Monday, July 20, 2015

How Did a Lake Disappear?

by Erin Doane, Curator

On the morning of April 7, 1990, the Chemung County Sheriff’s Department received an odd telephone call. They were told that the lake behind the Sullivanville Dam had disappeared. They thought it was an April fool’s joke until they saw that the 26-acre lake was, indeed, dry. This strange occurrence brought up a whole host of questions. How was the lake drained? Who emptied it? Why did they do it? And, most importantly, would the lake be refilled by May 26 when the $4.7 million dam project was scheduled to be dedicated?

Panorama of Sullivanville Dam, July 15, 2015
 The Sullivanville Dam was a highly debated project that suffered many delays before its eventual construction. In the late 1960s, Chemung County, the federal government, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) began plans for flood control in the Newtown-Hoffman Creek Watershed. The project included the Marsh Dam east of Breesport, the Park Station Dam in Erin, the Hoffman Dam on Elmira’s north side, and the Sullivanville Dam in Horseheads. The Sullivanville Dam is the largest in the Newtown-Hoffman network. The earthen dam is 70 feet high, 450-feet wide, and 2,400-feet long with a 26-acre surface area. It reduced the risk of flooding in Horseheads and the east side of Elmira by an estimated 80 percent and provided protection to 530 people, 151 homes, and 73 commercial, industrial and public buildings when it was completed in 1988. But it was almost never built.

In 1979 the U.S. Soil Conservation Service declared that no more flood control projects in the Newtown-Hoffman Creek Watershed program should be built because the cost of the projects, including the Sullivanville Dam, could not be justified by flood control benefits. While it was estimated that the Sullivanville Dam would significantly reduce flooding in Elmira and Horseheads, the $4.5 million cost would only result in an estimated benefit of $3.3 million.

There was also local opposition to the Sullivanville Dam. When the project moved forward again in 1984 local legislators argued that it was not cost-effective. For the project, Chemung County had to acquire a total of 230 acres of private land made up of 32 properties in the towns of Horseheads and Veteran including eight family homes. Several homeowner did not want to give up their homes and land, delaying the project further. Even as the bulldozers were starting to move earth in 1988, protesters were seeking a federal court injunction to stop construction. The project also forced a portion of Route 13 to be rerouted.

On May 31, 1988, after nearly 25 years of arguments and delays, a contingent of local, state, and federal officials ceremoniously dug the first shovelfuls of dirt. The U.S. Soil Conservation Service designed the dam and paid the Cold Spring Construction Co. of Akron, New York $4.73 million to construct it. Less than two years later, the dam was finished. Its official dedication was held on May 26, 1990 and, yes, the lake had refilled with water by then. Natural runoff and snow in the watershed refilled the lake in less than a week.

Sullivanvilled Dam when it was completed, 1990
It took at least two strong people to break into the valve mechanism on top of the dam to drain the lake. They used a hacksaw to cut the lock on the manhole and a pry bar to lift the lid and access the valves. Fortunately, whoever perpetrated this prank/crime did not damage the valves. Once opened, the valves released a slow but steady stream of water from the lake. It is thought that the valves may have been opened on Thursday night or Friday morning and that the water level dropped so slowly that no one noticed until Saturday morning.

Manhole on the top of the dam
I never found a report of who emptied the lake or even if anyone had been caught. For some time before the Dam’s dedication there had been requests for the sheriff to increase patrols of the area. Neighbors had complained of cars drag racing on the closed stretch of Route 13 and people holding wild parties. Perhaps it was thoughtless vandals who opened the dam’s valves. Perhaps it was done as a continued protest against the construction of the dam.

July 15, 2015
Today, you can fish and hike at the Sullivanville Dam. It is one of 73 parks within Chemung County. This summer CCHS is celebrating public green spaces, like the Sullivanville Dam, with the exhibit Parks and Recreation and the Parks and Recreation Contest. By offering prizes like wristbands and backpacks, we hope to encourage people to visit all parts of the county and enjoy some of the wide variety of parks this area has to offer. Click here for more information about the contest


  1. I thought that the Sullivanville Dam was built at a result of the flooding and damage that occurred in our entire region during 1972 , however your article is very interesting and thanks for sharing it

  2. You left out the Jackson Creek Dam on Jackson Creek road