resolution passed that we would be governed by and strictly obey the orders of our captain in all things. We were then instructed that we should not have any conversation with any one outside of our own company, and not to use any loud talk among ourselves, and to be very peaceable in passing to and from our work. We then started down the lake and all passed along quietly until we got down to the old Abidjah Archer farm, when those in front saw a man in the field plowing with a pair of horses. He hitched one horse, took the harness off the other, got upon him and started him at a run, those seeing him, thinking he might be going to get possession of the building over the flume at the dam, let their horses run for the dam also, but the man from the field was going to Slab City to notify the millers and not to the dam. So we all arrived safely at the dam. Now for a fair understanding of the matter, it will be necessary to give a brief description of the dam. It was built by first bedding two heavy oak mud sills on each side of the outlet of the lake ten or twelve feet apart and twenty feet or more in length. Into these sills were framed heavy oak posts about one foot square and some five or six on each side, and framed into and pinned to the mud sills so as to form a strong bulkhead or flume. The posts were of sufficient length to stand some six or eight feet above high water, with caps across the top and roofed over with a shingled roof, and planked up above the water, and so constructed as to put in head gates to shut back the water, or take out as they wished to draw down the lake. On each side of the flume and at the lake end of it there was a wing built of square hewed timber some fifty feet in length and laid on top of each other, and held to the gravel bank and of sufficient height to come above high water, and a bank of gravel raised as far as necessary to hold the water.

We were well supplied with axes, crowbars and heavy ropes that we had brought with us from home. The first work was to cut off the posts of the bulkhead hitch ropes to the roof, and tip it over into the water, and draw it out on the land, which was easily done, as the water was high and the outlet full to the top of the banks.

After removing the roof the next thing was to draw up and remove the gates, knock off the planks, and then by hitching two large ropes to the top of a post in opposite directions, and as many men taking hold as the ropes would allow, we commenced pulling first one way then the other, and after a little the post would begin to move a little and increase in motion, as they continued to pull, and after the pins gave way the post would come to the top of the water and be drawn out on to the land; and by perseverance all the posts were removed in this way and there was none of the bulkhead left standing. During the removal of the posts some of the men were engaged in taking out the wing timbers, and about this time Isaac Van Fossen, Ichabod A. Holden and others interested in the mills on the stream below came up and protested against the removal of the dam. But as the men did not scare worth a cent Holden began to beg saying that his mill dam was broken and if they let down so much water it would ruin his mill, and begged them not to take out any more of the dam at present; and it was decided to adjourn the rest of the work for a few weeks; and as the men at work at the wing timbers bad removed the top timbers, and as about twenty of us were in the water and had loosened a timber and raised it to the top of the water ready to be drawn out, S. K. Chamberlin, our captain, called a halt and we let the timber back in its place and sat down upon it in the water. Then the captain said, “Boys your work is done; we have decided to remove no more of the dam at present, and now we will start for home” and in less than five minutes all had left and were on the road homeward bound. Abner Goodrich, the keeper of the Half Way House, went down with a skiff and as he learned that they were after a warrant for him, and as he was anxious to get home and out of the county, he got a horse and started in advance of the main force. He requested me to get his skiff, and as I was getting ready to start out with the skiff, and after all the others had gone and were some distance away, John Van Fossen, the owner of the Slab City mills came up on a horse at full rue and commenced to question me in relation to the men that had been there. I answered him by saying that I was under instructions to have no conversation with strangers, and I rowed away in the skiff and left him standing upon the shore, and from his appearance I judged him to be as mad a man as ever was left alone without any one to scold at or quarrel with. One little incident I will mention, Captain Reuben Gilbert Sr., a man some seventy-five years of age was one of the company that went down from Springwater on this occasion and old Mr. Jacques, living near the dam about the same age, and an old friend of the captain, came out and seeing the captain among the company began to remonstrate with him, and was very sorry to see him engaged in such a work. The Captain answering him said, “Mr. Jacques I have lost all my hearing since I last saw you. I can’t hear a word you say. Not a word.” We will now go back with the company to Springwater Valley. Andrew Spafard then kept a tavern where Maurice Brown lived, and when we got there all the horseback riders formed a line with old Captain Gilbert at the head on a large white horse and rode up through the village and back to the tavern where we found plenty of lemon punch, egg nog and other refreshments, and after refreshing the inner man, the company broke up and went to their homes. I have now only to state that later in the summer, and after having got permission from the state authorities, another company went down and removed the remaining portion of the dam. This time the company was not as large, but we found no opposition and we did the work in a peaceable manner and returned to our homes. I. A. Holden sued S. K. Chamberlin and a number of others for damage done to his mill dam and got three or four hundred dollars damage and this ended the removal of the old lake dam.