Pamphlet – 1958 – Lake George and the Continuing Blunder (Adirondack Mountain Club)

Lake George and the Continuing Blunder

During the past 50 years high water has been destroying the Lake George islands. To stop this continuing blunder legislation must provide:

  1. That the waste gates be opened when the water level rises about 3.0 on the U.S.G.A, gage at Roger’s Rock
  2. That the water level be maintained above 2.5 at all times


High water, permitted by blundering agreements and laws, continues to destroy plant life and wash away islands.

State Island Near Paradise Bay

The Lake George Island Region is unique and one of the most valuable portions of the New York State Forest Preserve. Situated between state owned mountain ranges on either side of the famous “Narrows” is an eight mile section of the lake dotted with beautiful little wooded islands and belonging wholly to the people of the State. About 10,000 people camp on these islands each summer, and many more fish, swim, and hike in this region that is world famous for its scenery.

The people, owners of this valuable heritage, should do everything necessary to preserve these islands for themselves and for their children. Unfortunately this has not been done. A private mill dam, producing hydroelectric profits, causes sustained high water that has washed away the islands, bit by bit, year after year. First, sustained high water smothers and weakens the soil-holding roots of the trees and shrubs. Then, heavy spring wave action washes away the soil. In this way three islands, once listed on Conservation Department maps, have been reduced to shoals that endanger navigation instead of beautifying the lake. Other islands, like the one above, are on the way to destruction.

Many years of effort by people interested in saving the islands were jeopardized in 1957 when the Legislature passed a law attempting to legalize the same high water levels that have damaged the islands of the Forest Preserve, and are causing more damage this year. It is up to all citizens of New York to see to it that the Legislature acts in its next session to correct the faults of the 1957 law and provide REAL protection to our islands in Lake George for our own and future generations.

STORY of THE SOILS on the Lake George islands began with the retreat of the great glaciers that covered the northern part of the State ten thousand years ago. The melting glaciers deposited gravels and clays on the rocky ledges in the valley now occupied by the Lake. The Lake waters at first washed away some of these deposits, but as trees, shrubs and plants developed on the islands, the shores became stabilized. The binding action of the roots protected the soil from the action of the waves, and the canopy effect of their leaves and stems broke the force of wind and rain. A delicate and critical balance of nature was reached which lasted for thousands of years.

A UNIQUE ROCK LEDGE IN THE OUTLET of the Lake, some 400 feet wide, protected the trees and plants from SUSTAINED high water. In abnormal wet spells the whole 400 foot crest of the ledge acted as a spillway, while in low water only a trickle of water could escape between the crevices in the rock. The result was that the water level in Lake George was unusually constant.

POWER DEVELOPMENTS AT THE HIGH FALLS IN THE OUTLET were realized with the arrival of white man. Water wheels turned the early mills, and openings were unlawfully blasted through the natural dam making it possible to draw the Lake below the natural level. With the building of a privately-owned hydroelectric development about the start of the century, a new dam was constructed which, as the New York State Court of Appeals found, “has the effect of raising the level of the water of Lake George about one foot and one-half above the level which would otherwise have obtained.”


STUDIES BY TWO FEDERAL AND A STATE SOIL EXPERT for the New York State Department of Law show that sustained high water leads to at least partial destruction of the islands. The roots of trees and shrubs, the experts tell us, need both air and moisture. When these roots are submerged for a sustained period of time they are deprived of air and are smothered. Without the binding action of the tree and shrub roots the soil is rapidly washed away.

A COURT CASE WAS FOUGHT FOR FIFTEEN YEARS all the way through the highest court of the State to establish who had the right to control the water levels. The final outcome, in 1957, was that only the State could regulate the levels of the Lake. A few weeks after this decision, the Legislature enacted a law which attempts to legalize the flooding of Forest Preserve islands. Attempts to get a new law to correct the situation in the 1958 Legislature failed, reportedly for “lack of study.” The next step in the history of Lake George islands is up to your representatives in the State legislature who have the power to enact a law which provides for island protection.


Islands have been washing away while studies, investigations and examinations were being made.

Manhattan Island

1923 – The last tree on this island

1926 – The last shrubs on this island

1957 – The last —– only a dangerous shoal.


THE DESTRUCTION OF THE LAKE GEORGE ISLANDS is usually most rapid in the spring and is seldom obvious to the summer visitor. Soil scientists who studied the islands for the New York State Department of Law in 1943 report the story of the change as written in Nature’s own handwriting is clear, easy to read, and recorded in many ways. By following their clear and simple description you can go see for yourself what has been going on. A portion of their report, summarized below, describes the changes which have occurred since the introduction of the Mill dam, and is as valid as the day it was written a decade ago.

Erosion now active – The new cycle of erosion thus started by the intervention of man is still in active progress. As the water rises above the bed rock and boulders considerably above the natural level, it floods the soil and smothers the roots of the plants and shrubs at the water’s edge. The roots of dry land plants must have both air and moisture. When they are flooded they die from lack of oxygen. Without the protecting canopy of plant leaves, the binding action of their roots, and the shelter of the boulders, the soil is quickly washed away. This process starts slowly, for the dead roots cling to the soil until their decay. When the roots are gone the destructive action is faster. The water undercuts the soil, and the soil above falls into the water. Only unsightly raw banks remain. This process goes on until there is no more soil or until the remaining soil is protected by a new wall of boulders dropped by the soil that has been washed away. This is how whole islands have disappeared, have been cut into several islands, or have been reduced to a pile of boulders to which a few sickly shrubs cling desperately. This is the reason why points of land disappear. This is how bays become filled with mud; how new shoals are formed to endanger boats.

