Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Portion of the Pelham Reservoir Dam Was Destroyed in 1896 to Save the Filter Beds

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it seems as though the water system that supplied water to Pelham and the surrounding region went through periods of feast and famine.  Either the level of Pelham Reservoir became dangerously low due to drought, or the water levels grew so high due to excessive rain that the filter beds were in danger of destruction.

Early 1896 was an example of the latter.  Torrential rains led to flooding in the area.  The runoff flooded into the Hutchinson River and the reservoir system that stored water for treatment and distribution of drinking water to the region.  

The Superintendent of the Mount Vernon Water Company, G. E. Hoffmaster, watched as the water level of the Pelham Reservoir grew and grew until the water level was nearly level with the top of the earthen banks that separated the critical filter beds adjacent to the resservoir from the reservoir itself.  He knew that if the waters flooded over the earthen banks, they would destroy the sand-based filtering beds.  He knew that it would cost tens of thousands of dollars to repair the filter beds and that a portion of the the water supply system of the region would be placed at risk of closure for quite some time.

Hoffmaster had employees throw open the reservoir gate to release water from the reservoir.  The water, however, could not escape quickly enough to lower the level of the reservoir as needed.  

Hoffmaster had to make a difficult decision.  He decided to destroy a portion of the dam at the corner that was the greatest distance away from the filter beds to allow more water to escape from the reservoir.  He had a force of twenty-five men wade waist deep into the water and begin tearing at the dam just as "[t]he flood was beginning to trickle over into" the filter beds.  As a portion of the dam tore away, water flooded through, but the filter beds were saved.

Although the filter beds were saved, the dam was damaged and had to be repaired.  Those repairs were estimated to cost the company about $3,000 -- far less than the $25,000 it was estimated to rebuild the filter beds had they been destroyed.

Below is the text of an article that appeared in The New York Times about the incident on February 8, 1896.  It is followed by a citation and link to its source.

"LOST $3,000 TO SAVE $27,000.
Part of the Pelhamville Dam Torn to Protect the Filters.

MOUNT VERNON, N. Y., Feb. 7. -- A portion of the dam at the pumping station of the Mount Vernon Water Company, at Pelhamville, was cut away late yesterday afternoon, in order to save the big filter beds from being ruined by the flood.  The damage to the dam is estimated at about $3,000.

The Hutchinson River, which feeds the Pelhamville reservoir, had not been so high in many years.  G. E. Hoffmaster, Superintendent of the water company, watched the water rise until it was almost level with the top of the banks that separate the filter beds from the reservoir, and decided that if the Hutchinson once poured into the filters, $25,000 would not repair the damage.  The reservoir gate was thrown open, and still the water flowed nearly two feet deep over the sluiceway.

Mr. Hoffmaster decided to sacrifice the dam.  He put a force of twenty-five men at work tearing it away at the corner furthest from the filters.  Some of the men worked waist deep in the water.  An opening was soon made, and in a few minutes the filter beds were safe.  The flood was beginning to trickle over into them when the dam was opened.

Mr. Hoffmaster said to-day that the water supply of the city would not be affected by the loss of the dam, as the other reservoirs owned by the company are ample to meet all needs at present."

Source:  LOST $3,000 TO SAVE $27,000 -- Part of the Pelhamville Dam Torn to Protect the Filters, N.Y. Times, Feb. 8, 1896.  

"No. 134. Water Supply Pelham N. Y."
Post Card View of Pelham Reservoir,
Circa 1905. Post Card Postmarked Jan. 11, 1907.

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Recently I have written about the evolution of the facilities developed to meet the ever-growing water needs of the Town of Pelham and the surrounding region.  See 

Wed., Mar. 11, 2015:  Research Regarding the History of the Pelham Reservoir in Today's Willsons Woods Park.
Fri., May 1, 2015:  Pelham Manor's Efforts to End Use of the Pelham Reservoir for Drinking Purposes.

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