Electricity for Warren County
Upstate New York became the birthplace of the nation’s electric power industry.
The Spiers Falls Dam site. Photo courtesy of Kurt Kilmer.
The present Niagara Power Corporation (now National Grid) had its origins in hundreds of small electric companies such as those which dotted Warren County around the turn of the nineteenth century. The consolidation of these companies coupled with the fast advances in the use of electric power is the story of Eugene Ashley and Elmer West of Glens Falls. These men had the vision of improved illumination, low-cost power, and easy labor in the home, farm, and factory.
Water power was the prime mover in the early settlement of the county. The first sawmill was built at the falls in 1763 by pioneer Abraham Wing. Soon scores of water-powered mills grew in the area and at one time where were more mills than houses in the hamlet of Glens Falls.
Around 1880 the first electricity at Glens Falls was generated in a sawmill built on the north side of the Hudson River near Feeder Dam by Colonel Zenas Van Dusen. In 1897, John G. Smith installed a generator in his Schroon River sawmill which supplied illumination to a few homes in Warrensburg but only for a few hours each evening.
Some of the workers at the dam. Photo courtesy of Kurt Kilmer.
Electric power was enthusiastically accepted but its growth was slow. In 1910, H.C. Knoblauch installed a plant for street lights and domestic use in Bolton. In 1911, the village of Hadley began distributing power in that area, and three years later the Ridell Electric Light and Power Company began operations in Luzerne. By 1905 North Creek Electric Company began distributing power generated three miles northwest of the village with a plant capacity of 200 kilowatts.
The development of electric power in Warren County and, for that matter the world, took a big step forward in 1899 with the organization of the Hudson River Water Power Company under Eugene Ashley and Elmer West to tap the unused power of the Hudson where it plunges through a gap ten miles west of Glens Falls. Here a dam 80 feet high could be built to utilize the entire drop of the river for five miles upstream. Work on the Spier Falls Dam began in 1900. With the nearest railroad in Glens Falls, separated by mountainous country from the dam site, many horses were used to haul materials to the construction site.
A turbine at the Spiers Falls Dam. Photo courtesy of Kurt Kilmer.
More difficult than this mileage was the problem of controlling the spring freshets which threatened to damage already completed work. For three years, spring floods threatened to wreck the project. In the summer of 1901 a gaping pothole was found in the bed of the river – 65 feet below the level of the river bed and covering the size of a football field. It became necessary to excavate the basin down to bedrock and then fill the hole with masonry. This placed a financial burden on the company. It was William Spier who gave Ashley the financial help to carry on the work.
Work on the dam was rushed ahead in 1902 and 1903 in order to be ready for the floods. Warm weather came early and the river rose to a fearsome height with an ice and log jam at The Glen, 30 miles above Spier Falls. The jam let lose in March and was shattered at Palmer Falls pouring through an opening left in the spillway for safety.
People on site of the dam. Courtesy of Kurt Kilmer.
The work on the dam was not carried out without tragedy. While there were accidental drownings, the worst accident and the greatest tragedy happened on March 7, 1903. Most of the workers lived in temporary housing on the north bank of the river, and at this time, the project work was being done on the south side. A small foot bridge was taken down due to high water. A scow, thirty feet by thirteen feet operated by cables stretched across the river. This was used for transporting workmen from one side to the other.
On the morning of the tragedy, the boat operator only took on 70 or 80 men due to the rough high water. When the boat was about 80 feet from shore, water splashed over the rail. A boy grabbed one of the ropes for support and the men thinking that he was in danger of being washed overboard, moved to his aid. Their weight thrown on the upstream side of the scow, made it careen and fill with water.
Many grabbed the side of the scow and hung on until they could be pulled ashore. Some were swept ashore by the current, but many were pulled into the swirling flood where they were beyond help.
For some time, it could not be determined how many were lost. At four o’clock in the afternoon the first body was recovered. Seventeen were lost, including the boy who first had trouble. Two days after the accident Mrs. Fred Ferran, wife of a victim, committed suicide in Warrensburg. Weeks later bodies were recovered miles from the scene of the accident.
