MY SEVENTY YEARS AT GALWAY LAKE
Ruth Claflin Otto
(reproduced as originally published – June 1975)
My memories of Galway Lake go back to the time when it was known as the Amsterdam Reservoir, and there were no camps. An article in the Amsterdam Evening Recorder entitled “History of Amsterdam” by Edward O. Bartlett, published on November 6, 1943, states as follows:
“The Amsterdam Waterworks Co. was chartered March 17, 1865.” The article goes on to name the mill owners in Amsterdam and vicinity who were the incorporators and directors. The company was formed to improve the Chuctanunda Creek by increasing the amount of water through forming a reservoir, constructing dams and gates, etc. This water flow was needed to furnish water power to run the mills in west Galway, Hagaman, and Amsterdam. The first area flooded consisted of 459 acres, and in 1872 an additional 108 acres were flooded. This necessitated the building of an earthen wall on the east side known as Davis Gap, to prevent the water from flowing down toward Cranesville. The reservoir now extended to the dike across the lake from the point of land occupied by the caretaker to Ruback’s This dike was originally a road over which a stagecoach passed on its way to Galway Village.
Before the Water Works Co. started keeping the water level high to accommodate the many camps that had been built in areas where the shoreline is marshy, this dike was exposed by 15 or 20 feet each year when the water level receded. In the center of the dike is a stone abutment over which was originally a bridge. Fishing was very good in the vicinity of the dike, and especially around the old gate. Since the level of the water has been kept up, this dike has not been visible. The third section to be flooded was the south end of the lake and the channel leading to the gatehouse.
In the late 1940s, the gatehouse needed repairs, and the Otto Bros. were hired to block off the north end of the lake and make the necessary repairs. All sorts of materials were dropped into the gate to block off the waters in the north land, and that is the last time I remember seeing the dike exposed to any extent. I have a picture of the south end of the lake with its many stumps exposed when this part of the lake was drained. With this third flooding of land, there were now between 900 and 1,000 acres underwater.
My family had camped in tents in the section now known as the Harwoods, beginning in 1902. My father would take a load of tents, furniture, and camping gear by wagon, and travel from Schenectady, leaving on Friday evening and traveling all night in order to get camp ready for the family by the time we arrived the next day. Mother took the children by trolley from our home in the Bellevue section, downtown to meet the F. J. & G. trolley for the trip to Amsterdam. From there we transferred to the Hagaman trolley. We were met in Hagaman by young Hank Rostin with a two or three-seater drawn by two of the slowest horses I can remember. The trip from Hagaman to the boat livery took at least two hours. The roads were all deep sand, and the horses were in no hurry. When we arrived at “Dutch Hank’s”, we loaded our suitcases and ourselves into two boats and rowed across the lake to our campsite in the Harwoods. As you can imagine, the trip took most of the day, and we were very glad to get there. We always stayed three weeks during my father’s vacation from his work in the G.E.
There were three tents: a living tent where we had a table and chairs for eating and recreation; a cooking tent where there was an oil stove and table for preparing the meals; and a sleeping tent where Dad had built bunk beds for the whole family. I have a picture taken of this campsite showing my mother and father, my two half-sisters, my half-brother, and me. I can assure you that it is very precious to me, and I am glad that I have this picture to refresh my memory of that very peaceful spot.
There were three other families who camped in this way a short distance from us. One was the William Dickson family from Amsterdam. Mr. Dickson operated a furniture store there. They eventually built a camp on the west side of the “north end”. None of this family has been at the lake for many years. Another family was the Edson Reamers. Mr. Reamer was a blacksmith in Amsterdam. In 1907, he and M. McNeil together with William Morse built a small camp on the south shore of the west bay. They were “squatters” on the land that belonged to the Gilchrist brothers. This land was later sold to “Dutch” Hank”, and was situated on the property now occupied by us. Another family that my father introduced to the Harwoods campsite was the William Runges. Elizabeth Harold (nee Elizabeth Runge) is still occupying a camp in the west bay that was built by her father.
Even though I was quite small during this time, there are memories that will always be with me. I remember chasing Ruback’s cows up through the woods when they had helped themselves to our soap or taken clothes off Ruback’s or to another farm occupied by the Gibsons, to get milk. Mattie Gibson, now Mrs. Arthur Graff, was just a small girl at the time we camped there. Mattie is now living in Amsterdam. The Gibson farmhouse was at one time a Girl Scout camp and is now occupied by the W.R. David family. Mrs. Edward Ruback was Saide Rostin before her marriage. The Gibsons later operated a sawmill on Chuctanunda Creek near West Galway. The Ruback farmhouse is now owned by the Ralph MacLachlan family.
We had no drinking water available, so we rowed across the lake to “Dutch Hank’s” and brought back several pailfuls at a time. This was easier than carrying it down through the woods from one of the farmhouses.
In 1910 my family built a camp next door to the one built by Mr. Reamer and his fishing partners. This was the second camp built on the lake and was close to the caretaker. We had to leave our car in his shed and carry our luggage across a path through the pasture to our camp. As I recall, the barn we passed through to get to this path was very dark, and I would be quite frightened by the sound of the horses in their stalls. We eventually cut a road through from the back of our camp to the main road, since by 1914 we had our own Model T, and it was more convenient to be able to drive right in.
