The upper reaches of the Saranac River are a region of mostly flat water and lakes. The river has more than three dozen source lakes and ponds north of Upper Saranac Lake; the highest is Mountain Pond on Long Pond Mountain. The river flows in a northeasterly direction; in the last third of its length it drops two-thirds of its total drop, and is known for having navigable rapids, which make it a popular site for whitewater kayaking and canoeing. It empties into Lake Champlain at the City of Plattsburgh.
The river encompasses Upper, Middle and Lower Saranac Lakes, as well as Oseetah Lake, Lake Flower, Franklin Falls Pond and Union Falls Pond. It flows through the village of Saranac Lake; there are locks between Middle and Lower Saranac Lakes, and between Lower and Oseetah, although the drop is only a few feet. Thirty-three miles further northeast, the river flows through the village of Saranac, before winding through Plattsburgh, reaching Lake Champlain after a further 23 miles.
Source: Jamieson, Paul and Morris, Donald, Adirondack Canoe Waters, North Flow, Lake George, NY: Adirondack Mountain Club, 1987. ISBN 0-935272-43-7.
Writing in his Enterprise column "Merely Local" on November 15, 1962 (reprinted on July 5, 2003), Bill McLaughlin remembered: "I used to hear the late Sam Wood say that he remembered when they were driving logs on the Saranac right through the village and the river bed was filled with trout and clean sand and we saw what happened to that. The trout are gone and the sand is nothing but sludge, rusted car parts and tin cans and only a springtime sucker cares to roam the ripples of the river that God forgot."
Adirondack Daily Enterprise, February 25, 1995
Saranac River corridor deep in Ad'k History
Though neither as historically regal as the Nile nor as geographically immense as the Amazon, our own Saranac River is nevertheless an enjoyable and valuable asset as a main waterway serving our region.
From its headwaters at Upper Saranac Lake and some nearby contributory ponds and streams, the river courses through an important portion of the Adirondack comer so rich in local interest. After completing its initial run through the three Saranac lakes and Lake Flower, the river turns north to Bloomingdale. Then it bears sharply eastward to Franklin Falls where it flows along a northeasterly heading toward Union Falls, Clayburg, Redford, Saranac, Cadyville, Morrisonville, and finally Plattsburgh, where it empties into Lake Champlain.
The river's principal fountain-head, Upper Saranac Lake, is also one of the most popular bodies of water in all of the Adirondacks. In past years its shores featured such prominent resort hotels as Saranac Inn, The Wawbeek, and Rustic Lodge, with round-the-lake steamboat service available. Today only a rebuilt version of the original Wawbeek remains open to the public 1 At the turn of the century many of the so-called Great Camps were being built by millionaires on both sides of the lake. A considerable number of these properties have since been subdivided while others have been converted to commercial establishments. Most of this activity had little effect on the river travel.
At a much earlier date, Upper Saranac Lake did provide some river traffic by courtesy of the Adirondack guides. Prior to the development of roads in the area the guideboat served as the major means of transportation. The guides rowed their patrons downstream through Middle and Lower Saranac lakes to reach the village or upstream to bring arrivals from the village to the Upper Saranac and Raquette River areas. The river made its exit from Upper Saranac at Bartlett Carry and over this portion of the waterway the guides led many an illustrious sportsman to the best hunting and fishing that could be found. Prominent statesmen, including presidents, together with artists and writers, were thus introduced to the waters of the Saranac River.
Also at Bartlett Carry, the river begins its 56-mile journey to Lake Champlain. Flowing into and through Middle Saranac, better known as Round Lake to the natives, the river continues through Lower Saranac and on down to Lake Flower at Saranac Lake village. At the village dam the stream proceeds through the heart of the community and assumes a northern bearing for Bloomingdale six miles away. Here the river is joined by Sumner Brook as it turns sharply to the east and heads for Franklin Falls.
Bloomingdale received its name back in 1852 when a three-man committee was appointed for that purpose. Early settlers Nathan Hayes, Charles Toof, and James Pierce met to agree on the designation and if they were hoping for the place to "bloom" they were not disappointed.
Franklin Falls has an interesting history as holding an important position in the course of the river. Originally the place was called McLenathan Falls for Isaac McLenathan who, together with Williams Wells, built a sawmill and forge in 1827. The problem of hauling heavy wagonloads of iron and lumber to Port Kent, some 34 miles away, caused the industry to fail. Twenty years later Peter Comstock arrived to build a new sawmill, a store, a hotel, and housing for his work force. In 1851 a post office was established with the new designation of Franklin Falls. After all it was situated in the town of Franklin, in Franklin County, and old Ben was a national hero, so why not Franklin Falls?
