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becoming a member! To become a member and/or make a donation, please go to our membership page.
Members’ annual dues and donations are the only source of revenue for FCLA. Our budget covers lake water tests, supplies to conduct these tests, newsletter, website, community and educational outreach, watershed stewardship programs, boating safely initiative and clerical costs. The FCLA recognizes a Town of Webb High School student who exhibits keen interest in preserving the environment with a scholarship. The membership is over 600 strong, with a goal to include all people who enjoy, use and benefit from our lake's pure waters.
Photos courtesy Carolyn Belknap
The First Dam
Before white settlers came to the Adirondacks the Fulton Chain of Lakes in the Black River watershed was an unnamed group of small lakes strung chain-like along the Middle Branch of the Moose River. Some of the lakes became larger and more navigable in about 1799 when John Brown, a developer from a prominent family in Rhode Island, had a dam built below First Lake to power his settlement’s grist and saw mills. Using paths created by Native American hunters and trappers to portage between lakes, white sportsmen and their guides used the lakes as a water-way and point of entry into the Adirondack wilderness.
The Erie Canal
The Erie Canal required a constant inflow of water. The 60-mile long summit section between Utica and Syracuse, because of its length, elevation and location (and locks that released water at both ends of the section), was especially difficult to supply. To reduce the occurrence of troublesome and costly periods of low water levels, the canal commissioners looked far and wide for new supplies that would flow to this section. In the mid-1800s the then remote Black River on the western side of the Adirondacks was tapped. The water was diverted from the river with a dam and feeder canal at Forestport. It entered the Mohawk River watershed below the Village of Boonville and flowed south in the Black River Canal, one of the Erie’s lateral canals, into the summit section at Rome.
New Dams and Reservoirs
Water diverted from the Black River was essential for the operation of the Erie and Black River Canals. In the mid to late 1800s the State of New York built about ten dams and reservoirs in the watershed to increase its reliability by storing water when the flow in the river was high and releasing it in a controlled and coordinated way during low flow periods. Around 1880 the State of New York enlarged Brown’s dam at Old Forge and built a new dam at Sixth Lake. The flow from the dams and reservoirs at Old Forge and Sixth Lakes did not directly supply the diversion (its location at Forestport is upstream of the confluence of the Black and Moose Rivers) but it helped the State compensate the downstream mill owners on the Black River who had complained for years that they were hurt financially by the loss of water to the canal.
In the late 1800s intensive logging and fires decimated large areas in the Adirondacks and concern was growing that the forests would be ruined as a source of water for downstate, especially for navigation in the still commercially important Erie Canal. After the logging companies harvested the trees, they often stopped paying their property taxes and, consequently, the State of New York was acquiring thousands of acres of forest land. Speculators, many with plans to sell lots on the shorelines of lakes and reservoirs, were buying large sections of cheap land from the loggers and at state auctions.
New Uses for the Reservoirs
The Forest Preserve Act of 1885 and the landmark “forever wild” clause in the amendment to the state constitution that created the Adirondack Park in 1894 eventually ended intensive logging on state land in the Adirondacks and Catskills. As logging declined reservoirs in the Black River watershed, especially the two reservoirs of the Fulton Chain of Lakes, began to change. The industrial revolution was creating new jobs and many of these people, relatively prosperous and no longer tied to a farm, were eager to leave the disease and pollution of the cities and spend some quality time in the wilderness.
Dr. William Seward Webb, a wealthy New York City financier and son-in-law of railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, owned large areas of land in the vicinity of Old Forge. He and other speculators subdivided the land on the shorelines and sold lots that were used to build hotels and summer homes. In 1892 Webb built the railroad to Old Forge and, for a time, he owned steamboats that provided transportation and carried food and mail from the train to the hotels and camps. By the early 1900s the Fulton Chain of Lakes was becoming an important summer and early fall recreation destination for all types of people, not just sportsmen. Eventually there were over 40 hotels on the lakes. Herkimer County’s Town of Webb where Old Forge is located, is named for Dr. Webb.
Eventually the increasing commercial and recreational use of the reservoirs began to conflict with their original purpose, augmenting low flow in the Black River by releasing stored water. As early as 1910, shoreline property owners and local public officials complained and threatened to sue when the water in the lakes was released to supply downstream mills during the dry months of summer and early fall. Eventually the importance of tourism and recreational use and the significant property and sales tax revenue these generated was recognized and water levels were kept high until September and early October.
Hydroelectricity and River Regulating Districts
The growing importance of hydroelectric power began to impact the Black River watershed and the Fulton Chain of Lakes in the early 1900s. New laws and amendments to the state constitution helped the hydropower industry by making it easier to build dams and reservoirs on Forest Preserve land. The Burd Amendment of 1911 allowed 3-percent of the Forest Preserve to be used for flow-regulating dams and reservoirs and the Machold Storage Law of 1915 permitted private and public organizations to petition the State to form public benefit corporations called “river regulating districts” to build and operate these dams and reservoirs. Today the Hudson River Black River Regulating District still maintains and operates the dams at First and Sixth Lake on the Fulton Chain.
The Burd amendment had weakened the effectiveness of the state constitution’s forever wild clause. Consequently, the Black River watershed became, in the 1940s and 50s, the backdrop for an epic dispute between conservationists and the proponents of new dams and reservoirs working with the river regulating districts. The legal and political battles of this period have been called the Black River Water War. The dam proponents pointed to how disgruntled shoreline owners on the Fulton Chain had made flow-regulation using existing reservoirs more difficult and they touted public benefits like flood control, but flow-augmentation during dry periods to enhance hydropower was always a key objective. The conservationists eventually won the conflict in the 1950s with new amendments to the state constitution that limit how commercial interests, such as hydropower companies, can use the land and water in the Adirondacks.
The Fulton Chain of Lakes is named for Robert Fulton, the inventor of the first commercially successful steamboat on the Hudson River. In the early 1800s, before the Erie Canal was built, Fulton was politically prominent, and a member of the state commission assigned to determine the best location for a state canal. Some (Donaldson ) believe that he travelled north, perhaps as far as Old Forge, to look for a canal route north to Lake Ontario and Montreal. Apparently, no usable route was found or recommended but after his death in 1815 the lakes northeast of Old Forge on the Middle Branch of the Moose River became known to many, if not initially by the State of New York, as the Fulton Chain.