The Black River Dam War, Reconsidered

In 1892 the New York State Legislature created the Adirondack Park and in 1894 placed “Forever Wild” forest protection into the State Constitution. Thus began a process of wilderness protection for what today covers thousands of lakes and millions of acres of forests.

During the following sixty years however, there were scores of determined efforts by developers, local governments, and subsequent legislatures to weaken that protection to promote mining, logging, hydroelectric power, roads, commercial recreation and off-road access by jeeps, snowmobiles, floatplanes and motorboats. To repel these threats, America’s first modern grassroots wilderness protection campaigns began.

Up until 1930, forest protection was thought by most people to be a simple fight to stop excessive logging that was considered not only out of control, but also essentially uncontrollable without strict anti-logging language in the state constitution itself. That anti-logging language was sustained from 1894 to 1930 mainly because preservationists had the support of downstate business interests who argued that they needed healthy upstate watersheds to maintain flows in the feeder streams of their network of transportation canals and to protect New York City’s drinking water.

After 1931, due in part to the influence of Bob Marshall and the growth of a wilderness ethic, preservationists began making spiritual, ethical and ecological arguments for the protection of upstate wilderness. Their message to the public in every form of media was framed in direct, dramatic, personal and emotional terms. Wilderness was magnificent and irreplaceable; solitude was a human right; citizens had a personal title and an “undivided deed ” to Adirondack Wilderness; and always there was the cry that it was in imminent danger of being despoiled, ruined and destroyed. Adirondack preservationists believed literally in Thoreau’s words, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Not as a metaphor but as a literal fact to be communicated to average citizens in Buffalo or Brooklyn. Wilderness was as important to each person as his or her own blood or muscles. Preservationists believed, and they got the public to believe and thus the legislators and bureaucrats to believe, that pure unroaded wilderness was a human rights and civil rights issue and that their peace and tranquility hung in the balance.

Since wilderness protection in New York is embedded in the constitution itself, it took a minimum of passage by each of the two houses of the legislature in two consecutive sessions, followed by one public statewide referendum, before anyone could put in a road, cut trees or build a dam in the Forest Preserve. During more than a dozen legislative fights and three statewide referendums over the next forty years, citizens and legislators were asked to vote repeatedly on whether Adirondack wilderness should be preserved or developed. Since New York wilderness is upstate but the population is downstate, protecting wilderness became a matter of educating voters in urban areas like Brooklyn and Buffalo about the value of wild forests and wilderness. To do this preservationists developed the technical capacity to make the first silent black and white conservation movies and later color movies with sound. Also they created a speakers bureau to show them across the state.

Preservationists created and maintained an essentially continuous political campaign to educate everyone in the state why wilderness values were far more valuable than mere economic development. There were countless legislative and other hearings during this era; preservationists eventually developed the ability to turn out cadres of speakers representing a thousand groups at public hearings anywhere. As a result of continuous barnstorming tours into every corner of the state, average citizens and bureaucrats acquired and absorbed Thoreau’s and Bob Marshall’s spiritual values about forests, wilderness, and solitude, and preservationists acquired the organizing and communication tools of a modern political party. In the final of three statewide referendums, citizens voted to preserve their Adirondack wilderness by an astounding margin of three to one!

By 1962 New York’s attitude towards Wilderness is demonstrated in the language of testimony by R. Watson Pomeroy, the Republican Chairman of New York’s Joint Legislative committee on Natural Resources to a U.S. House Committee hearing about legislation to create a federal wilderness system. He said in part:

“Motorized transportation is incompatible with wilderness. Easy means of access reduces or obliterates the awe and reverence for wilderness. Jeeps and other motorized ground vehicles churn footpaths into quagmires, motorboats spoil canoeing, and the landing of airplanes and helicopters in a wilderness pond can ruin the solitude and beauty of a fisherman’s paradise. [The Wilderness bill being considered would]… guard the irreplaceable wilderness resource of our nation against needless commercial exploitation.”

What follows is a case study of one representative campaign that lasted from 1945 to 1955 that preserved a large beautiful section of the Adirondacks from being dammed for hydropower. This campaign also marked the beginning of America’s wilderness preservation movement, as it was an intersection of Adirondack wilderness advocacy and national wilderness campaigns. During this campaign Paul Schaefer taught grassroots organizing and lobbying skills to Howard Zahniser (Zahnie) who in turn later taught them to David Brower when they co-led the Echo Park Dam fight in Utah in the late 1950’s. Zahnie also led the 1964 federal wilderness act campaign on behalf of the Wilderness Society and his salary to do that was paid from money left by Bob Marshall’s father Louis, who was involved in the floor fight to put “Forever Wild” in the New York constitution in 1894 and the fight to keep it from being removed in 1915.

The Black River Dam Campaign

In 1945 the Adirondack activist Paul Schaefer discovered that Governor Thomas Dewey was going to build the Higley Mountain Dam across the Moose River and flood ponds, rivers, streams and the largest winter deer-yarding ground in the Adirondacks in what is now the Moose River Plains Wild Forest. Worse, it was only the first of a proposed series of 38 dams. By the time Schaefer realized what was going on, the cause appeared lost. But he launched what would be known as the Black River Dam Wars, named after the local dam regulating district. When the campaign began, the dam was funded, the Governor fervently supported it, permits were in place, and the bulldozers were ready to move. By the time Schaefer was finished, all 38 dams were abandoned, and language that permitted dams to be built in the Adirondack Park was removed from the NYS Constitution.

