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Biggest flood ever?

Flooding in Saranac Lake may be the worst it’s been in 50 years

May 7, 2011
By CHRIS KNIGHT - Senior Staff Writer (cknight@adirondackdailyenterprise.com) , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

SARANAC LAKE - When the water level in Lake Flower rose dramatically last week and surrounded the house on Duprey Street that she called home for 32 years, the scene looked all too familiar for Lena Wigger.

Wigger, who now lives across the street, started looking for a picture she had cut out from the front page of the Enterprise decades ago. After a few minutes of hunting, she found it in a scrapbook.

The clipping, which had turned yellow with age, showed a picture of her late husband, Bill Wigger, standing on a flower bed next to the house, surrounded by several inches of water.

Article Photos

chairs are stacked on the tables inside the porch or lower dining area of the former Dew Drop Inn in Saranac Lake on April 29. Water from the Saranac River was 3 feet deep inside the building then.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)

"Bill Wigger on Duprey Street finds an unwelcome rise in water level every morning and is utilizing pumps and sandbags to keep the water out of his basement," reads the caption under the photo, which was published in the May 13, 1971 edition of the Enterprise. "A torrential rainfall would be disastrous at this time."

Lena Wigger said she wanted to find the newspaper clipping because she was trying to remember when she had last seen the water this high.

"Since then, this is the first time it's gotten that high," she said. "In fact, this is much higher. This is the highest it's been that I can remember."

The same words have been uttered by many people over the past week and a half, as they've watched the lake and the Saranac River, fueled by a springtime surge of rainwater and snowmelt, spill into parking lots, houses, motels and businesses in the village, forcing some people to evacuate and causing millions of dollars in damage.

"It's the highest I've ever seen it," said former village mayor, manager and Enterprise editor Howard Riley. "I've never seen anything even close."

But is this the biggest flood the village has ever seen? If not, is it the biggest in the last 50 years? The last 30 years? The Enterprise tried to tackle that question this week.

Our best guess is that this is the highest the lake and the river have climbed in the village in at least the last 50 years, and maybe even longer. That theory is based on village records of the water levels at the Lake Flower dam, a review of the Enterprise news archives and the recollections of more than a dozen long-time residents of the community.

The only flooding in the last 50 years that came close to this, according to those sources, was in 1971 and 1993. While those floods were significant and caused some damage, the extent of the flooding last week appears to have been much worse.

1993

Unfortunately, the Enterprise was unable to find a complete, historical record of the water level in Lake Flower and the Saranac River over the years. The next best thing is a log book of water levels at the Lake Flower dam that village officials have kept since it was rebuilt in 1987.

Village Wastewater Treatment Plant Operator Kevin Pratt reviewed the log for the Enterprise and found the highest lake level at the dam, before last week, was in the spring of 1993.

"Steve Paye was water and sewer superintendent at the time," Pratt said. "He had already started opening the (dam's) floodgates on April 1, so there must have been a pretty good snowpack that year, a lot like this year. By the time he got to April 26, the water was 22 inches over the spillway. It was a pretty significant event all through April."

In a story published April 26, 1993, then-village Manager Patrick Fitzgerald told the Enterprise that residents on Duprey Street reported the lake had flooded their lawns and basements. Below the dam, buildings along the river including the Dew Drop Inn and Aubuchon Hardware (across Broadway from the Dew Drop) all had flooded basements. Many of the same buildings and homes were impacted by the flooding last week.

The village's log book shows the lake crested the following day, April 27, when the water was 23.5 inches over the dam's spillway and the floodgates were open 91 inches. While that sounds like a lot of water, it's still nearly a foot-and-a-half below the high point of last week's flooding in the village, when the water level at the dam hit 38 inches above the spillway.

In what sounds exactly like a conversation village and DEC officials had last week, Paye wrote in the log on the morning of April 27 that he talked with Herb Lamb, then-operations manager for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, who wanted to release more water from DEC's lower locks on the Saranac River.

"They are at flood stage," Paye scribbled. "Want to know if they could open. I said not yet. We'd do more damage downstream than they would upstream."

