Sacandaga Logging and Floods

In the early 1800’s timber that had been harvested from the woods during the long winter would be piled along the shores of the Sacandaga River. The history of logging is rich in the area surrounding the Sacandaga River and the labor involved was enormous.

Each tree was cut by a two man team with axes or cross cut saw and then limbed . The trees would be marked to identify which businessman claimed ownership and would be sorted upon the arrival at the mills. These marks were protected by law and anyone caught changing them suffered severe penalties.

Larger trees were skidded wrapped in chains and pulled through the snow by horses or oxen. Smaller trees might loaded by pulleys, ropes, and chains. Then loaded to wooden sleds. The logs would then be transported to wait on the banks of the river to be dumped into the icy waters when spring had arrived. If harvested away from the river the distance would usually be no further than one mile from the source of a stream that would lead to the river.

The men who had spent the winters in the logging camps would be released from their jobs in spring, unless they also were some of the log drivers that braved this time of year.

The expertise of a log driver is one that would have held most of us in awe today. Standing and walking among huge expanses of logs that at any moment could spin or jam in the sub zero water leading to a fall. Or to have a foot hand caught and crushed among the timbers, sometimes worse.
Some men lost there lives in these springtime excursions. Including Alpheus Day in 1824 but more about that story in another column.

The springtime log drives would provide an annual event that area people in the valley would turn out for. Some of them wouldn’t have seen each other since the winters cold beginnings. The biggest crowds would gather at Conklinville as from there the logs would be retrieved from the river by a log boom with others sent on to Glens Falls. Standing on the shorelines, watching the thousands of logs with the log drivers stepping from one to the other, people would also provide some measure of awareness if one of the drivers should encounter trouble or a fall. Logging men called “bank monkeys“ where also used for this purpose. These men stood on the banks of the river to deflect any logs that appeared to be coming close to the rivers edge stopping potential log jams. And also acted as spotters if a driver encountered trouble.

When the FJ and G railroad completed it’s line to Northville in 1875 it facilitated the movement of these logs to many places. The line also had access to the New York Central Railroad and from there the logs could go most anywhere.

John A Willard’s sawmill was located in the approximate area of where the Northville beach is today and would be a destination for some of the timber that had been harvested further north. From there the Northville train station was very close by and logs for veneer mill and pulp mills were loaded on flatbed cars then transported to these mills. Willard later rented the sawmill to a man by the name of Hartwell.

Sport Island Bridge, in at the close of what was probably was Sacandaga Parks fist season, fell victim to the logs. Although it survived high water and ice; a log jam damaged the bridge. The next construction took the form of a removable bridge This bridge was dismantled and stored away every Autumn under the grandstand that was built on the island in the early 1900’s.

Natural flooding of the Sacandaga River posed many problems for area businesses and residents. In 1885 as the train pulled into the station at Northville the waters an ice carried away it’s covered bridge stranding passengers on the west side. Businesses and homes to close to it’s banks were also carried away in exceptionally bad thaws. Roads became inaccessible which interfered with travel, supply shipments, and mail deliveries.

Floods delayed mail delivery and in later years; Telephone poles and electric poles would be partially submerged and snapped off by the chucks of ice.

At one time an epidemic was caused as flood waters reached areas that would not drain or dry up when the thawing had run it’s course. Many people got sick by the stagnant water that formed in these areas.

The same was true of areas from Glens Falls to Albany, as the Mohawk river already was regulated to decrease the flooding from that point. The Sacandaga, untamed, still contributed greatly to the damage done each spring in these areas.

In the spring of 1929 one year before the Conkinville Dam would close it’s valves natures flood was exceptionally damaging. Businesses were swept down river by the great chucks of ice and rising water. Covered bridge decks covered in water. People were stranded on roads in cars and on wagons. Northville was virtually an island until the waters receded.

This flood also damaged the dam construction at Conklingville. Pushing the timeline back for the man made flooding of the valley. The dam incurred damage to it’s structure and ground where hundreds of tons of dirt had been brought in and were simply swept away with the water and ice.