This is how Schaefer won that fight; remember this campaign took place in the late 1940s and early 1950s, long before email, fax, internet or the photocopier. Long distance trips took longer, phone calls were expensive, if you needed copies of things you used carbon paper or cut stencils and when you made a mistake composing your article, you typed the whole page over.

In Paul Schneider’s The Adirondacks: A History of America’s First Wilderness (1993), he described the Black River Dam War in this way:

“Schaefer and company went to work, making movies, printing pamphlets, lining up allies. In addition to the various national environmental groups, they enlisted hunting clubs, garden clubs, fishing clubs, churches, labor unions, bird-watchers, and so on until eventually Schaefer’s Moose River Committee claimed a membership of a thousand local and national organizations. Within two years, Governor Thomas Dewey changed his mind and packed the board of the Black River Regulating District with opponents of the Higley Mountain dam.”

“Eventually the Committee persuaded nearly 1,000 clubs and organizations to oppose the Panther dam, along with most of the East’s major newspapers,” according to a description of these events by the New York State Archives. “When the state Supreme Court rejected their case against Panther, Schaefer persuaded legislators to hold public hearings around the state and packed the hearings with anti-dam forces.”

The fight over dams took eleven years and was waged in administrative forums, the courts, the legislature and in statewide referendums. Initially the preservationists gathered a thousand groups, applied pressure and forced the governor to cancel the dam. However, immediately afterwards the governor announced that a larger dam would be built downstream from the one he had just canceled. Schaefer then got the legislature to pass a law that forbid dams in the park and then to make sure no future legislature reversed it, went on to initiate a statewide ballot measure to put a prohibition against Park dams in the New York Constitution itself. It passed with a 60% majority. Thereupon the governor came right back with his own constitutional amendment that would reverse Schaefer’s and a second statewide campaign ensued which Schaefer again won, this time with a margin of 3-to-1, and the dam wars were over.

The intensity of these campaigns was described in the 1963 history of the Black River region, Black River in the North Country:

“Any citizen of the state who could read and who was at all interested [in the amendment] could not have gone to the election booth poorly informed. For advocates of the opposing positions bombarded the electorate with pamphlets, and newspapers gave much space to the controversy, often taking editorial stands one way or the other… The Amendment carried only in Lewis and Jefferson counties, the areas to be benefited by the construction of the reservoir. The ‘Forever Wild’ adherents won a smashing victory.”

What Schaefer was really doing in this campaign was operating the kind of well-run, well-financed political campaign you see for Governor or U.S. Senator today. In the second statewide referendum, Preservationists were victorious in ten of the North Country Counties with land inside the park. They had mobilized voters in every county through hundreds of public community meetings statewide in which they explained the value of wilderness to the public. And they backed up these meeting with organizing strategies and media campaigns which have never been surpassed in any New York campaign. For example to reach isolated people in rural areas on dirt roads they had a mounted youth corps who traveled on horseback distributing pamphlets. On voting day they had “sportsmen in outdoor wear at hundreds of voting booths, at legal distances, urging the negative vote”.

Thirty years later Schaefer recollected an incident from that campaign that gives an idea of the thoroughness with which the state was organized. He had been asked to give an Earth Day talk but couldn’t make it and asked a friend to go in his place. When only one person showed up, his friend thought the meeting a waste so Paul consoled him with a story about how the same thing once happened to him.

“Bill, you’ve got to remember that in 1946 I went out to Broome County, Binghamton, and we went all that way to talk about the [dams] and only 15 people turned out. Oh, it was sure discouraging to have brought ourselves and our information so far for only 15, but remember Bill, among the fifteen that night, we needed thousands of brochures to be distributed and a man stood up and said ‘you give me 50,000 of those brochures and I could use another 50,000 and I will distribute every one of them.’ It turned out that Broome County turned out the most votes to defeat the [dams]. Never underestimate that one person in 15… or among 2.”

Adirondack wilderness campaigns always attacked threats at the root and tried to place wilderness protection far out of the hands of elected and appointed officials and firmly in the hands of the public. They saw the two “sides” in every fight to preserve Wilderness as rural legislators on one side, and the voters – particularly downstate urban voters – on the other. That these old political victories were intended to be as forever as the wilderness itself.

For seventy years Adirondack campaigns were conceived of and managed as professional operations, where every campaign product from message development to the editing of articles reflected care, thoroughness and professionalism. In the campaigns after 1930, Schaefer was the equivalent of the modern political campaign manager. As such, his first job was to find motivated organizers in every county to get out the vote to deliver downstate votes. Eventually, preservationists created what was essentially an upstate political machine whose power is suggested by an incident in 1969 during another controversy where for a key vote in the Senate, Schaefer asked Laurence Rockefeller for all the Republican votes, and got them. By then, everyone understood the political power of Adirondack preservationists, and threats to the forest could be removed without the necessity of time consuming and expensive political campaigns.

This article originally appeared in Adirondack Almanack.

Jim Britell is a native of Utica, New York and a retired federal manager who served as a long range planner, Management analyst, Chief of Management Information Systems and Chief of Systems Operations. He was a leader in the West Coast ancient forest campaign, has organized on behalf of wilderness in 30 states, and is author of the handbook on grassroots organizing, Organize to Win. He was formerly President of the Malone Public Library and board member of the NYS Library Trustees Association. He maintains a web site for grassroots organizers at