State maps show change – During 1917 and 1918 the State Conservation Department made maps of many of the islands in Lake George. At about the same time, stone walls or rip-rap were placed along the shores of some islands. The maps and rip-rap show us how much of the islands have been destroyed since that time.

Trees tell us a Story – Floating Battery is shown in the U.S. Geological Survey maps of 1900 as one island. Now it is cut into two islands. There are long sections of shoreline on it and on Fork Island, Phenita, Horicon, and other islands where the water has cut back from two to six feet under the trees that still stand. Along these sections, trees – young, old, alive and dead – with roots exposed, are falling into the water. These are trees that grew in the forest with shade on all sides as is shown by their clean trunks. The trees that originally grew at the edge of the forest, at the water’s edge, and the land upon which they grew, have been washed away, Try to find Manhattan, or the original Arrow or Willow Islands. The Happy Family Group was once five islands with good campsites on all of them. Now there are only two of size; the other three have gone except for a few stones and half-drowned shrubs. Examine the shoals that you find in the lake. Many were once islands. Those shoals that have bedrock as almost the three foot level were destroyed so recently that particles of clay still cling to the rock, giving it a characteristic yellow stain. Shoals at the two-foot level have been in their present condition so long that all stain has gone, and the bed rock is nearly black.

These things are readily apparent, but nature has reinforced her indictment. Soils that are now flooded by water at the four-foot level have not had time to develop the characteristic mottled color that follows when air is excluded from the ground by water. Trees such as oaks, ten inches or more in diameter, that grow only on well drained soils, are now flooded and still alive. Only a few of the typical water plants such as lilies, sedges, and water grasses are found on the flooded parts of the islands. These flooded areas with characteristic well-drained soil color and dry land plants still trying to grow are found on Phenita, Picnic, Big Burnt, The Happy Family Group, Horicon, St. Sacrament, Raggedy, Coopers, Little Burgess, Duran, Hatchet, Floating Battery, and other islands.

Must Return to Natural Level – Exhaustive examination of the islands has shown, in effect, that some damage will occur at water levels of two and one-half feet, but protection with rip-rap would be practical at this level. At higher levels the cost of protection would increase, and above three and one-half feet protection would be impractical because the high water seeping through the rock walls would smother the roots of trees causing the trees to die and fall. Therefore the desirable level to maintain for both protection of the islands and navigation would be three feet with short periods of fluctuation to three and one-half and down to two and one-half.

SEVERAL TYPES OF DAMAGE done by high water are illustrated in this picture. Protective stone walls (center) built along the island shores by the Conservation Department are often ineffective because sustained high water and wave action wash soil from behind them. You will find many places among the islands where these walls are now under water, offshore, or both. At reasonable Lake levels many of the walls would still be providing protection. As the water washes away the soil, tree roots are weakened, the trees topple, (right) and the destruction reached further inland. High water also makes public docks (background) wet, slippery, and dangerous.


Few problems have had as many “solutions” without being solved as the Lake George water levels problem. There have been investigations, studies, and examinations, and re-examinations. Many times we have heard that the problem has been solved and that everybody was happy about it. Still, the islands wash away, and low water plagues boat owners and leaves raw and exposed banks and roots along island shores. So long as these conditions exist the problem is not solved, regardless of agreements made or laws passed.

The reason the problem crops up year after year is not that nothing has been done, but that THE RIGHT THING HAS NOT BEEN DONE. If the Lake George water level problem is going to be solved, the Lake levels must be kept as nearly as possible between 2.5 and 3.0 feet on the official gage. These levels were recommended after careful study by Dr. John Lamb, Jr., and Dr. Howard Wilson, soil specialists with the U.S.D.A., the late Dr. Irving Langmuir, and others.

The 1957 COURT DECISION was the first step in solving the water level problem since it gave the State the sole right to regulate water levels, but the 1957 LAW permits damaging high water and, during the winter and spring, imposes no limit on low water levels. This law must be changed. In 1958 a modified law was proposed by several conservation organizations to:

  • Prevent damaging high water above 3 ft. gage by requiring the gates of the dam to be opened when the water of the Lake goes above that level.
  • Prohibit drawing the Lake level below 2.5 ft. gage.
  • Provide a legal mechanism to accomplish and enforce these limits.


Unfortunately the proposed law was killed in committee, allegedly for lack of study, but, if adopted, it would have resolved the Lake George water level problem by PREVENTING EXTREME HIGHS AND LOWS this maintaining a more constant and natural Lake level. (It is believed the natural lake level was slightly under 3 ft., U.S.D.A. gage. At present, the lake is artificially maintained both above and below the natural level, part of each year.)

It appears that the type of study the Legislature needs now is letters from home informing them that you are aware of the Lake George problem and the findings of the experts, and that you want them to enact a new law that will protect the famous beauty of Lake George.

During high water, many docks are flooded or awash making them wet, slippery, and dangerous. The proponents of continued high water claim that docks like that above will be made a “serious misfit” if the Lake is not permitted to reach such high levels. This is difficult to imagine.

This information comes to you from:

Adirondack Mountain Club, Inc.

Lake George Protective Association, Inc.

Federated Garden Clubs of New York State, Inc.

Eastern New York Chapter, Nature Conservancy

Oneida County Forest Preserve Council, Inc.

Forest Preserve Association of New York State, Inc.

Conservation Forum of New York State, Inc.


For additional copies, write to:

Adirondack Mountain Club, Inc., Gabriels, N.Y.