What could be more exciting than spending time doing research on an event you were there to experience first-hand? Think of it. You were not only there to watch the activities and hear the talk about it, but years later you also get to interview people you know to hear their perspective on the event. Such a happy circumstance befell Mary Jane Watson of South Colton when she became involved in a history project related to the Raquette River Blueway Trail and the building of the hydroelectric dams in the Town of Colton in the 1950s.
While Watson would be the first to tell anyone that this story isn’t about her and her interests in history, she will also be the first to talk about the project with a glint of excitement in her eyes. And this isn’t just a singular historical effort on her part. It involves other towns, other agencies, other grants, and television media.
According to Watson, “The local match for a Town of Colton Local Waterfront Revitalization Grant from the NYS Department of State for the Raquette River Blueway Corridor involved researching the history of the 174 mile long Raquette River, including its 24 dams and 20 hydro stations.”
While she was preparing research for that grant, Watson explained that WPBS-TV became interested in the Raquette River and produced the award-winning documentary “The Raquette River Experience.” About two years later they produced “The Raquette River Winter Experience.” She worked closely with WPBS’ staff in selecting sites and arranging interviews with key people along the river for both documentaries.
Just after she retired from Pinto, Mucenski & Watson, CPAs, she went back to college and received her second Masters—this time in history which even involved commutes to McGill University in Canada for two semesters after picking up undergraduate history courses at SUNY Potsdam.
Meanwhile the Village of Potsdam, in partnership with the Town of Colton and other Raquette River towns and villages, successfully filed for a grant, Watson explained “one component of that grant included funding for an oral history project on Raquette River Dam Builders, capturing stories, photos and other materials about the development and construction of hydroelectric generating facilities on the Raquette River.”
Watson, who is a member of the steering committee of the ongoing Sunday Rock Legacy Project – a unique collaboration among representatives from Colton-Pierrepont Central School, Colton Historical Society and Grasse River Players – was trained by Jill Breit, Executive Director of Traditional Arts of Upstate New York, on doing oral histories. She commenced work in 2013 on the World War II oral histories used for the 1940s Radio Hour Show Program & Historical Guide. Watson’s history work continued in 2014 with oral histories about early schoolhouses in what is now the Colton-Pierrepont Central School District. Excerpts from that work were shared in the Show Program & Historical Guide for ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” presented last summer.
When WPBS-TV indicated their interest in doing further documentaries on the Raquette including hydro projects on the most dammed river east of the Mississippi—at least according to local lore – The Sunday Rock Legacy project took that as its focus for 2015. TAUNY is a grant subcontractor of this history project assisting with the oral histories and associated documentation.
Watson began the oral histories for the Raquette River project in 2014, completing 9 or 10 last fall. “These have all been shared with TAUNY as well as historical photos that I collected from local museums, archives, residents, and elsewhere from along the Raquette.” Watson has been busy this year transcribing oral histories about the 1950s hydroelectric dam project as well as the Higley dam project in Colton in the earlier 1900s.
Watson was a youngster when the 1950s project began in South Colton. “I don’t think there have been any real surprises from me since I remember the 1950s project happening. For Sunday afternoon entertainment, my father, who worked on clearing Carry and grew up in Stark, used to take us for a drive up through the entire construction site to see what was happening. When we had relatives visiting from Long Island, they got a tour of the project, too. I can remember watching the tractor trailer loads of penstock pieces going through South Colton and a man standing up on top to lift the power lines crossing the road higher if the steel pieces were going to hit the wires. For a change, every once in a while, we’d go to Massena and see what was going on with the St. Lawrence Seaway Project.”
Among the local project people Watson has interviewed are William Mousaw who was a foreman on the powerhouses and has been very instrumental in this project and Ed Fuhr who lost his Hollywood home and playground to the flooding that accompanied the building of the dams.
For the overall “Rhythms of the Raquette” project in 2015 a draft poster of the hydro dams is now on display in the Colton Museum; and will be finished after the oral histories and other research is completed. Excerpts from the oral histories and other research will be included in the2015 Show Program & Historical Guide supporting the upcoming stage production of “I Love a Piano” being presented at Colton-Pierrepont Central School on July 16, 17 and 19 before and after traditional Colton Country Day festivities on July 18. The musical performance being directed by Kimberly Busch for Grasse River Players centers on the music of Irving Berlin in the 1950s. The hydroelectric dam research along with historical research on the 100th anniversary of the incorporation of the Colton Fire Department also has been excerpted for the Sock Rock Cabaret being presented by the Grasse River Players.
2015 Sunday Rock Legacy Project activities are sponsored in part by a grant from the St. Lawrence County Arts Council with funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. The project team also wishes to thank the following Major Sponsors for their support in 2015: Brookfield Renewable Energy, Buck Funeral Home, Canton Potsdam Hospital, and Catamount Lodge and Forest LLC.