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The Croghan Island Mill
The Croghan Island Mill

Croghan scrambles to save its dam

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The Lewis County village of Croghan is mounting a last-ditch effort to save its dam on the Beaver River as well as the historic sawmill it powers.

The dam is crumbling and is considered a high hazard by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation. State officials said they'll remove the stop logs next month and may breach the dam completely. Local officials say that will leave shoreline residents high and dry, and hurt a grassroots effort to rebuild the dam. David Sommerstein reports.

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Almost everyone has known since the 1980s that the Croghan dam needs to be fixed. Last fall, the DEC began dismantling the dam by removing some stop logs to lower the reservoir two feet.

Spokesman Steve Litwiler said the DEC intends the finish the job around July 4th. “The timing on that is because of lower water levels typically and also any fish spawning,” he said. “For this kind of operation, that’s the best time to do that.”

Removing all of the stop logs will lower the headwater level five more feet. “That would basically create mudflats in the river upstream,” said former mayor Glen Gagnier. He says dismantling the dam any further would have all kinds of unintended consequences, like draining the reservoir the village fire department uses to fight fires.

“The homeowners upstream face the loss of their riverfront property, decrease in property values,” Gagnier said, “and that’s not to mention the Bridge Street Park immediately upstream has a boat launch into the river.  That’ll be high and dry.”

Gagnier says the DEC’s action would mean a big step back for a push to rebuild and improve the dam.  The Lewis County Development Corporation has applied for a $99,000 grant to study how to stabilize the structure and install new hydropower capacity.

Gagnier and community leaders say the DEC’s ignoring their efforts.

“I really think the DEC’s got too much power,” said Bruce Widrick, mayor of Croghan. Widrick and other local officials wrote a letter to DEC Commissioner Joe Martens, accusing the agency of being “indifferent” to the community’s “plight.” 

Widrick said the dam held through last spring’s floods, and the DEC has other options. “The water filled up basements and stuff like that and those dams have never let out yet. There’s chunks of cement hanging off the sides; well, why can’t they go through and cut those chunks off and take the stress off the dam, y’know?” Widrick said. “Keep it.  It’s part of the history in Croghan.”

The loss of the headwaters would almost certainly mean the end of one of the last commercially operating mechanical sawmills in the country.  John Martin owns and runs the Croghan Island Mill.  The Beaver River powers its waterwheel, which powers all of the mill’s machines. 

If Martin had to pay for electricity, he says he’d be done: “I don’t think it’s going to be feasible for us to go electric.  It’ll cost way too much money.” The lower water level this winter already damaged the mill’s turbine.

The DEC’s Steve Litwiler said the agency understands the mill and the community’s concerns but he said public safety has to come first. 

Litwiler disputes the notion that local officials have been ignored. “We have made extensive efforts to engage in regular meetings, discuss with them what the options are to address safety issues and we’ve shared 2008 and 2010 inspection reports, and we’ve had direct, on-site meetings with the mill owners and the local officials,” Litwiler said.

The removal of the stop logs would not interfere with efforts to rebuild the dam, according to Litwiler, but completely breaching the dam would. Litwiler said the DEC plans to do that eventually, but right now it doesn’t have the money.


David Sommerstein, North Country Public Radio.



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