Home of Roswell and Smith M. Weed
Popeville school class
Popeville school class

The 3 Forge Dams, by Ralph Hoy

My recollections of The Forge Dams…There were Three.

As a youngster I used to visit my grandfather Gaines at the time when he ran the Company Store at ‘the Forge’, formerly known as Popeville, later as The Forge and now sometimes referred to as Chateaugay Lake. The Gaines family lived in the Co. hotel up the hill from the river at the corner where you turn left to the road leading to the West Side of Chateaugay Lake. I spent many happy hours fishing with Fred Gaines from his one-lunge boat, “The Sputterbudget”. As we traveled up river he would tell me the history of the Forge, the old dam upriver from where the “Maggie” and later the “Emma” were docked. The Maggie was still on the East bank and the Emma tied at a dock near the bridge. When the water was low one could see the outline of an underwater dam about 200 yards upriver from the bridge. The old wooden dam which held back the river and lake can now be seen in the recent picture published by The Chateaugay Record. It was also the site of the Chateaugay Ore and Iron Co. sawmill, which cut the planks for the plank road, leading to Chateaugay. The sawmill was later operated by the Murphy Family, who were good friends of my father who operated the Hoy mill a mile further down stream. Thus my memory goes back a good 70 years to when the Forge had street names and also house numbers where 800 people had formerly lived. About 1912 a Mr. Trudell also operated a steam sawmill near where the Emma used to tie up. He came from Owls Head. When he closed down, his sawyer, Arthur King then came to work for us for many years. In these days of fuel shortage it is interesting to note that the steam mill was run on sawdust from the large circular saw. Arthur was one of the fastest sawyers to have worked in those parts and a good head of steam provided the speed.

The Forge Dam was designed and built by The Cummings Construction Company of Ware, Mass. The construction engineer was Ed. Harrigan of Plattsburgh and Albany and his time keeper and accountant was a young Mr. Bundy, later a banker in Plattsburgh. Now here is where my close contact with the project came in. It all hinged on a large lumber truck my father had purchased through Eldridge and Mason of Malone, a Stewart heavy duty truck with solid tires, and the largest in the North Country at that time. As my father wished to help me earn my own money to attend Univ. of Michigan that fall he offered me the freight if I would go to Buffalo to drive it home. I took $150 amount of the freight, as the truck had a governor on it, which held the speed to 12 miles per hour. We were three and one half days getting home, the steering so stiff that it took two of us to go around a corner, and I had to crank it by standing on the crank, jumping hard, and the fourth half turn it would start, mileage at 6 per gallon. We no sooner got home than Mr. Harrigan came to see us about moving his equipment from the Rutland freight yards at Chateaugay, the first load being a 6 ton donkey engine, run by steam’ to handle the huge wooden derrick and boom with which to take out the old wood dam and excavate for the new one. Johnnie Shay went with me to help get it loaded off a flat car and onto the truck. He also rode on top of the boiler with a long pole in his hands to raise the wires on Lake Street so we’d get by without being electrocuted. Anyhow we made it on the old county road.

