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February 22, 2014

Early efforts to halt Silver Creek were slow going

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The Daily Star

---- — Incidents of Silver Creek overflowing into the streets of Oneonta aren’t making news as often as they once did. 

The most recent events that may come to mind is in 2006, when the creek overflowed and a front-page picture in The Daily Star showed a person floating on a raft down South Main Street on June 27 of that year, or another flooding this past August. No matter how hard humankind may try to divert or control water, there’s simply no way to always outsmart Mother Nature.

For many years prior to improvements made on the course of Silver Creek in the 1920s and ‘30s, overflows were routinely in the news. A small sample from old Oneonta newspapers found severe flooding incidents in 1888, 1889, twice in 1898, and in 1904.

After the second overflow in 1898, The Oneonta Star reported on a special meeting of the village trustees held at Oneonta village hall on Monday, Aug. 29, then found on the site of today’s 242 Main St.

“W.H. Johnson esq. appeared before the board. He stated that he came at the instigation of parties who were interested in the decision of the question of what to do with Silver creek and the question of the village’s responsibility for the damages caused by the overflow of the brook mentioned.” Mr. Johnson read from the village charter that it was the duty of village trustees to regulate water courses. If necessary, he said, the trustees could condemn adjacent property to widen, broaden or deepen waterways.

The article concluded, “The matter was talked over at some length but no action was taken.” This pretty much summed up work toward a solution to the problem for several more years.

The Star reported on Feb. 13, 1922, that city attorney Owen C. Becker was drafting a bill to submit to the state legislature, allowing the city to take measures for the care and control of all three creeks flowing through the city. This meant an amendment had to be made to the city charter. By Feb. 18, the bill was presented to state Assemblyman Julian C. Smith. By March the charter amendment was approved by the state legislature, returned to Oneonta for approval by Common Council, and then returned to Albany for signature by Gov. Nathan N. Miller.

That same summer, a survey of the path of Silver Creek was taken by Clyde Potts of New York City, with suggestions for improvement of the channel as a matter of safety.

On Monday, Feb. 5, 1923, the city’s board of public works met to discuss plans for improvement as prepared by city engineer Frank M. Gurney.

As the Star reported, “It is not proposed at this time to undertake the entire work along the creek, but rather that on the catchment, and from that point to improve the sides and bottom of the stream as far as Center street, a distance of 781 feet below the catchment area. The total cost of this work, including the catchment, bridge on Clinton and the work on sides and bottom is $21,043.45, the expense of which will in part be borne by the city and part by the property owners.”

It was then reported on Thursday, April 19, that the plan had been approved, and that both the D&H Railway and Elmore Milling Co. would share significant portions of the cost of Silver Creek improvements, as each time Silver Creek raged over its banks, their businesses were adversely affected. Bids were sought in October 1923. The catchment was designed to prevent tree limbs, gravel and refuse from being carried down the channel.

This project wasn’t the end of the problem, as was proven in 1935 and 1936 when Oneonta endured some major flooding during the summer months.

Another large improvement was approved in 1939 as part of a Works Progress Administration flood control project.

“Sanctioned by United States army engineers and approved by Works Progress administration officials in Washington, Oneonta’s $346,627.85 flood control project is expected to get underway this month, City Engineer Frank M. Gurney announced yesterday,” as seen in the Star of Thursday, Feb. 2. The project called for some new bridges, walls for the creeks and improved stream bottoms. Oneonta’s other two creeks were part of this project, expected to last 18 months. Work actually began on Monday, Feb. 27, employing about 50 laborers.

During 1939, work on Silver Creek started in the Brook Street area, and by Aug. 3 a Star photo showed progress had reached the Prospect Street area, near the entrance to Neahwa Park, where the creek empties into the millrace.

The two projects provided significantly less flooding in years since, compared to the late 19th and early 20th century incidents.

On Monday: A bit of our local life and times in February 1974.

Oneonta City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.