In the 1850’s the Wynantskill Improvement Association wanted more consistent waterpower for the mills all along the Wynantskill Creek from its beginning at Glass Lake all the way to the Hudson River in Troy. They were granted permission from the NYS Legislature to acquire lands from local farms to be flooded creating a reservoir now known as Burden Lake. They did the same thing at Crooked Lake, Glass Lake, Crystal Lake (was Sand Lake) and Snyders Lake.
To overflow Matrins Lake, they needed to build an earthen dam and create a system of hydraulic controls regulating the amount of water held in the new reservoir now named Burden Lake (in honor of Henry Burden who was instrumental in making it all happen).
The farms purchased were in a natural valley where the outlet from Martins Lake flowed. The outlet (sometimes referred to as Flat Rock Creek) flowed from Martins Lake north towards Averill Park. To flood the valley, they constructed an earthen dam at the north end of what we now call the first Burden Lake. Since they were building a dam, they decided to also call it a “proposed road” (which we have seen on very old plans) because they knew it would be a shorter way for horses & wagons to get to Averill Park. The dam was designed with transportation needs consistent with the mid 1800’s – horse & buggy traffic. The dam itself was constructed with dry hand stacked rocks (no mortar was used) on both the lake side (east side) and the west side which drops some 20’. In between the two stacked rock walls was filled with clay. Then a dirt roadway was on the top. At the very bottom of the dam there was a large pipe that could allow water from the lake to flow through it and head back to the Wynantskill Creek. The lake side of the pipe had a large valve and a guard house on top of it at the road level. This dam is approximately 250’ long.
In order to create a system of hydraulic controls regulating the amount of water held in the new reservoir they constructed a sluiceway (like a small stream) which left the first Burden Lake heading north. This sluiceway meets the Wynantskill Creek slightly upstream from what is known as a Weir. A Weir is like a water fall or spillway. The top of the weir was set at an elevation which became the “normal” level of the new reservoir (now Burden Lake). This simple device controls the level of the water in all three Burden Lakes. When the lake level is higher than the weir because of excessive rain, the water flows out of the lake through the sluiceway, meets the Wynantskill just upstream of the weir, and flows over the weir and down the Wynantskill Creek. When the water in the reservoir (Burden lake) is low because of evaporation, or because they had let large amounts of water flow out through the large pipe in the bottom of the dam creating more waterpower downstream, then water coming down the Wynantskill Creek temporarily stops flowing over the weir and first flows into Burden Lake through the same sluiceway filling the lake. Once the lake is filled to its “normal” height, (we would say the lake reached its equilibrium) the water flowing down the Wynantskill Creek would bypass the lake and flow over the weir and down the Wynantskill Creek. In addition to all this the weir had flash boards on the top which when raised would bring the height of the reservoir (Burden Lake) up approximately 2’ to what is known as the high-water mark. This would give the mills extra head water generating even more waterpower needed to operate the mills. There are no more flash boards. The lake can’t purposely be raised to the high water mark any longer.
Today most people who drive over the dam have no clue it’s a dam. To the untrained eye, it just appears as a road. In fact, it is Rensselaer County Highway 51. We call it the Burden Lake Road. We don’t know how or when it became a County road. We do know that according to the tax maps, the dam is located on property that might be owned by the Burden Lake Preservation Corporation (BLPC). A non profit corporation (with no funding) set up to protect Burden Lake. The BLPC only took over ownership of the property in 2001. Before that it was owned by Portec, the last standing company of the original Wynantskill Improvement Association. I think it was back in the 80’s when the Town of Sand Lake (and I believe) in conjunction with Rensselaer County, installed a sewer system in the middle of the dam. It’s actually closer to the west side of the dam than the center. The sewer runs the entire 250’ length of the dam. It is a gravity system at that point and I believe very deep in the road. There are two manholes in the dam which might be even deeper than the sewer lines. As far as we know, there are no easements allowing the county road. There is no apparent weight limit for trucks on the road or the dam. It’s surprising that the dam didn’t fail when they dug up the clay in the center to put the sewer line and man holes in. We’re thankful for that! The question must be asked, at what point do the Town and the County accept some responsibility for helping solve this problem created many years ago, after all, you have a county road with sewers in it, running over a dam they claim not to own, and they have no easements allowing any of it?
As you can imagine, a dam designed for horse & buggy travel isn’t holding up to well with the amount of today’s traffic with tractor trailers, garbage trucks, fuel oil truck, concrete trucks, school busses etc. etc. driving across the top. The macadam was replaced on the road over the dam a few years back. We don’t know when this happened, but the road is now slanted so the rainwater runs off the road and flows down the face of the hand stacked stones that make the dam. There are stress cracks in the new macadam and the hand stacked stones are starting to erode. There are some major concerns about the integrity of the dam. The DEC’s Dam Safety Division is pressuring the Burden Lake Preservation Corporation to have the dam Certified as SAFE, I’m sure covering their own tail in case anything happens. Unfortunately, the BLPC has no funding to tackle a huge project like this. The first thing the DEC wants is an engineering study done of the dam, sluiceway, and wei and a complete hydrology study including the entire water shed. This study alone could cost upwards of $100,000.
Unfortunately, the July 14th rainstorm of this past summer (2021) when we received 5” of rain in about an hour, washed away a major part of the top of the weir. As a result, Burden Lake was losing about an inch of water per day. When the water was about 6” lower than “normal” we went to the weir only to discover the destruction. After a lot of work, time, reports, and the services of an environmental lawyer, the Burden Lake Preservation Corp. (BLPC) was able to get an emergency permit from the DEC to sand bag the top of the weir (with all volunteers) literally saving the water in Burden Lake. This is temporary and the DEC is making things very difficult for the BLPC. They are demanding hydraulic studies, engineering studies, and a plan to either remove or repair/replace the weir. Unfortunately, they don’t understand how the weir operates or they would never suggest eliminating it!
- We are not engineers and none of these suggestions are sanctioned by DEC, ENCON or DAM Safety.
- We have no money for engineering studies or capital to fund the needed repairs.
- We’re hoping to get finances from the State, County, and Town and possibly some grants.
- We would appreciate any engineering that could be provided by the County and need help negotiating with the State, DEC, Dam Safety, ENCON and whoever else becomes involved in this project.
- We’re not looking to reinvent the wheel. The existing system lasted 170 years. The original engineer, Burton Thomas, was a genius to have designed this simple but effective long-lasting solution for regulating the level of Burden Lake. It was self-regulating!
- We would like to repair what’s there to make it last another 170 years!
- We MUST NOT ELIMINATE THE WEIR!!!!