If you will visit the dam site today you will see a large mound of old timber, rock and debris just back of the west portion of the dam. Everything was removed but the remains of the old dam parts, which were used as a coffer dam to hold back or to direct the flow while the new dam was being constructed. I can recall the type of construction, involving a huge, thick mat or deck on which the upper concrete was erected. I, for one, believe that it will be there for another 58 years for I know what went into its construction. Once I had safely delivered the donkey engine, derrick and a supply of coal to run it Ed. Harrigan gave me a verbal contract to haul all the cement, reinforcing steel and gravel to build the dam. It was a six-mile plus haul from the freight yard in Chateaugay to The Forge. I was to get $2.25 per ton for hauling the cement in cotton bags weighing about 100 lbs. each. I would also get the same price per ton for hauling the 1-inch by 38 foot steel rods, using a lumber wagon tied behind the trucks 13 platform to hold up the rest. My father agreed to let me have the truck if I would drive it, load the cement, buy the gas and keep the profit. My helper was Roy Johnston of the Salvation Army. who came home with me each summer from school in Potsdam. Soon we were starting out at 6:30 each morning for Chateaugay, loading and unloading 3 tons of cement each trip, making six trips a day and getting through about 6:30 each night. In this manner we could haul 21 tons each day, six days a week. When two of us picked up a rod of steel at each end the rod would sag to the ground in the middle. If we picked up the middle the ends would touch the ground. Anyhow we hauled until Sept. 20th when I left for Michigan and Rev. Bennie Grant offered to take over the driving for me to finish the contract. A minister in those days could stand a little extra salary, especially in Brainardsville. Anyhow he stuck with the job until it was completed, including hauling the gravel from Jay Thurber’s pit on the Miller Road. Both Roy Johnston and I played for some dances after hours, as he was a top trumpet player. The week after he left he was picked up by Bob Crosby’s Orchestra at $200 per week, much better than the $2 per day and board he got working with me. Hauling cement was a backbreaking job, and worse when they ran out of cement bags and had to take the cement in powder lost in closed freight cars. We sometimes made up time by coasting from the top of Person’s Hill on the old county road. One hitchhiker who was riding on the back of the truck bounded up and down like a Billy Goat.

Many lumber jacks and river men worked on the actual building of the dam as well as some of the Kirby boys in Brainardsville, some of the Blows, Gardners, Knights, Bracys and others who lived in the area. I do not recall that anyone was injured during the construction, and Ed. Harrigans hopes of having it done by Christmas was realized. I came home for Christmas vacation and wanted to see Ed. again. I came from the R.R. by sleigh on a dark night and passed Harrigan‘s sleigh at the Persons woods, stopping just long enough to say hello as he was on his way to the night train.

In 1929 during my own contracting days I built a small dam of the same design for the City of Herkimer Water Works, located at Gravesville. Therefore I knew the type of construction which went into it. Around 1928 a small leak developed in a wing wall at the west end of the dam, which one of my crews repaired with a small truckload of crushed stone and sand from Lyon Mt., a small portable mixer and a local crew. It was a two or three-day job and the last I knew it still held. The West Gate was seldom opened during high water, most of the flow going through the East Gate. As I have fished there in recent years I have notice some scaling of the cement but the wing walls have held and the mat am the base seemed as solid as ever. As I own the next dam, one mile downstream, I am as interested as anyone else, as my dam is anchored to 18 X 18 sixty foot hemlock hewed timbers in the bottom of the pond which have been there for well over 125 years and are as solid and sound as ever.

Much credit for there being a Forge Dam goes to the memory of Ed. Wright, who had the interest of the Lake and The River at heart. He was the one who got it built. I also knew the engineers of the Cummings Construction Co. of Ware. Mass., as I worked with them on the estimates for construction of The Wead Library in Malone, which was built of Crippen Stone during the depression days at a price around $40,000. One could hardly build a good-sized hen coop for that today. Cummings was a reputable firm and the Forge Dam, which has stood the test of 1920 to 1978, is proof that they did a good job.

As a sidelight to the above story one late afternoon as we were heading back to Chateaugay for another load of cement I called out to a native who lived near the company store that his house was on fire and he better hurry home. His answer to me was “I ain’t going to hurry just for that, someone will put it out before I get there” Next trip I noticed he was right.

I am anxious to have an opinion from my son when he visits the Forge over Thanksgiving. He is with the Pittsburgh office of the Army Corps of Engineers, whose territory takes in the dams and locks of the three rivers, Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio. It will be interesting to hear what he has to say.

Submitted for what it is worth by Ralph Hoy.

Spirits Now Rest in Bellmont Ghost Town

Both the beginning and the end came quickly for Popeville, called Bellmont, called Lower Chateaugay Lake, called Chateaugay Lake Post Office, called the Forge or the Old Forge.