Recognizing the potential of waterpower, land owner and hotelier Paul Smith moved in and began to purchase all of the abandoned property surrounding the old mill site. In 1907 he built a new dam and five years later had an electric hydro plant in full operation. During that same period he completed a second plant seven miles downstream at Union Falls. The Saranac River soon was sending electricity back up to Saranac Lake and all the outlying districts.
Downstream from Union Falls the river flows on through Tefft Pond, Clayburg, and Redford in its journey eastward. At Redford the river was straddled by another famous, but short-lived, industry. The riverbed at this point featured a shallow crossing which, much earlier, was used as a fording place by the Indians. The cobblestones in the shallow water had assumed a reddish tint and naturally the crossing was called the "red ford." In 1832 a glassworks was founded here and for the next 19 years produced an excellent grade of both windowpane and ornamental glass. The product became well known as Redford Glass and today such pieces as bottles, bowls, vases, and pitchers are much sought after by collectors of this rare commodity.
After passing Redford the river approaches Moffitsville and Saranac where it either plunges over High Falls or enters the penstock of the New York State Electric & Gas Company to spin the generators in the hydro plant. From Route 3 the tall white surge tank can be seen on the hillside across the river. This silo-like structure acts like a pressure valve on the penstock which is tunneling the water from the dam to the water wheels in the plant below.
To avoid confusion with the term Saranac there is a town of Saranac, which is a civil division of Clinton County, and there is a hamlet within the town that is also named Saranac. The Saranac River flows through both of these geographic designations. In former times there was a considerable mix up in the mails between Saranac and Saranac Lake. Perhaps because Saranac Lake was well known, many people were inclined to use the short cut of Saranac (only) when addressing a letter being unaware of the hamlet by that name. Several attempts to get one or the other post office to change its name failed. Apparently that problem no longer exists.
As our river leaves the town of Saranac it forms the boundary between the towns of Plattsburgh and Schuyler Falls while also passing through the hamlets of Cadyville and Morrisonville on its final approach to the City of Plattsburgh and its terminal in Cumberland Bay.
While the postal situation seems to have been solved, the perplexing enigma of the name itself remains. There has never been a firm solution as to the origin of the name Saranac. At first it was thought to be an Indian word but linguistic studies have been unable to prove any aboriginal connotation. Some historians have offered that the term may have evolved from verbal corruption of either St. Armand or St. Aranack but this is only conjecture. On Burr's map of 1829 Upper and Lower Saranac Lakes are depicted but the middle lake is labeled Round Lake. The Saranac River is shown in proper place but is not named. From this map we know that the term Saranac was in use prior to 1829 but for how long we can only guess. Milote Baker was the first postmaster here in 1854 and some mail was addressed to simply "Baker's."
In 1862 William F. Martin became postmaster and the post office was kept in his hotel on Lower Saranac Lake. Since the hotel was named the Saranac Lake House, the area mail was naturally addressed to Saranac Lake and 30 years later, when the village was incorporated, Saranac Lake's title became official.
Adirondack Daily Enterprise, May 16, 1972
Saranac flood conditions explained
SARANAC LAKE—There has been a wealth of misinformation at public meetings and in sidewalk conversation about the flood, conditions of the Saranac River.
The most consistent inaccuracy heard is that "since the Conservation Department, took over control of the gate at the lower lock two years ago the river has flooded the town."
The Conservation Department assumed that responsibility twelve years ago, not two years ago.
William Petty, Director of Region 10, Department of Conservation (DEC), told The Enterprise that after ten good years, the weather created conditions impossible to control on a free-flowing river.
He said the one small gate near the lower locks could not control the conditions well enough to stop flooding in the village. In 1971 the unusual heavy snowfall caused the big runoff in the spring. This year the "tight" April with all the cold weather held back the gradual runoff that can usually be expected. Then it warmed up quickly in May causing a heavy runoff all at one time.
Mr. Petty could see two solutions. "Do we try to put controls on the river or do we somehow get the buildings that are affected by high water rebuilt above flood level.
Persons in most flood areas don't build buildings right on the edge of the water. Apparently the most the Saranac ever rises is three feet.
