Driving through Gaysville and the surrounding towns, it’s difficult to imagine a plan that would have submerged a significant part of the White River Valley might have been a reality. However, a Gaysville dam project, proposed in the 1930s and then again in the 1960s, could have accomplished just that. The first proposal for the Gaysville dam came in 1936 from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, after the infamous flood of 1927, and a smaller, though still destructive, flood of 1936.
Thinking at the time held that the dam could help regulate the river’s flow, and help prevent future chaos from dramatic floods.
The site chosen for the Gaysville project was located in a steep ravine, up-stream of the bridge that connects Route 107 with River Road and could be seen from what is the present-day Stony Brook Tavern, a spot that locals know as “the narrows,” said former selectman, and Stockbridge resident, Don Taylor.
The plans for the dam persisted throughout the 1930s and into the early 1940s, sparking a series of newspaper articles in The Herald. Stories from that early epoch aren’t clear whether there was much opposition to the plans at that time, or why it was never completed.
A site near the Granville narrows of the White River was selected in the 1930s for a proposed flood protection dam that would have dramatically changed the landscape of the valley. (Herald / Tim Calabro)
According to historian Howard Coffin, who later covered the dam project for the Rutland Herald, the U.S. Corps of Engineers expected local folks to be “very supportive” of the Gaysville dam.
Dam Plans Resurfacing
In 1968, the U.S. Corps of Engineers decided to revisit the proposal for the Gaysville dam, as well as dams that would have been located in Victory and Athens, Vermont, said Coffin.
“At that time I think the U.S. Corps of Engineers was surviving by building dams,” explained Coffin, “So there were all these plans for Vermont dams on the books, and [the Corps of Engineers] decided to try and build some of them.”
According to Herald articles from that time, the flood control dam would have created a lake covering 1,000 acres of the White River Valley and would have fluctuated in depth throughout the year, depending on water levels.
“The main concern was the village of Gaysville, and the community of Stockbridge, would basically have been wiped out,” said Taylor.
“The lake would have gone all the way to Talcville,” said Coffin, “and up the Tweed River a ways, towards Pittsfield. It was going to be a disaster— they’d have had to move all the roads, and many homes would have been flooded out.”
According to the Stockbridge town history book, “Stockbridge, Vermont Revisited,” if the dam had been completed, 53 farms would have been inundated.
Following the Plans
“Probably around 1967, I started writing a series of articles on flood control in Vermont,” recalled Coffin, “I think I wrote six or eight of them, describing the dams we already had and then the plans for new dams, and I began to discover that a lot of people were very worried about some of the dams that hadn’t been built.”
Three dam proposals in particular were causing significant alarm throughout the state, said Coffin, including the plans for the Gaysville dam.
Coffin recalled learning how much of the White River Valley the Gaysville dam would have flooded.
“So I started writing articles questioning whether [the dam] was a good idea,” said Coffin.
Newspaper articles, including Coffin’s, which were published in the Rutland Herald, some in The Burlington Free Press, and many the then White River Valley Herald, serve as the primary records of the Gaysville dam plans.
John Drysdale, publisher of The Herald, also wrote several editorials condemning the plans for the Gaysville dam.
Not long after Coffin began writing articles about the Gaysville dam, he met Rochester resident Joe Steventon.
Steventon worked to organize people in the White River Valley community to form a concentrated opposition to the plans, recalled Coffin, and was elected to serve as a state legislator, with opposition to the dam as his platform.
“Joe got people … writing letters to the Corps of Engineers, and letters to the editor, and I was writing articles left and right.”
Although it seems citizen opposition to the Gaysville dam was fairly widespread throughout the valley, Stockbridge’s Taylor recalled that some people in the area were in favor of the plans.
“There was some obvious longrange economic benefit to it,” said Taylor, noting that for people with property near the edge of what would have been the lake, new business opportunities would have been created.
By 1976, over $200,000 had been spent on design work for the dam, but no land had been purchased or taken and construction had not begun, according to the Stockbridge history book.
Eventually, said Coffin, more state legislators and Vermont’s U.S. Senators spoke out against the dam.
“It took us some years, but the United States Army Corps of Engineers eventually cancelled their plans to build that dam,” said Coffin. “It was a great moment in the history of the White River Valley.”
Taylor, though, said he didn’t recall a particular incident that caused the plans to be abandoned.
“If memory serves me, here at least, [the plans] just sort of faded away,” said Taylor.
Coffin attributes the abandonment of the plans to the citizen efforts led by Steventon.
“I played my part and I’m proud of it,” said Coffin, “But I think probably without Joe that dam would not have been stopped.”
-- ZOË NEWMARCO