The men of the lumber camps and woods were a unique sort. Some were local others from out of town just looking for winter work. Rough and boisterous in their manner for the most part, new recruits into these camps probably were given quite a hard time and learned their places quickly.
These men of the lumber camps competed against each other in many ways: Who could cut the most trees, who’d fall off the log first in a log rolling contest, who had the bulls eye in hatchet throws, who could drink the most and other things. Wagering was added to make these competitions more interesting. All these are reminiscent in local lumberman shows we have today. Old time lumberman not only competed The men of the lumber camps and woods were a unique sort. Some were local others from out of town just against each other but between the camps as well in any spare time which there wasn’t much.

In the spring after the log drives were done another tree would become important . When the leather tanning industry started the hemlock tree became the sought after type by many.
All different kinds of trees were used for various things in the 1800’s. And there were all different kinds in the Sacandaga area.

In 1848 Gurden Conkling came to Conklinville and built a tannery on the south shore of the Sacandaga River. Conklinville, like other settlements along the river, existed on both sides of the Sacandaga. To aid crossing the river Conklin set up a “rope ferry” which consisted of flat scow-like boats. A rope was passed through pulleys on the boat and was then stretched across the river in which a hand over hand pulling technique on the rope would be used to move the scow along. Long poles could also be utilized . In setting up these ferries it added a convenience to which residents and shop owners could transport goods to either side of the Sacandaga River.

In regards to leather tanning: The Sumac was used in the tanning of goat leather suitable for book bindings because of the leathers durability and beauty. While oak bark and hemlock bark were used for tanning other kinds of hides and skins. Many tanneries combined oak and hemlock bark to produce what is called union or union crop leather. It was responsible for the characteristic “red” leather produced in America in the 19th century.

When leather tanning industry started none of these trees were more desirable than the hemlock.
The months ideal for peeling would be during the growing season of May through August.
Immediately after the tree was cut it would be peeled. If peeled early enough this bark would be left to dry for the summer then gathered up in the Fall then be loaded for the tanneries
Conklin utilized tug steamboats for moving some of the bark to his tannery. The two steamboats were named the Whip poor will and the Colonel. The earliest date of these boats running on the Sacandaga River was somewhere just before 1855 and the last run was in 1883.

The Whip Poor Will was captained by a man named William Greenslete. These steamboats were used mainly in the transportation Hemlock bark, produce, and livestock. One reference notes that it was attempted to move the spring time logs in a raft formation pulled by the steamboats to Conklinville. But the idea was soon abandoned and logs were sent down loose. It is also noted that this captain would lash two barges together on Sundays in Autumn and take the church congregation members up the river to West Day for picnics.

Alsoin late fall while Captain Greenslete transported this hemlock bark to it’s destination at the tannery. Occasionally he would get hung up on sandbars due to the low level of the river. Blowing the tugs whistle would alert people on shore, then word was sent to Conklinville and another plank would be added to the existing dam to raise the water level freeing him to continue on his way.
Greenslete had a brother, Joseph, who’s life was taken in Sept. of 1855 when the boiler in the steam engine exploded. This steamboat could have possibly been the Colonel.

In an essay titled the History of Osborne Bridge, (the community and it’s covered bridge were lost to the flood in 1930) A storekeeper and postmaster in Osborn Bridge George H Wilber told of a small flat bottomed steam boat which traveled mostly between Batchellerville and Conklinville carrying loads of hemlock bark. Occasionally the steamboat would anchor at the mouth of a stream about a quarter mile above Osborn bridge. It is noted in references loads of hemlock bark as big as a barn could be loaded on these boats.

In the 19th Century, square mile after square mile of hemlock forest was destroyed to supply the northeast’s tanning industry with hemlock bark tannin. The tree was harvested almost into non existence.

In most of its range, the eastern hemlock is also browsed by white-tailed deer and cottontail rabbits. The seeds and needles are eaten by ruffed grouse. Native Americans and woodsmen once used hemlock twigs and needles to make a tea which is a rich source of Vitamin C.
Winter, Summer and Fall were the peak seasons for lumbering in the Sacandaga Valley and other areas. Spring was known as “Mud Season” and remains so today.

by Lorraine Frasier