Engineers examined the dam at Bartlett's Carry at the request of Mr. Petty to see what controls could be put in there. Jay Yardley, owner of the settlement, no longer uses the dam for power and has no interest in maintaining a flood control system. The engineers, however, said they would have to put in a system that would take one of the cottages at Bartlett's Carry and the cesspool system.
Asked about the rumor of the camp owner closing, the gate to raise the river so he could get to his camp. Mr. Petty says he thinks it stemmed from a remark shouted to him (in jest) about that very thing and some persons present took it seriously.
Mr. Petty has lived all his life in this area. He knows the problem of the business owners who are flooded and speaks of them by their first names as friends.
"We are doing the best we can with the given conditions ... does anyone think we would intentionally do anything to hurt these people?"
He concluded, "it is not a … does anyone think we would complex problem." [sic]
Elizabethtown Post, April 5, 1900
The town Board of Harrietstown has made a contract with the Canton Bridge Company for the construction of four new iron bridges to be built within the town during the coming summer at a total expenditure of $17,500. The money is to be raised by the sale of twenty year bonds, payable in equal annual payments, with interest. The longest and most important bridge is to be constructed across the Saranac River near the outlet of Lower Saranac Lake, This is to be a one span bridge 180 feet long and is to cost $13,500, This bridge will connect the hotels and camps of the Upper Saranac with Saranac Lake village, whereas heretofore traffic between those places has been carried on by the use of boats, as the bridge was considered unsafe. It is anticipated that this drive will be very popular among pleasure seekers as well as for business purposes.
Plattsburgh Sentinel, August 11, 1882
THE SARANAC RIVER IMPROVEMENT
Appointment of Commissioners—42,000 Acres of Timber Land to be Made Accessible.
George W. Hartwell, Hon. Andrew Williams, and Wales Parsons were on the 5th inst. appointed by the Governor as commissioners to superintend the removal of obstructions in the north branch of the Saranac river, in accordance with the act passed last winter, appropriating $6,000 for that purpose. Their commissions were received this week, and are handsomely executed documents, bearing the “great seal” of the State.
The improvements to be made will commence at what is known as the Thousand Islands, about nine miles above Clayburgh, or the forks of the river. For the first four miles above Clayburgh, to the mouth of Alder Brook, the river runs smoothly and there is sufficient depth for rafting. Goldsmith used to raft his lumber between these points. For three and a half miles above Alder Brook to the foot of Goldsmith pond the river is rapid, but there are no obstructions to driving logs. The pond sets back about a mile and a half, when we come to the Thousand Islands. Here the stream divides into a dozen sluggish channels, through a cedar swamp for about a mile and a half. The work to be done will consist of bringing the current all into one main and enlarged channel, by means of digging and dredging, and removing obstructions.
For two miles and a half above the Thousand Islands to Thatcherville there is a rocky rapids which will need extensive improvements. Rocks will need to be removed at points all along the stream to provide a suitable run-way for the logs.
Above Thatcherville, a slack-water system is entered upon, extending through Mud Pond, and Round Pond up to Rainbow Lake, the source of the North Branch. No improvements are needed above Thatcherville, except the repairing of the dams at the outlets of Mud and Round Ponds. As we understand it, it will be necessary to bring these dams into requisition for the successful driving of logs, raising the gates at proper times, and producing high water in the stream.
Thatcherville, where Mr. Albert Turner is now running a mill, is a point of considerable importance in the past history of the lumber business, Caldwell's, Comstock's, and Jackson's mills having been successively operated there.
The contemplated improvement of the North Branch will open up some forty-two thousand acres of timber land, mostly located above Thatcherville, owned about as follows: Messrs. Hartwell 7,000; Mr. Parsons 4,500; A. Turner 2,000; M. V. B. Turner 2,500; Mrs. Ellis 6,000; Hon. S. M. Weed 1,000; Mr. Hanlon 1,000; the State about 20,000.
With these improvements, the Saranac river will be the natural outlet for the lumber of this region, which is an item of business of no small consideration. It is expected that work on the improvement will be commenced at once and completed if possible this season.
Within the village of Saranac Lake, the river is (or was) crossed by:
- The Main Street Bridge
- The Upper Riverwalk Bridge
- The old footbridge
- The Broadway Bridge
- The Dorsey Street Bridge
- The Lower Riverwalk Bridge
- The Church Street Bridge
- The Woodruff Street Bridge
- The Railroad Bridge
- The Baker Bridge (Pine Street)
1. Alas, it, too, was torn down by new owners in 2008.