Spier Falls Dam was completed in August 1903 and was the fourth largest in the world and the largest built for electric power generation. It is still the largest dam on the Hudson River.
Other Warren County communities continued to install their generating stations in the following order: after Warrensburg, Bolton and North Creek established their stations, Chestertown (1919) and a line over Tongue Mountain to Sabbath Day Point and Silver Bay and Hague followed. Power generated grew from four 40-cycle generators which transmitted 30,000 volts north to Glens Falls and south to Troy, Albany and Schenectady to 110,000 volts in 1922. Eventually 60 cycle current was adopted as best suited for all purposes.
Ashley and West observed that the Sacandaga River was the biggest offender in spring floods. They reasoned that a dam at Conklingville would hold the flood waters in check. The Hudson River Regulating District was created and the dam was created 1927-30. A 34,000-horsepower generating hydroelectric station was erected.
There were additional stations built so that by 1963 a vast system in Glens Falls and Warren County with 3,500,000 kilowatts has 86 hydroelectric stations and 5 huge steam-electric plants. Statewide high-voltage transmission lines today connect utilities over a vast grid in the northeast.
The Men Behind the Project
Eugene Lionel Ashley
Eugene Lionel Ashley was born July 20, 1863, to Jefferson Ashley and Demmis Ann Snow at Dewey’s Bridge, Washington County, New York. At the age of ten he came to Glens Falls. Eugene was educated at the Glens Falls Academy. He studied law and was a partner with H. Pryor King. He became interested in hydroelectric power and had the idea for the Sacandaga Reservoir and the Spier Falls Dam. He formed his own company to finance the construction of the Spier Falls Dam. Upon completion of the project he was said to be worth $16 million, but lost it in a Banker’s Panic in 1907. He then turned his attention to hydroelectric power in Georgia where he chartered the Georgia Power Company in 1908, building hydroelectric projects on the Tallulah River. Having recovered financially he returned to Glens Falls.
Eugene L. Ashley married Elizabeth Hitchcock in Glens Falls. They raised two children—a daughter Katherine Robertson Ashley who married Arthur C. Hastings, and a son Dominic Cessario born in San Giovanni, Italy and was adopted by the Ashley’s about 1900.
Ashley died February 3, 1917, in Glens Falls and is buried in the Glens Falls Cemetery.
William E. Spier, Jr.
William E. Spier, Jr. was born May 16, 1849, in Northville, Fulton County, New York to William Elias Spier and Harriet B. Kennicott Spier. William came to Glens Falls as a boy in 1864 at the request of William McEchron, a friend of his father. Seeing the potential in young William, McEchron took him into his home. Spier received his education at the Glens Falls Academy. After beginning his business career clerking, he became a successful and highly respected businessman. At this period horse racing was a major sport in Glens Falls and Spier owned the distinguished Suburban Stock Farm where he bred and raced many successful horses.
The Spier Falls Dam and hydroelectric power plant was named in honor of William Spier by dam financier Eugene L. Ashley. Ashley said, ”I was prompted to select the name Spier Falls because of a warm personal regard for Mr. Spier and a desire to reciprocate, in a measure for acts for which I am his debtor. I also wish to pay a tribute to one of Glens Falls greatest men.”
William E. Spier married Ida Morgan, daughter of James Morgan (Morgan Lumber Company) and Olivia Eastwood Morgan in 1873. They had two children, John Spier and Lester Morgan Spier. At the turn of the century Spier moved his primary residence from 213 Glen Street, Glens Falls to 29 W 72nd Street in Manhattan, but the family summered in Glens Falls.
William E. Spier, Jr. died May 9, 1901 at his Manhattan residence. His funeral was held at his residence in Glens Falls, and he was buried in the Glens Falls Cemetery. In 1904, his grave was moved to Pine View Cemetery in Queensbury.
This article was prepared for the Warren County Historical Society by Dr. Marilyn Van Dyke with assistance from the newly appointed Town of Queensbury Historian, Joan Aldous.
Warren County: A History and Guide. Compiled by WPA Writer’s Program. Published by Warren County Board of Supervisors, 1942.