Social History: Hydroelectric Era




Hydro Electric Power Plant Along West Canada Creek

Image from Thomas, (1951)



As with all aspects of social history, no single human institution is left untouched by the advancement in thought, and evolution of technology. The coming of the railroad had helped Trenton Falls achieve greatness, and in the end it was it the downfall of the Trenton Falls Resort. Due in part to the development of other resorts, but primarily because of the construction of the second Trenton Falls railroad line in 1993, the tracks once intended to bring more people to Trenton Falls also facilitated their expeditious travels beyond. No longer would visitors appreciate the grandness of the cascades from the gorge itself. Instead, their rapid transit provided only a mere passing glance at the rushing waters below. Without the awe-inspiring appreciation for the falls, the quest for developing a third rail line through the region resulted in the development of a new idea, and a new scheme for the use of Trenton Falls. By 1897, the rushing torrents along West Canada Creek were already being considered for possible use in generating hydroelectric power. Industrialization and advancement in social condition and the quest for electric power had cast Trenton Falls in new light, both figuratively and literally.

Beginning in 1899, and extending for over 20 years, Trenton Falls saw the construction of its hydrodam and power generation facility, each with a series of additions and improvements. There has been a nearly-continuous generation of electric power since 1901,so the era of the hydro-dam represents an important part of the gorge's human history and a more practical contribution to the legacy of Trenton Falls. The Utica Electric Light and Power Company re-opened Moore 's Hotel in 1902 after substantial renovation and installation of electric power, and renamed it the Trenton Hotel.

The brief discussion following is included with the intent only to highlight this important development in the history of Trenton Falls . If the reader is so inclined, a more in depth discussion of the details of the construction of the dam and development of the Hotel and site subsequent to 1899 can be found in Pitcher (1915), and Thomas (1951). >>Back to Top

Hydro-Dam, Power Generation, and Flood Control:

The construction of the hydro-dam and the earliest power generation facility by the Utica Electric Light and Power Company began late in 1899 and was completed by the spring of 1901. With a natural vertical drop of over 200' from the top of the “Cascade of the Alahambra” to the base of Sherman Fall and the addition of another 50 feet by construction of the dam, a substantial hydraulic “head of 266' could be obtained by


conducting the water through a pipe seven feet in diameter, 3700 feet along the bank of the chasm to a point near the old stairway, where the pipe would drop 90 feet vertically to a power house at the floor of the chasm” (Thomas, 1951). After all construction was completed, and the power generators were installed, the Trenton Falls facility in total was the “highest head plant” using turbine power generators in the country. Moreover, it used the “the first turbines designed as well as constructed by Americans” (Thomas, 1951).

Despite many modern improvements for increased output and higher efficiencies, the initial engineering and construction of the hydroplant has been relatively unchanged during the 100 years since it first went into operation. Obviously without having a full appreciation of the beauty of the falls prior to the construction of the

  dam, the engineers on the project well-understood and appreciated the potential fury unleashed by West Canada Creek, especially in the spring and late fall. They anticipated the need for extraordinary design measures to protect against spring floods down the chasm, including many from Niagara Falls. They installed flood gates in the base of the dam and oversaw the excavation of an emergency spillway on the east side of the dam.

Image Courtesy of M. Ripp & J. Elmer

Reliant Energy Corporation, Trenton Falls


The integrity of the dam was soon tested. After two days of hard snow and rain in December 1901, West Canada Creek had overfilled with runoff and roared down the chasm in a torrent of water, ice, and debris. Many structures upstream, including various mill houses, mill dams, and bridges, were destroyed by the raging waters of the Kuyahoora, but the new dam remained intact. The strength of the dam, sound workmanship, solid construction, and flood control measures all contributed to the mitigation of the potentially devastating flood. As a consequence, downstream areas were generally spared substantial damage, and continued to receive electrical power. In retrospect, although it marred the pristine conditions of Trenton Falls for the generation of electric power, the construction of the dam afforded a certain amount of protection to the people living downstream. >>Back to Top

Between a rock and a hard place and an era of new geological research

Since the first studies of Amos Eaton and the staff of the New York Geological Survey, the general high flow conditions in the gorge offered little opportunity for the observation and construction of a continuous stratigraphic succession from the base

Image Courtesy of M. Ripp & J. Elmer

Reliant Energy Corporation, Trenton Falls


to summit. Turn-of-the-century researchers including Theodore G. White, Charles Prosser, and Edgar Cummings were limited to completing a composite stratigraphic column for the gorge piece-meal style. Despite their best efforts and attention to detail, these researchers fully admitted some of the problems they faced during the study of gorge section. They had the amazing opportunity to study the immense section that is Trenton Falls , but they were caught, as it were, "between a rock and a hard place."

The construction of the hydrodam obscured the original beauty of the landscape, but its presence afforded a bit more safety, especially during floods. The engineering of the dam, having required the diversion of waters and a reduction in flow over the falls, increased access to the gorge for visitors to the newly re-opened Trenton Hotel and to curious researchers. The construction of the spillway and the dam also increased the amount of rock exposure for geological investigation. Beginning with the studies of Percy Raymond and advisors in 1903, and extending to those of Marshall Kay and today's modern researchers, the conditions afforded by the dam resulted in a number of new observations, a more complete stratigraphic succession, and many publications relating to the physical arrangement of strata and the distribution of fossil taxa within the gorge.

Despite the decline in notoriety of the resort, with new exposures in the gorge came new discoveries, new agendas, and a new era of geological research. >>Back to Top



© 2004 President and Fellows of Harvard College