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Article: Hogansburg Dam: History and Impacts

By: Tony David
Program Manager, Water Resources

A version of this article published in Indian Time on May 5, 2016

A public meeting on the decommissioning and removal of the Hogansburg Dam is scheduled on Onerahtoko:wa / May 25, 2016, 5:00 pm at Akwesasne Housing Authority, Training Center.

The Hogansburg Dam is one chapter in the history of Akwesasne that illustrates how the natural resources of the region shaped our way of life, sustained our families and attracted settlers to extract these resources. As generations passed, the landscape was drastically changed and people of Akwesasne adapted with it.

Historically, Mohawk people relied on an expanse of territory from the Mohawk River Valley to diverse environments like the Adirondacks to the network of rivers connecting to the St. Lawrence River. During this time, Akwesasne was used for seasonal hunting and fishing. In the 1750s, a group from Kahnawake established permanent residence at Akwesasne, thus shifting demand on resources here to support full-time residence. By the 1800s pressure from encroaching settlers increased competition for the same resources. Locations like Hogansburg became centers for commerce and hydropower development provided the means for natural resource exploitation and accumulation of wealth for some.


Early Hydropower Development
The location of the Hogansburg Dam was a site for mills and dams beginning in the late 1700s. The Jesuit priest Fr. Anthony Gordon is credited with erecting the first mill around 1762. Michael Hogan (1765-1833), an influential Irish settler, purchased a large tract of land that included the township of St. Regis Mills. The town was renamed “Hogansburgh” to bear his family name. Hogan constructed a mill located on the east bank of the river between 1811 and 1818, which flourished under the growing economic opportunities and the township of Hogansburg developed rapidly.

Hogan’s mill eventually became the grist mill. Immediately south of the grist mill was a timber mill. The mills were constructed from shore, about 100 feet out over the river, with a foundation in the river channel. The mills were later operated by Folsom & Mills. Sometime during these early operations a low head timber crib dam was constructed to increase hydraulic power. Other mills were constructed such as Wright’s sawmill on the west bank of the river. Later, Alfred Fulton operated a timber mill and ashery on the east bank of the river.

Gordon S. Mills operated the grist and timber mills begging around 1900. The dam was breached during a spring freshet in 1905 and was repaired and staffed with a new miller in 1906. In 1913 Mills died and his store, blacksmith shop, timber mill and grist and water rights were auctioned. The eventual owner of the mills became Maurice Lantry.

On the west bank of the river Maurice Lantry launched thriving businesses. In 1897 he built a large three-story factory powered by an electric dynamo. The factory produced baskets, toys and other goods. Lantry also owned a store on the same side of the river. He partnered with George W. Silkworth, an investor from New York City and traded stock under the company name Silkworth-Lantry.


Fires Destroys Hogansburg Economy
On August 2, 1915 a fire destroyed the economic district of Hogansburg. The fire originated at Bero & Murphy’s store and rapidly spread to Murphy’s Hotel, Grow’s drug store, a barber shop, Burke’s store, Lantry’s store, F. Sanjule post office and jewelry store, Academy Hall of the Catholic Parish and many residences. The fire mysteriously started in an empty tenement. (It is worth mentioning that a heroic “unnamed Indian” rushed into a burning building and saved Murphy’s invalid daughter—she was unharmed while he sustain multiple burns.)

In October of the same year, a fire consumed the second floor of A. Fulton & Sons large general store. In a separate incident two days later, the multi-story factory and sawmill belonging to Silkworth-Lantry were completely destroyed by fire. In late November of 1915, the community petitioned the Franklin County Board of Supervisors for the creation of a Hogansburg Fire District.

The effect of the Hogansburg fires appeared to be devastating and lacking adequate insurance most never recovered. The Silkworth-Lantry company was later dissolved and assets were sold at auction to pay back taxes. Unfortunately Lantry’s misfortunes continued and on June 6, 1921, the grist and timber mills were completely destroyed by fire—the result of a carelessly discarded cigarette.

At the time of the fire, Lantry installed new equipment for milling flour valued at $5,000. The grist mill was a large two story building connected to the timber mill. The two mills were operated by a single water wheel. A third building housed an electric plant that had been shuttered at the time of the fire.


Rebuilding the Hogansburg Dam
Beginning in 1927, the Malone Power &Light Company (MPL) acquired the properties and water rights surrounding the dam. Construction began in 1929 of a new 11.5 foot high concrete ogee spillway immediately downstream of the former dam. A new powerhouse with an integrated intake was placed on the site of the former timber mill. The remnants of the stone foundation are still visible on the north side of the powerhouse. A single vertical turbine, manufactured by S. Morgan Smith Co, was installed with a design capacity if 485 kilowatt hours. The total cost of the project was around $200,000. 123 men were employed during construction, including skilled Mohawk laborers and mechanics, whom completed most of the steel work. The dam became operation in February of 1930.

In 1948 the stop log gate section was added. A long crib wall separated the main channel of the river with the tailrace. Only the remnants of this wall remain today. Aside from resurfacing the spillway and blocking up the windows, the dam’s appearance has changed very little.


The Environmental Impact of Exploitation
The economic demands during the time of Hogansburg’s growth fueled an era of natural resource exploitation on a landscape scale. Mature forest stands were clear cut. Any remaining trees were slashed and burned for potash, lye and fertilizer. The land, cleared of vegetation, was left naked and susceptible to erosion as streams filled with sediment.

Fish were displaced by poor water quality and migratory access was blocked by dams. The Mohawk names for Helena and Fort Covington suggest they were known for salmon harvest, but by 1900 all the Atlantic salmon were removed from the region. These consequences occurred in an era with little or no thought for sustainability. What took 1,000s of years to develop was wiped from the earth in a span of 100 years.

As supplies dwindled, the modern era of development moved away from resource extraction and focused on industrial manufacturing. Hydropower development on the St. Lawrence River in the 1950s attracted companies (General Motors, Reynolds, Alcoa, Domtar, etc.) that dumped persistent pollutants into the river. Once again, as profitability changed the factories were abandoned, leaving behind a legacy of pollution that persists today.

For Mohawk people, the subsistence lifestyle, traditions and culture depends on a large land base with a complex ecology. On one hand, the governments of the U.S. and Canada sought to systematically change our way of life from governance, education and religion. The damage caused by natural resources exploitation had the effect of removing the landscape that supported our way of life. Deforestation, over-fishing, hydropower development and pollution has put tremendous strain on our resources and way of life. The Hogansburg dam is a part of this history. To recover from these impacts Mohawks will need to develop and implement natural resource management plans that protect the resources that are important to us. If we work to restore our environment, we restore that which supports our way of life.

The decommissioning and removal of the Hogansburg Dam will not restore the entire landscape. It’s a starting point from which migratory fish restoration goals will be pursued. It will reopen migration routes for fish and allow them to find more spawning and nursery habitat upstream of the dam. This is an incremental step in the recovery of resources that will require time to build back up. The Tribe’s stocking programs seek to jumpstart this recovery. Sustained recovery will depend of community awareness and support. We may never recover all that was lost, but we can follow through on our responsibility to care for the natural resources that belong to all of us and ensure they thrive for future generations to enjoy.

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Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe Environment Division