Historical Photos Show The Arduous Construction Of The Chittenden Reservoir

Oct 3, 2014

Kayakers love the quiet beauty of the Chittenden reservoir, a 750-acre waterway surrounded almost entirely by national forest.

On Saturday, Green Mountain Power, which operates the dam there, will host its annual clean-up day and local historians will be on hand to talk about how the hydroelectric facility came to be. 

Horses stand on an elevated rail line between the dam wall and the quarry.
Credit Chittenden Historical Society

Karen Webster heads the Chittenden Historical Society.  She says a local woman named Lena Osgood took wonderful photographs of the town back in the late 1800 and early 1900s. Several capture what the area looked like before the Chittenden Power Company began building the reservoir in 1900.

"They built the east Pittsford Dam first, and that was successful," Webster says. "So they’re looking around at the area, and you can see that all the hills feed into this natural basin and all the streams come down into this basin and they just had to dam up this little end and they’d have a pretty good reservoir.”

Only one family had to be relocated from the meadow that became the Chittenden Reservoir. They were bought out and moved to a different location. Photo circa 1895.
Credit Chittenden Historical Society

Only one family had to be relocated, says Webster. They were bought out and moved nearby to higher ground. 

But building the dam wasn’t easy.

"They had hired all kinds of workers. At one point they had 200 workers working on the dam, a lot from Italy and Sweden because they could pay them less in wages," Webster says. "They thought it would take three months to build. Instead it took nine months, and it went through the winter, and it was a tough winter.”

At one point there were 200 workers working on the dam, many from Italy and Sweden.
Credit Chittenden Historical Society

One worker, a Swede named Lewis Aberg was killed, says Webster, crushed by a bucket of stone. Pointing to several photographs taken during construction, she says conditions were harsh.

“These are teams that are working through the winter – you can see the steam coming up and how cold it was; [and] sod huts that were used by the Italians.”

"They thought it would take three months to build. Instead it took nine months, and it went through the winter, and it was a tough winter," says Karen Webster, who heads the Chittenden Historical Society.
Credit Chittenden Historical Society

Financial problems and change in ownership caused delays as well. Webster says the dam and spillway weren’t completed until 1909. The nearby power station wasn’t finished until 1914. 

Men put in gates to control the water flow of the dam.
Credit Chittenden Historical Society

While there was concern the dam might give way during the flood of 1927, it held. Webster says it wasn’t until 20 years later, when heavy rains hit in 1947, that calamity struck.

While there was concern the dam might give way during the flood of 1927, it held.
Credit Chittenden Historical Society

"Each inch or rain that falls makes about a foot of height in the reservoir," Webster says. "And so it was way, way up, the water was. And they tried to open the flashboards, but they couldn’t because the pressure was so strong.”

In order for the rocks to be transported to the dam site quicker and easier for both men and horses, the Adams Company, built its own small railroad about a half mile long from the quarry to the dam site.
Credit Chittenden Historical Society

While the dam held, Webster says the flashboards gave way, allowing excess water to surge down East Creek and into the East Pittsford pond breaking the dam there and flooding Rutland.

"The good news is that not a single person died during this. There was a lot of hardship because of it, but no one was killed," Webster says.  

Rutland filmmaker David Giancola had fun imagining a scenario where the Chittenden Dam actually did burst in his 2003 movie, Killer Flood: The Day the Dam Broke.

Thankfully, the water gushing through downtown Rutland in the film was computer generated. 

Today, most of the excitement at the reservoir occurs when someone spots a moose. 

Green Mountain Power’s Reservoir clean-up will run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 4.