It sprang into being full grown on the day it started its iron making operations, with twenty or more residences, a saw mill, a store, a blacksmith shop, and an eight-fire forge, already larger than the majority of north country Catalan forges which averaged from three to six fires. It was planned by Pope, Williams & Co., and outfitted with steamboats, barges, and several clusters of charcoal kilns to supply it.

It died by an act of simple abandonment, almost without warning. In May of its final year, the company (by this time the Chateaugay Ore & Iron Co.) opened the spring season by drawing ore to the docks at the forge site, and appeared to be doing business as usual. In October, 1893, the company announced that the forge would be abandoned within two weeks, after 19 years of nearly continuous operation around the clock. Within that 19 years, a busy industrious village had grown up around the iron works.

It was founded around a single industry and a romantic anachronism called the Catalan forge. It was located on a nearly inaccessible site with rough terrain for miles in any direction, on the banks of the Chateaugay River at the outlet of Chateaugay Lake. It was tied to its source of raw materials by twelve miles of lake and strait, and four and one-half miles of primitive roads. It was tied to its markets by five hundred miles of railroad track, and six and one-half miles of plank and dirt road.

The wonder is not that it died so early, but that it survived as long as it did, or that it was ever founded.

That incident in history can be credited to the efforts of three Plattsburgh businessmen. Smith Mead Weed, lawyer, politician, industrialist, was born in the Town of Bellmont. He knew the particular site as well as any many man alive. Meads and Weeds had owned the land on which the village was located for years.

Weed was involved, with Andrew Williams, in a company, which had purchased and was developing mineral claims in the Lyon Mountain area. By 1874, this firm was producing more ore than Williams’ forges on the Saranac River could successfully handle.

Weed, Williams, and L. Gardner Pope joined together to acquire the Belmont property, locating a massive forge not far from an abandoned iron works erected in 1802 by William Bailey, closer yet to the lumber mill of Erastus S. Mead who conveyed the property to Pope, Williams & Co.

Williams had a long history of association with various phases of the iron industry in the North Country, and a rather depressing fable grew up around him. He was associated during one time or another in his life with at least five separate ghost towns in Clinton and Franklin Counties, Popeville being one of them. The others were Elsinore, Williamsburgh, and Petersburgh (called Irondale) on the Saranac River, and Bradley Pond near Lyon Mountain.

Williams was born in Canada and immigrated to northern New York. He was soon associated with the business interests of Amasa Moore at Elsinore and later partnered with Weed, concentrating heavily on iron ore mining and iron manufacture.

He also ran for and won the position of representative in the New York State Assembly, at least once engaging in a bitterly contested campaign against his business partner, Smith Weed.

Not much can be traced of the life of L. Gardner Pope. Conflicting reports place his birth alternately in Ogdensburg and in Plattsburgh. His association with Popeville was brief, and the use of his name in reference to the village was uncommon after 1881.

His path can be traced westward at this point, for the Chateaugay Record of July 1, 1887, ran an exchange item from the Chicago News which located him in that area.

The story of the building of the iron works at Belmont (even then the name Popeville was not used exclusively, even locally) which ran in the Plattsburgh Sentinal, Sept. 4, 1874, described Pope as “the driving wheel in the concern” and called him the company’s agent at the iron works.

Incidental mentions of his name in news accounts place Pope in Popeville up to the establishment of the Chateaugay Ore & Iron Co.. in 1881. His name is conspicuously missing from the list of officers of this company at its incorporation meeting.

The period covering the latter half of the nineteenth century was an era of boom for the iron industry in northern New York. Linney notes that by 1883 there were 277 forges in the Lake Champlain district. In 1890, there were only 14. The greatest period of activity in construction took place after 1848.

The nearly unlimited water power of the numerous streams and rivers which cross and recross the Adirondack chain, and the amount and quality of the iron ore found and mined here, made the locale ideal for the production of iron. Great motive power was needed for the operation of the heavy hammers associated with the Catalan blooming process.

