The Raquette River Oral History Project, conducted by TAUNY and project partners from 2014 to 2016, documents the stories of people involved in or significantly affected by the construction of the hydroelectric dams and powerhouses along the Raquette River, one of the most heavily dammed rivers in New York State. This oral history project was made possible by the support of the New York Department of State with funds provided under Title 11 of the Environmental Protection Fund. Project partners include TAUNY (Traditional Arts in Upstate New York), the Raquette River Blueway Corridor Group, the Village of Potsdam, and Watertown PBS. Interviews were conducted primarily by Camilla Ammirati, Director of Programs and Research at TAUNY in Canton, NY, and Mary Jane Watson of South Colton, NY, in cooperation with Roque Murray of Watertown PBS. This collection includes thirty interviews with thirty-one individuals with significant connections to and/or memories of the Raquette River hydro projects, approximately five hundred photos and other scanned memorabilia items of the Raquette River more generally, and the life of the communities along its shores. These materials also include some contemporary photos taken by Ammirati and Watson to document people and places involved in the oral history project, and Murray recorded fifteen of the interviews on video for a separate Watertown PBS documentary project (which aired spring2016).
For this project, we interviewed subjects representing a range of different occupations, geographical locations, time periods, and types of relationship to the Raquette River dam projects. The majority of interviewees worked on the dams or powerhouses and/or for the power companies, such as Niagara Mohawk and Brookfield Renewable Energy, which have run the hydro projects over the years. Occupations or activities documented include logging, clearing land, construction management, crane operation, security, pipeline maintenance, concrete-testing, truck-driving, engineering, representing citizen concerns, and “running the river,” or managing the hydroelectric assets on the Raquette. We spoke to some who were involved at the beginning of the major development in the Colton area in the 1950s, some primarily involved in later re-building projects in the 1980s, and some whose work on the river or in their related careers has continued until relatively recently, thus bringing a more contemporary perspective to the project. We also interviewed people who did not do work connected to the dams but could share recollections of ways in which the dam projects affected their communities and their own personal lives. These include individuals whose families lost or gained land due to the dam projects, operated businesses affected for better or worse by the boom in development, owned camps that were lost or had to be moved because of the project, or generally remembered changes to community life and to the river itself, as well as what it was like simply to witness the construction projects themselves.
A number of themes emerge from these oral histories, including many shared experiences as well as differing perspectives. In our interviews, we focused on experiences related to the Raquette River dams but also inquired about personal and family background and other aspects of people’s experience, in order to put the Raquette River stories in a broader context of personal and regional identity. The resulting stories are rich and varied. While some individuals tell of negative impact—whether the loss of a favorite swimming hole, the disappearance of a beloved community institution such as the old Hollywood Inn near Carry Falls, or stories of work-related danger and injury—the majority of conversations emphasize the hydro dam projects as extremely positive and rewarding for the interviewees and their communities. Many talk of camaraderie on the job, great relationships with their crews and employers, and pride in good, hard work done well. For some, work on the dams was a summer job during college, while others spent decades working with the Raquette River as a power source, or applying the same skills they developed on the dam projects to other jobs all around the North Country. Some told of particular challenges managing floods or winter storms, while others talked of summer adventures on the lakes created by the dams. Many spoke to us in their homes right along the Raquette’s shores, showing through their windows as well as their words that while they worked hard to shape this powerful river, it has continued to shape them, too, throughout their lives.