I don’t get it …

The former gas plant on Payeville Road (Photo provided by Adirondack Room, Saranac Lake Free Library)

There is a very big deal happening in Pontiac Bay at the corner of River Street and Lake Flower Avenue.

The big deal is that the environmental cleanup of Pontiac Bay may cost as much $14 million, funded by New York state’s Superfund under the supervision of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

It has been determined by those in the know that coal tar is buried in the sediment of Brandy Brook, which runs into Pontiac Bay, and that the same pollutants are buried in the bay and polluting Lake Flower.

It is a three-pronged project. Along with those two areas, the cleanup includes the source of the problem, which is the site of the facility on Payeville Road that manufactured gas for heating and lighting starting in 1903.

The good news is that the state boat launch in that immediate area will stay open, but with no place to park. The DEC and the village of Saranac Lake are looking into leasing the closed Nonna Fina restaurant parking lot, which is directly opposite the boat launch.

If the River Street launch was to be closed, boaters could overwhelm the Second Pond boat launch near the state bridge on Route 30 and the small launch site at the end of Kiwassa Road, causing big problems for the families who live in that area. The DEC site at Ampersand Bay is used mostly for car-top boaters.

The project is going to hurt the economy of Saranac Lake when business owners have the two best months of the year in July and August … especially the motel owners who are hanging on by a thread, waiting for the new hotel on that site. The hotel plan has been approved both by the Saranac Lake Planning Board and the Adirondack Park Agency.

A lot of trees have been cut down, but the construction site is very neat, surrounded with a high chain-link fence covered with mesh screening. The fence completely shields the work site from the traveling public.

So what don’t I get?

The coal tar created by the gas plant ceased operating about 1940, more than 75 years ago. Why, all of a sudden, is that now causing a problem? Our beautiful bathing beach was located a little below where the boat launch is now. I went to that beach often in the 1940s and, as mayor in the 1960s, remember hiring Jan Plumadore, Mickey Luce and Jack Fogarty as lifeguards.

No one ever got sick from the swimming there;. We had the water tested often, and the only pollutants in the water came from the hundreds of “state camps” on the river and Lower Saranac Lake. They all were served by outhouses.

Harrietstown town Supervisor Mike Kilroy believes the beach was moved to Lake Colby because of pollution in the water. The beach was moved because the strip of land was too narrow for the beach after the highway was expanded.

Financial problems at the gas plant

The Adirondack Gas Company was founded about 1903. The Enterprise later reported that the gas company “has permitted its franchise to go by default and the organization has dissolved.” No way to know how long that first operation lasted, but according to an Enterprise of Aug. 20, 1908, here is what happened:

“The Saranac Lake Gas Company has been organized with the following directors: Horatio Nelson and William N. Wetteran of Poughkeepsie and Seaver A. Miller of Saranac Lake. The company was incorporated with the Secretary of State on Saturday with a capital stock $50,000.

“This is a reorganization of the Adirondack Gas Company and contains the same gentlemen with two or three exceptions that the first company did. It is now expected that application will be made before the Saranac Lake Board of Trustees for a franchise for the new company. After this is obtained the necessary application will be filed with the Public Service Commission.

“It is expected that it will be some time before the new company will be ready to do business in this village.”

Five years later, the company was in trouble again. From a 1913 edition of the Ogdensburg Journal:

“An application made before a Federal Justice in New York on Monday, to place the Saranac Lake Gas Company in the hands of a receiver, was granted on Tuesday, and Charles A. Gruber, of Saranac Lake, the gas company’s manager was named the receiver.”

Nothing but trouble for the gas company

In January of 1915, this excerpt is taken from a story in the Essex County Republican:

“The First Mortgage Guarantee & Trust Company, Plaintiff, against Saranac Lake Gas Company, H. Muller Manufacturing, Phoenix Meter Company, Walworth Manufacturing Company, New York Telephone Company, Connelly Iron Sponge Company, William M. Crane Company, Premier Cycle Company and James Mannix, Defendants.”

The Enterprise then reported nine years later, in 1924, that a large, new gas tank was to be built:

“Indicating renewed interest in the affairs of the Mountain Gas Company of Saranac Lake under new management, a committee from the Chamber of Commerce recently visited the plant.

“The committee learned that the total number of meters now in service is 629 but of more interest were the plans to install a new 100,000 cubic foot high pressure modern gas holder which will triple the present storage facility.”

Sorry, folks, I can’t take any more. The Enterprise reported two years later in 1926:

“Control of the Mountain Gas of this village, has been turned over to a group of Saranac Lake men by Ernest Grubb, owner of the business for the past three years.”

It seems that the company, which supplied gas for lights and heating, struggled along until about 1940. The Saranac Lake village Water Department crews are still finding gas lines, now filled with water, running alongside the village lines. Lake Flower at one time was the backup water supply for the village.

A brief Google explanation of creating gas from coal:

“The manufacturing process for synthetic fuel gases typically consisted of the gasification of combustible materials, usually coal. The coal was gasified by heating the coal in enclosed ovens with an oxygen-poor atmosphere. The fuel gases generated were mixtures of many chemicals including hydrogen, methane, carbon monoxide and ethylene.”

The information on the gas plant came from the files of the Adirondack Room of the Saranac Lake Free Library.

(Next week, part 2 — Big job ahead for the DEC)