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1913 Easter flood brought devastation

Saturday, March 30, 2013
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By some accounts, the weather on Easter day 1913 started out beautifully. But by evening it was raining, and the rain didn’t let up for nearly a week.

That heavy, steady downpour was landing on frozen ground and running off into streams, then rivers. Rivers that were already mighty grew to five times their size; the resulting flooding brought historic devastation to Albany and Troy and took out bridges all along the Hudson and Mohawk.

The impacts linger still, a century later.

Upstate New York that spring was on the fringe of what they didn’t yet call a “superstorm.” Nationwide, more than 1,000 people were killed and 250,000 left at least temporarily homeless across 14 states, mostly in a path from Nebraska to Ohio. Some of those places — Dayton, in particular, where 360 people died — got national and even international headlines.

“Upstate New York also suffered record flooding that under different circumstances would likely have drawn greater national attention,” researcher Trudy E. Bell wrote in a paper prepared for a New York state history conference in 2009.

It was an early Easter that year, too, falling on March 23. An Arctic front bearing sleet hit on Good Friday; there were reports of 90 mph winds at Buffalo. Then, on Easter, the torrential downpours began. An inch of rain per day kept falling over the Hudson and Mohawk watersheds, right through the following Thursday.

At Corinth, the dam at the Hudson River paper mill washed out. Water was running 91⁄2 feet over the top of the Spier Falls Dam in Moreau. A log boom broke at Corinth and thousands of hydro-powered logs took out the bridge between Glens Falls and South Glens Falls, killing two.

“It was more rain than had ever been seen before, throughout the area,” said Corinth town historian Rachel Clothier, who gave a talk Thursday at the Brookside Museum in Ballston Spa.

On Friday, March 28, the Mohawk and Hudson crested at the same time near Waterford, which was bad news for Albany and Troy. The Hudson reached 24.4 feet in depth at Albany, less than an inch short of its highest level ever, Bell found. Streetcar lines were submerged, railroad embankments were undermined by the surging water and police in rowboats were rescuing the stranded.

Albany’s riverfront water filtration plant flooded and raw Hudson water swept into the filtered-water reservoir behind the plant.

Sewage contamination from the river caused an outbreak of typhoid fever in the city — and back then, before antibiotics, typhoid killed 10 percent of the people who caught it, and those who didn’t die could linger ill for months. With 180 cases reported by mid-April, desperate measures were taken. City workers loaded a small boat with bags of chlorinated lime and spread it across

the city reservoir by dumping the bleach-like powder over the side.

The outbreak subsided. The incident would later be widely cited as proof that chlorination of water — even haphazard chlorination in crisis — worked effectively to kill disease-carrying bacteria.

The 1913 flooding was also the final impetus for construction of a flood-control dam above Hadley on the Sacandaga River.

The idea of damming the Hudson’s tributaries had been discussed for at least a decade before that. Less-severe flooding was nothing new, but perhaps just as significant was that the lumber and power mills along the Hudson wanted a controlled, steady flow of water, even in the dry summer months.

But it took the flooding of 1913 — and then flooding almost as severe in 1914 — to get the state Legislature to act. Voting just blocks from where streets had flooded, lawmakers approved an amendment to the state Constitution in the fall of 1913 that allowed up to 3 percent of the state forest land in the Adirondacks to be inundated for new flood control reservoirs; dams on the Black and Sacandaga rivers would become centerpieces of the plan.

A final plan for the reservoir system was approved in 1923, and work soon started. There were 12,000 acres of timber cleared in the Sacandaga Valley, 3,800 gravestones were relocated and more than 40 miles of new road were built around the rim of the new reservoir being created in Saratoga and Fulton counties.

The gates at the new Conklingville Dam were closed on March 27, 1930 — the event that impounded what is today the Great Sacandaga Lake.

Stephen Williams is a Gazette reporter. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. He can be reached at 885-6705 or swilliams@dailygazette.net.

 
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