Paye also wrote in the log that he had phone calls that morning from Mike Munn, co-owner of J.M. Munn Business Machines on Woodruff Street, and Phil Coates, the manager of Aubuchon Hardware. Presumably, they were concerned about the rising level of the river next to their businesses.

Mike and his brother Gar Munn told the Enterprise last week, when the river first began to spill over its banks, that the last time they had seen this kind of flooding was in 1993 or 1994. As the water continued to rise, however, Gar Munn said it became clear that things were much worse.

"It became a reality when the village came down and everybody started putting sandbags down," he said Wednesday. "It's definitely the worst we've ever seen."

The Munns have been in business on Woodruff Street since 1984.

1971

In addition to the photo of her husband that appeared on the front page of the Enterprise, Lena Wigger found a few pictures of her own from the 1971 flood. One shows her standing on her front porch, facing the lake, with water rising up to the porch's second step.

"We used a canoe to get back and forth to the house, to bring in laundry and groceries," she said. "The power had to be turned off to the house, but somebody brought a generator in and we used that at night."

John Morgan, whose family ran the Dew Drop Inn, said 1971 was the first year that the restaurant's porch, which sits along the river, flooded out.

"I was home from college and I remember sitting at the bar with four or five of my friends, all of us wearing fire department waders, with fish swimming around the porch," he said. "The water was over our knees."

The flooding was also bad the following spring, according to several Enterprise news articles from the time.

"Restaurants and stores which were hit hard last year feared another flooding of the premises, and pumps were going at Dew Drop Morgan's who last spring had fish swimming around the interior for several days," reads an article in the May 5, 1972 edition of the newspaper.

Five days later, another article described flooded basements in buildings along the river on Broadway and Woodruff Street. The Beardsley Apartments, which were located along Lake Flower not far from where the state boat launch is now, were inundated by flooding both years, although a May 12, 1972 article said the flooding was worse, by as much as a foot, in 1971.

Morgan said many people at the time blamed the flooding on poor management of the lower locks by the state Conservation Department (the predecessor to DEC), which took over operation of the locks from Harry Duso and his son Don Duso around 1970.

500-year flood?

While things were bad in the early 1970s, Morgan said the flooding he saw in the village last week was much worse.

"I took a picture of the porch at Dew Drop's the other day and the water was up to the windowsills," he said. "That means the water was over your hips if you're standing there. I'm surprised it hasn't floated away. I was aghast that it was up that high."

Local author Phil Gallos, who has lived in Saranac Lake since 1957, said he doesn't remember ever seeing the water so high.

"When the flooding first started last week I'd say 'Yeah, I've seen it this high,'" Gallos said. "'It was in the early '70s and it was spilling over onto the park by the tennis courts, the river was way up and it was here, there and everywhere.' But once it got up by the windows at Dew Drop's and was pushing against the Dorsey Street bridge - I've never seen it like that."

"I remember once in a while it coming up on Woodruff Street to the edge of the parking lot," added Riley. "But I don't ever remember it flooding where the Munn boys are. In my memory, we never had to evacuate people off Dorsey Street. Never. Ever."

After reviewing maps of the Saranac River floodplain, village Manager John Sweeney said he believes this was a historic flood, the kind that only happens once in a long time.

"Based on the area that was flooded, we think it was a 500-year flood," he said.

"I would say it was a 100-year flood at least," Pratt added.

Response

Firefighters and emergency personnel say the response to last week's flooding, which involved as many as 30 different agencies, is something they've only seen one other time, during the 1998 ice storm.

"I've been with emergency services since 1999 and this is the biggest incident I've ever had to deal with," said Franklin County Emergency Services Director Ricky Provost. "I would say it ranks second to the ice storm. We put every bit of effort we could possibly muster into this."

Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department Chief Brendan Keough called it the largest and most sustained operation the fire department has been involved with in decades. He also compared it to the response to the ice storm.

"In talking to everybody at the firehouse, it's the longest emergency operation anyone there can ever remember," Keough said. "It's nothing anybody's ever experienced to this magnitude."

 
 

 

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