Banks of the Saranac, the Great Chazy, the Ausable Rivers were already settled with forges and mills when the Chateaugay Ore Co. was formed in the 1870’s. Pope, Williams & Co. seems to have chosen the Chateaugay River site as much for its scanty development as for its continuous and safe water route over half the distance from the ore supply to the nearest railroad.

Ore was freighted four and one-half miles from the Chateaugay Ore bed in Lyon Mountain to the southern shore of Upper Chateaugay Lake.

A steamboat then hauled it in barges up the twelve-mile water route provided by the Chateaugay Lake and strait system. This water complex comprised the millpond associated with the dam at Popeville, for the damming of the river at its outlet from Lower Chateaugay Lake raised the two lakes by four and one-half feet.

Below the dam on the north bank of the Chateaugay River the company built its forge. It started in 1874 with eight fires and two hammers and increased periodically until in 1880 twenty fires and three hammers were operating.

The operation of the iron works was complex and somewhat ponderous. “The company ore barges are brought up to the dock at Belmont,” reads a Plattsburgh Republican story. “A wooden tramway on the deck forms a continuation of another on shore which runs up a step grade on trestle works, a care comes creeping down the track on board; it is loaded and moved away drawn by a cable which hauls it by water power operated from the forge below. The car dumps and returns without visible direction.” (Sept. 14, 1878)

From the Chateaugay Record: “Separated ore is first put into the fires and run into blooms. These blooms are then taken in grapples (called grampuses) at the fires, and run on a track to the three hammers, weighing seven tons each. The hammers are driven by twenty foot undershot wheels. Each semi-turn of the wheels raises the hammers and their full weight falls upon the blooms. Particles of ore are thus welded through the entire bloom for the ore is not melted in these fires.” (Aug. 10, 1888)

J. R. Linney in his history of the Chateaugay Ore and Iron Co. describes the furnace as “an open hearth, about two and one-half by three and one-half feet, with a stack 20 to 25 feet high for carrying off the gases.

“The operation consisted of a charcoal fire stimulated by a blast of air, iron ore and charcoal in small quantities being added alternately by bloomsmen, who also adjusted and regulated the fire, until a batch of iron called a loupe, weighing about 300 pounds, was made. This usually took about three hours.”

It was a cumbersome and, toward the end, a prohibitively expensive process.

The failure of the Catalan forge bloomery to compete with the pigging and puddling processes which produced an acceptable product at half the price marked the end for blooming, and with it the end of Popeville which existed only as a center for iron bloomery.

Contributing to its abandonment were several other minor and major problems: its inaccessibility, its primitive roads and failure to establish rail connections with either its ore source or its market outlet, its failure to diversify its industrial base, the increasing scarcity of forest for the manufacture of charcoal, its obsolete iron making machinery, and the depression of 1893.

All along its way to abandonment Popeville scored records. The purity of its product was unexcelled, its forge was the largest in the world, its dam used two lakes and a strait for a mill pond, its existence as a settlement must have set some sort of record for brevity, and it was in its lifetime the largest village in the Town of Belmont.

Recent road maps locate a place called the Forge at the northern end of Lower Chateaugay Lake. If a traveler expects to see a village at that site he is sorely disappointed.

Two houses remain, one the residence of the Weed family in a seriously advanced stage of decay, the other the Mead residence, purchased from Erastus S. Mead and used to house the village doctor, Albert Johnson, now the residence building of a dairy farm.

A series of crumbling foundations on the east riverbank identify the site of the forge and perhaps the sawmill or Smithy. At the Forge site are rocklined tunnels in the riverbank associated with the flume. All other traces of human industry have disappeared.

At the corner where the bridge road intersects with Route 374 stands a New York State Education Department marker. It reads, “On this site was built in 1874 the world’s largest Catalan Forge abandoned in 1893.”