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The Croghan Island Mill
The Croghan Island Mill

Crumbling dam threatens historic Croghan mill

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Our series on New York's aging infrastructure continues this morning with a look at a crumbling dam in Lewis County and why it threatens a community's identity and culture.

There are more than 5,000 dams in New York State. They're mostly used for flood control, to provide drinking water, for hydropower, and to create lakes and ponds for recreation.

Even dam safety officials don't know how many need repair. But they do know 50 of the most potentially hazardous ones need to be fixed or dismantled.

One of those is on the Beaver River in the village of Croghan. If it can't be fixed, it may force the closure of one of the state's last water-powered sawmills. David Sommerstein reports.

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The Croghan Island Mill sits – appropriately - on an island in the Beaver River in Croghan, a teeny village just outside the Adirondack Park.  The wooden mill’s wedged between two small dams.  Barn red paint’s flaking off the shingles.

Inside, hundred year-old band saws, planers and other machines crowd the dusty shop floor.  One man presides over it all.

Hi, my name’s John Martin, and I’m one of the owners of the Croghan Island Mill.

The other owner is Martin’s 97 year-old mother, Delia, who sits all day in the mill with a cell phone in her hand, just in case.

I don’t like him here alone. I’m always afraid of the saws if he’s cutting lumber, something might get….  You never know something might happen.

Before we get to the dilapidated dam outside, here’s why this sawmill is special.  Martin grabs a chain that’s latched to the floor.  He unhooks it.

[click sound]

Just like that, the waterwheel submerged in the river starts to turn. Gears and shafts whir. 

They power long belts and pulleys in the basement.

You gotta be careful down here when it’s running.  Yup.

And those belts power the saws and this mortice machine upstairs in the shop.

Everybody wants to know how you bore a square hole.  Well, this is how you do it.

This is one of the last commercially operating mechanical sawmills in New York.  No electricity.  Just the power of the Beaver River and John Martin’s craftmanship make custom windows and doors you can’t get anywhere else. 

But the whole setup’s in danger.  The dams on either side of the island that produce the 10 foot head to power the mill’s waterwheel are falling apart.

Both sections are in dire need of repair.  There’s no doubt about it.

Former Croghan mayor Glen Gagnier stands outside and points across the river.  He says Croghan grew up around this dam.

There was a mill there.  There was a mill here.  You can see the sash and blind where the Croghan island mill is, that was here and on the far side there was a lumber mill.

Regulators first warned Croghan about the dam in the 1980s and again ten years later.  But the owners – John Martin at the mill and two other parties no one can seem to find – don’t have the money to do anything.

And this is what’s difficult about dam restoration in general.  While many people benefit from a dam– shoreline homeowners, boaters, people who drink from a water supply, fire departments who draw from the reservoir to fight fires – it’s the private parties or municipalities who own the dam who are on the hook.

Alon Dominitz is the chief of dam safety for the Department of Environmental Conservation.  He says unlike roads and bridges and sewer systems, there’s not much funding to help repair dams.

Y’know, municipally owned dams and privately owned dams, there is not a federal revenue stream and there is not at this point a state revenue stream for them to make any necessary repairs.  So dam owners are really on their own.

The DEC removed some of the stop logs at the top of the dam last summer.  And the DEC’s threatened to breach the dam if something’s not done soon.  If that happens, John Martin says the sawmill’s done.

I don’t think it’s going to be feasible for us to go electric.  It’ll cost way too much money.

[sound up of meeting]

Local folks gather at a meeting to save the dam.  They even enlisted students from St. Lawrence University to help brainstorm ideas.

It’ll cost at least a million and a half dollars to repair.  Resident Lance Anderson says it’s worth it.

I think it’s important to the village.  If you rip too many things out of the heart of a small community, and what are you left with?  You’re left with strip malls ten miles away, but what’s right here?

Arnie Talgo, who sits on several local government boards including the Tug Hill Commission, says what’s right here is what 21st century America is looking so hard for.

Everybody talks about renewable energy.  This is renewable energy.  And if we can’t do it here and make it work here, where are we going to make it work?

Former mayor Glen Gagnier admits they’re fighting an upstream battle.  But he says he built his home with wood from the Croghan Island sawmill.  He’s played in the waters the dam holds back.

I can’t turn my back on this business.  They’re part of the community.  They’re part of the river.

Gagnier says the Lewis County Development Corporation is applying for a federal grant for a preliminary study.  The county legislature and the local fire department have kicked in money, too.

In Croghan, I’m David Sommerstein.

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