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.