The Hudson Valley’s Endangered Dams

As hardworking as they are beautiful, dams are all around us. Get to know the wondrous waters that are right in your own backyard

Most people don’t pay dams much mind, despite the fact that they shower us with benefits: flood protection, drinking water, hydroelectric power, irrigation, and recreation. And of course, many dams look beautiful with water cascading over them. The dam along the Esopus Creek in Saugerties that once provided power for a paper mill now offers diners picture-postcard views at the adjacent Diamond Mills Hotel.

But many dams are old; creaky old. Last spring, when U.S. Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney let the public know that many area dams need a life raft, a lot of us finally sat up and took notice. Maloney introduced the Dam Rehabilitation and Repair Act, with the goal of funding $800 million worth of critical repairs and safety upgrades for dams that fail minimum safety standards. As storm surges and inland flooding become increasingly common, dams are more likely to malfunction, possibly resulting in death and devastation — as well as serious economic and environmental damage.

“It should not take a tragedy to recognize that our dams urgently need upgrades and regular inspections,” Rep. Maloney says. “A failure of a high hazard (dam) could mean loss of life or significant property damage because of the greater residential and commercial development that’s encroaching.”

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In the Hudson Valley alone, some 100 dams are in troubled waters. Designated Class C — the worst of the three letter grades used — are being studied by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). (It’s worth it to note that the hazard class does not indicate the actual condition of the dam. According to the DEC, “The hazard class of a dam is an indication of the estimated consequences if the dam were to fail” — think larger dams near populated areas or utilities.) Included are such familiar sites as Lake Carmel Dam in Putnam, which has a surface crack along the length of its spillway; and Whaley Lake Dam in Pawling, which was declared unsound by the DEC back in the 1990s and has long been the subject of local discord.

Even the aforementioned Diamond Mills Paper Company Dam in Saugerties is in rough shape structure-wise, despite its charming appearance. Like so many dams in our historic region, it dates from the 19th century. With fresh water cascading over them, dams may look forever young, although many in the area are close to 70 years old.

Start following the currents, and you’ll discover dams right under your nose. Have you ever driven along Route 52 in Beacon and wondered about that complex of Victorian-era brick factory buildings that have been converted to lofts? Check out what’s behind them: Groveville Mill Dam is part of a small hydroelectric facility with a splashy man-made waterfall. The plant, which began operations in 1983, is located within the historic Groveville Mills factory complex, which first harnessed the power of the Fishkill Creek to fuel its manufacturing needs (carpets, embroidery) in the late 1800s. Though the businesses that launched them are defunct, at least a dozen or so dams from that era still dot the creek.

Heading farther south into Westchester, one dam that would be hard to miss is the storied New Croton Dam (above) in the Cortlandt Manor area (“new” refers to its having replaced an older dam, now underwater, in 1906). With its network of stairs and landings, this 150-foot-tall structure is reminiscent of a Mayan temple. And the ribbons of water flowing from its spillway are nothing less than awe-inspiring. Behind all that beauty is a purpose: to supply New York City residents with the good stuff. When it was completed, it was the tallest dam in the world. And while that distinction has been trumped, it is arguably still the coolest.

Tapping the Facts

  • The Ashokan Dam in Ulster County, which opened in 1915, was built using genuine Rosendale cement, considered the strongest in the world.
  • Many of the same laborers (mostly masons from Italy and Ireland) who worked on the Old Croton Dam as young men in the 1830s and ’40s also helped construct the New Croton Dam over a 14-year period from 1892 to 1906. By that point, they were in their 70s!
  • Nineteenth-century mill owner Benjamin Clapp built the first dam on Wappingers Creek in Wappingers Falls, Dutchess County, in the 1870s. His son Clinton’s original paintings of the dam are on permanent display at the village’s Grinnell Library.
  • A famous Gardiner, Ulster County, lawsuit from 1983 involved a landowner “pulling the plug” on the 13-acre artificial Tillson Lake after New York State demanded dam repairs of $100,000. As a result, the “lake,” which was created in the 1930s, was abruptly drained, leaving some 100 shoreline homeowners — most of them New York City weekenders — crying foul. It was refilled more than a decade later.

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