I have many happy memories of the early days of camping when there were a few more camps along our shore. On Saturday nights, we would all gather in the boathouse for a square dance. Young “Hank” would play his fiddle and call for the dances. Ella Rostin would act as hostess. Ella is now living in Amsterdam, and she probably has the earliest recollections of Galway Lake of anyone now living. There was another sister, Lizzie, who was married to Herman Heise. Lizzie is now living in a home for adults. The Heise family lived in the house now occupied by the Potkovic family, on Crooked Street.
We got our milk from the Rostins who kept three or four cows in the pasture next to our camp. I still remember sitting on the top step of the outside cellar door and watching Ella run the milk from the separator in my tin pail. The top would be covered with bubbles, and always fascinated me. Of course, the next thing would be to carry it home without spilling it. These tin pails are now classed as “antiques”, but then it was just part of our kitchen equipment.
One thing I remember about “Dutch Hank” is the fact that he had only one arm, but he could row a boat and fish with the best of them. He rented the only boats allowed on the lake since that was part of his pay for taking care of the gate which regulated the flow of water into Chuctanunda Creek. It was always a privilege to go over to “Hank’s” and row the boat around the knoll to camp. It used to get a little scary, though, when the water level got down in the fall. Then you had to row out and go through the gate in the dike. It wasn’t until much later that private boats were allowed on the lake, and then the fee started at $30.00, per season for each boat. Later on, when the Galway Lake Campers’ Assn. was formed, we were able to have our own boats by paying a fee annually for each boat to the Assn., who in turn paid a yearly fee to the Amsterdam Water Works Co. They then paid the caretaker to compensate for the loss of revenue from boat rentals.
After “Dutch Hank” passed away, his son-in-law became a caretaker. Mr. Rostin’s first wife had died and he had married a widow named Mrs. Maves. Her daughter was Mrs. John Rohling. They were caretakers for many years until John’s death and their son Henry Rohling took his father’s place. Henry carried on the recreation area started by the elder Rohlings. As many of the older “kids” along the shore can testify, Rohling’s was a very popular place to congregate. They were always made welcome, and the passing of “Rohling’s Beach” was a loss felt by grown-ups as well as the kids.
To go back to the beginning of the Campers’ Assn., the idea of an association was the brainchild of Maurice May. It seems that while Mr. May was choir director of the Bellevue Reformed Church, two of his choir members would disappear each spring and fall on weekends. He became curious and asked Ruth Claflin and Marvel LaPaugh where they went each weekend. They said, “We will show you,” and took him up to Galway Lake. He started by renting a camp and later built one in the west end. Later he purchased land on the south side which is known today as the Maywood Section. Mr. May thought that if the campers would organize, they could make some arrangement with the Water Works Co. whereby they could pay a yearly fee to the Water Works Co. which would compensate Mr. Rohling for the loss in boat rentals. In this way, campers could own their own boats and the Campers’ Assn. would collect the yearly fee. This arrangement was made, and in the beginning, we had a metal tag to be attached to each boat to show that the fee had been paid to the Campers’ Assn. By various changes, the present method of charging a yearly fee to cover the privilege of the campers launching as many boats as he wished, was evolved. The first president of the organization was Maurice May, the first treasurer was W. R. David, and the first secretary was Mrs. Gilbert Otto. The first directory was published in 1935, and I still have a copy in my possession. The first directory listed 393 names. The present one lists 570 camps.
There have been many changes other than the building of camps around the lake. One of the most important to the campers is the improvement of the roads in the vicinity of the lake. In the old days, all of the roads were sand or clay. If you were at camp and it started to rain, you headed for home immediately. Otherwise, you just might have to stay for a while. It was common for a car to be stuck in the mud and have to be pulled out by some farmer’s team of horses. Then, of course, there was the coming of electricity. Kerosene lamps were the order of the day, and we took pride in keeping them “trimmed and burning bright”, As a matter of fact, we still keep the old kerosene lamps handy in case the electric power is interrupted. Then there was the matter of keeping food from spoiling before the coming of electricity. In our vicinity, we used to go to the ice house kept by Mr. Rostin and later by John Rohling, to get cakes of ice for our iceboxes, that had been cut from the lake when the ice was thickest. Later on, Henry Rohling would deliver ice with his truck. It was a great day when we were finally able to have refrigerators. However, I am glad that I was privileged to learn how to live with kerosene lamps and iceboxes. We had a sense of self-reliance that was very satisfying.
We were also glad when we were able to have telephones. I recall that when Mr. Rohling died very unexpectedly, Mrs. Rohling had to walk out to Crooked St. through the deep snow to get to a telephone. Mrs. Rohling, who is now 90 years old, lives with her daughter, Mrs. Winfred Brown, in Amsterdam. She still spends her summers at her camp just up the shore from us.
There was one year when the Claflin family nearly missed getting to camp for their yearly vacation. In 1912, our family was expecting an addition, and my sister Hazel didn’t arrive until the 14th of August. Ten days later, we were at camp. I can assure you that it was quite a vacation that year.
In the spring of 1913, there was very high water caused by the melting of the snow and the flowing of the creeks into the lake. The major cause of the excess flow seemed to come from Lake Butterfield to the north of Galway Lake. The water flooded over the spillway and remember being shown the hole that was washed out. My father said it was about 60 feet deep. It was then that the concrete spillway was built to take care of any future flooding at the lake. To my knowledge, that is the only time that the high water was a threat to the lands along the Chuctanunda Creek and to the city of Amsterdam itself. The washing of the water has eroded the shoreline in many places including our own, but nothing of such a serious nature has occurred since.