The following article was taken from a conversation with my grandfather, Watson Roberts Watrous:
Electrifying The Susquehanna Valley
Old Onaquaga Historical Society, by Fran Bromley
The 20th Century brought many new conveniences to the Susquehanna Valley, perhaps themost important being electricity and invention to make use of it. Life slowly became easier. Thismight be compared to the changes to life as we know it, as the computer age takes over our world.
There was a dam in the Susquehanna River at Center Village since the late 1800’s. It fell intodisrepair in the early 1900’s when the mills that had flourished there at one time became obsolete. In 1908 the dam was nearly destroyed by high water. Soon after that Wright and Bennett of Lanesboro and Susquehanna, PA purchased the property. They built the Center Village Hydro Plant in 1914 and began supplying electric power to the towns from Afton to Windsor. They planned to put in a transmission line which would furnish electricity to all those residents who were using kerosene lanterns and candles in their homes. It was quite a project.
Watson Roberts Watrous, grew up in Colesville and was on hand when the age of electricity came into being. The following is his story as told to Clyde Hathaway, a nephew of Mr. Watson [sic]. “First it was necessary to survey the area for the project. A civil engineer named Keyes hired me to help him survey the area. I started carrying the transit and was soon handling the surveying by myself. We went from Windsor to Bainbridge surveying. In the meantime, work was progressing on the turbine at the power house in Center Village. If the dam couldn’t get the voltage up to where it was needed, they had a couple of boilers and a 17 foot flywheel to drive the generator.
The next step was to wire the houses. They used a knob and tube system. Mr. Keyes was a clever operator. It was necessary to start the wiring in the attic and work down. In some of the old farm houses (some in town, too), the attics weren’t livable. When we entered the house we were to wire, Keyes would say, “You finish that up and I’ll be back in a little while when you get down to the next floor.” I was on to this ploy but the pay was good and that’s the way it went.
Next they came to me and said, “Well, we have to put the poles in and start stringing the wire. Do you have any climbers?” I said, “No”, and he said, “If you get some climbers you can earn 25 cents more an hour.” So I bought a pair of climbers and a safety belt. “When we started out there was a ridge at Pickerel Pond that you had to go over and down and then up another ridge to put in a 60 foot pole in order to hold a decent level with the wires. They said, if you’re going to be a climber, we’ve got a couple of poles we’d like you to go up and lag in the cross arms” “It was a challenge to me and I was scared. But, I hauled up the cross arm and lagged it in and wentover to the next one. I soon got used to it. The boss was watching me and he not only gave me aquarter, but fifty cents more an hour. I thought I was getting rich! After we got everything hooked up and the insulators on, there was a little lull.” At the powerhouse they asked me to take care of the switch board at Center Village. I went over with the head electrician and he showed me what to do. I worked at that for a couple of months. It was a great place for me because of the raceway there. I always had a fish pole baited with a gob of worms and there was lots of pike and smallmouth bass, so I always went home with fish. I think there was only power from 7 o’clock in the morning until 10 o’clock at night, and then I would go back up with my bicycle to shut it off. I always remembered that 17 foot flywheel because when they first started it up (it was quite a curiosity to everyone around there to see electricity,) the static electricity pulled the hairpins right out of the ladies hair for about two feet around. What screaming there would be! So I said to the boss, this thing’s got to be grounded or we’re going to have trouble here; we have already. He thought it was a good idea so we grounded it. That summer the river was low and power was down so they had to use the boilers. I didn’t know anything about boilers and you had to be a licensed boiler man, so that ended my career.”
In the 1930’s Tracy Hayward was the attendant for the electric plant. When water came downthe river carrying trash and other flotsam, it went through the millhouse or electric plant. Sometimes the trash would accumulate and catch in there and it would cause a bell to ring at the Hayward house on route 79 in Center Village. Trace would get in his car and rush over the “rake the racks” and clear them so the water would go on down the raceway. The dam was partially destroyed by ice in 1947. Because the expense of rebuilding it was prohibitive and water power was no longer practical, Robert Foley, a general contractor was hired by the power company to demolish the remaining sections with dynamite.
Like so many of the smaller hydro-plants in the 1920’s, the Afton-Windsor Light, Heat, andPower Co. was acquired by New York State Electric and Gas in 1925, and is now part of NYSEG.
Town of Colesville News and Notes • Fall, 2010 •pages 8-9
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Steven this story epitomizes what this site is all about. I hope others can appreciate the value of what your grandfather told you and how it is a first hand accounting that otherwise would've been lost. Very well done and thank you!
Not only have your preserved your grandfather's story in first person--and in reality have given his an honored place in history via Legacy Stories. What a fascinating account of how Colesville, New York got their first electricity! Great job. Thanks for sharing.