Ogdensburg had “the shakes” for 74 years

By Ted Como

As the snow melted in the 1950s, various in the Como clan would head downtown (“downstreet” to some) treading carefully to avoid winter’s accumulation of newly exposed dog feces, in search of pocket change lost in the snow by winter patrons feeding Ford Street’s parking meters. Returning to Mechanic Street with newfound riches, we would occasionally detour to the waterworks to watch how far sheets of ice would pass over the Oswegatchie dam before collapsing under their own weight.
From 1836 when the city’s timber dam was rebuilt with a higher front, until 1910 when the current concrete dam replaced it, the weight of spring water falling over the dam created a bedrock vibration that made “every loose door and window in the city shake.” As the Journal reported, “It caused a first class excitement… a good many people thought the Evil One had come and were very much scared about it.”
Abbe Picquet built the first dam and an adjacent sawmill in 1750 the year after he established Fort La Presentation. The English took possession of the fort in 1760, renaming it Oswegatchie and in 1792 presided over rebuilding of the dam and sawmill on a much larger scale with lumbering commencing anew, “under which the majestic forests, covering almost the entire region, rapidly began to disappear,” as Rev. P.S. Garand wrote in his history of the city.
Just four years later, Nathan Ford, agent for landowner Samuel Ogden, arrived to lay out and build the city and again, the dam and sawmill were repaired, and a grist mill constructed nearer to the harbor. In 1805, Ford again repaired the dam which the preceding tough winter had seriously damaged.
In 1836, the dam was totally rebuilt of heavy timbers and raised to a height of 12 feet. That’s when the shaking began in times of high water. The Ogdensburg Water Power Co. had been organized the previous year to channel water into 25 first- and 75 second-class runs that would power dozens of factories along the west site of the city.
In 1910, the current concrete dam was constructed at the same height but eight feet in front of the old dam at a cost of $10,000. It is 374 feet in width. The stone bed of the river was drilled out to four feet to build the base to hold back the tremendous force of water in the spring, with steel dowels sunk into the rock bed extending 18 inches into the concrete.
The face of the dam followed a “lazy S” with a lower curve at the foot and a five-foot wide crown at the top sloping upward at the back so that floating ice, logs and other refuse would glance upward when striking the dam. The Journal wrote, “The water will follow the surface of the dam all the way and the lower curve in its construction will not permit it to strike heavily on the rock bed of the river, but instead will shoot it off direct to the river, thus doing away with the vibration that is always felt throughout the city during high water in the river.”
The stone crusher, bins, concrete mixer, elevators, hoisting machines and drills were all placed on the flat stone bottom forming the bed of the river below the old dam as construction began. The new dam was built in sections. Among the stone crushed was the foundation of Picquet’s sawmill.
As to what caused the vibration felt miles from the dam, the Journal reported on May 1, 1880, that a guest at the Seymour House at the corner of State and Ford Streets said that whenever the Oswegatchie was running with full banks, water over the dam “pours in a heavy mass… and the flow is found to have a regular pulsation of four throbs per second.”
The guest wrote that the windows of the Seymour house “keep time to its measure in regular beats with a rattle which at first suggests that heavy machinery is in the vicinity; or else, to again borrow an antique simile, that the venerable hotel has a passing touch of palsy. The tremor must be transmitted through the ground for the direct sound of the water can scarcely be heard,” the guest wrote.
With the shakes cured, residents have been at peace with the Oswegatchie for more than 120 years though nearby residents, as we were, could hear it constantly but particuarly in the spring, when it literally roared as you stood next to it. That, I miss.

  • Ted Como is a member of the board of directors of the Fort La Presentation Association.
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