Valley Obstacles

About 1885 another obstacle presented itself to the people of St. Helena. The state began talking about a storage dam in the Genesee River to furnish a reserve supply of water for the Erie Canal west of Rochester. To the valley farmers this seemed a major catastrophe and many were greatly opposed to it. However, a site for the dam was controversial. If built about a mile and a quarter above the mill dam at Mt. Morris, the natural river bank would form the walls of the reservoir, but the farm lands would be flooded and St. Helena would be inundated. If built above the Upper Falls near Portage, the villages of Portageville, Rossburg, Wiscoy, Fillmore, Houghton, Caneadea, and Oramel would all be blotted out.

In 1890 the Castilian stated that “State Engineer Bogart submitted his report in regard to the building of a water storage dam in the Genesee Gorge above Mt. Morris. He said the plan was entirely feasible and placed the cost at $1,000,000 for a dam that would be 58 feet high and would hold 1,500,000,000 cubic feet of water. The favored point of construction was a short distance above Mt. Morris. . . .”

In August, 1892, the Castilian stated that “The water storage dam project on the Genesee River was investigated recently by a party from Rochester including the mayor. They drove up the river to Portage from Mt. Morris and were favorably impressed by the project. Many persons living below Mt. Morris who were opposed at first, were now much in favor of it. They saw no reason why the dam would not be built.

“A special report was given which declared that the waters of the Genesee were navigable, that the state had a right to draw, whenever it chose, such amount of water as was deemed necessary for public purposes for the Erie Canal. The site above Mt. Morris was recommended, and that a dam be built 58 feet high from the flow line of the river, sufficient in strength at the base to allow it to be extended to 100 feet in height. Great stress was put on the possibility of using this dam for power along the valley. It was not felt that a dam 58 feet high at Mt. Morris would cause any destruction to bridge or land in St. Helena. . .”

Such reports and legislation to permit building a dam were annual topics of interest. The farmers along the rich valley land were much opposed to a dam. The town of St. Helena could see its doom if a dam of 100 or 130 feet in height was built. Reaching any kind of agreement to make the dam a reality seemed impassible.

In 1894 it was decided to build the dam near Portage instead. This decision caused Hon. William P. Letchworth much concern and for many years he fought to protect his land against it.

In 1898 a Genesee River Company was formed and authorized to build a dam within five years. The company was given a franchise to secure property but was not able to raise sufficient funds within the specified time and its charter expired in 1903. This brought relief from anxiety for a time, but 1906 saw the river company active, and Mr. Letchworth deeded his property to the state, subject to his life tenancy. For many years, talk of building a dam was annual news but little was done about it.

Source: Anderson, Mildred L. H, and Marian P. Willey. St. Helena, Ghost Town of the Genesee, 1797-1954. Castile, N.Y, 1954. Print.

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