Sunday, July 16, 2017

Origins of The Pymatuning Resevoir

Gate House at the Pymatuning Reservior - 1930's
While in recent times the imposition of man’s power over nature has come under much needed scrutiny, there are situations where the total destruction of one area can lead to much better life for the residents of many others. An example of this is the creation of the Pymatuning Reservoir, which was necessary both for the economic development of the region and to prevent future seasonal floods and droughts.

The Swamp

For centuries Pymatuning was a swamp at the mouth of the Shenango River, and annual flooding was kept in check through its spongy soil. While plans were made in 1868 by the PA General Assembly to drain the swamp and convert it into farmland, the water provided by the swamp to the various industries downstream was more valuable than another few farms.

Sadly, the swamp’s capacity for water management was greatly lowered as pioneer and later landowners logged the area in and around the swamp. Without trees, soil was washing into the various channels and streams, clogging them and disrupting regular water flow into the Shenango River. The abnormal water flow increased the severity of both spring floods and summer droughts.

The creation of a reservoir would solve both these issues. The construction of one was also greatly desired by local manufacturers, who lobbied for its construction. Regardless of intent, it was not until 1911 that the serious discussion of a dam on the Shenango began. Little was accomplished during these early talks, but the necessity of this project was revealed when a flood devastated the area in 1913.

The Disaster

The flood of 1913 began in late March, around the time when ice no longer clogged the Shenango River, but the ground was still too saturated to absorb much rainfall. The rain began on the 23rd and stretched for four days. In some areas the floodwaters reached heights of nearly 17 feet, and in all devastated the infrastructure. Over 60,000 buildings were flooded, 415 lives lost, and 419 bridges were destroyed throughout eastern Ohio and northwestern Pennsylvania.

The cost in both destruction caused and lost wages totaled $3,328,000, which is about $82,000,000 in today’s dollars. The state report on the flood also indicated that the deaths listed were only deaths from drowning, with deaths from unsanitary and dangerous conditions left after the flood unknown. The cost of building a dam was still very high at $2,983,000, but this is still less than the damages that this one flood had caused.

The Bureaucracy

Unfortunately, the slow nature of bureaucracy, the slashing of the reservoir project’s budget, the difficulty of public works projects that span state lines, combined with the US joining World War I, made it so that proponents of the dam,both private and public, spent 18 years acquiring sufficient funding, achieving that goal in 1931.

The dam and reservoir was completed only three years later, in August of 1934. Its construction was perfectly timed, as a steady water supply assisted businesses throughout Crawford County, which lessened some of the impacts of the Great Depression.

While the reservoir was not the result of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, the park was. The Civilian Conservation Corp built buildings, paved roads, and turned the land around the reservoir into one of the largest state parks around the largest lake in Pennsylvania. The reservoir prevented future floods and future droughts, accomplishing its original purpose.


PA Department of Forests and Waters Water and Power Resources Board. 1926.
Pymatuning Reservoir Project. Harrisburg.

The Manufacturer’s Association of Beaver County PA. Pymatuning, A Conservation
Necessity. Pittsburgh: Republic Bank Note Company, 1911.

Zavinski, John. “1913: The flood of the century; 100 years ago this week, the rains
came and the waters rose.” The Herald, March 24, 2013.

About the Author

Kyle Dilts is a rising senior at Allegheny College. He is majoring in history and environmental science, and is also a member of the Phi Alpha Theta History Honor Society. Kyle is a lifelong resident of Pittsburgh, and has always been fascinated by the history of western Pennsylvania. He is currently an intern at the Crawford County Historical Society where he helps manage the organization’s social media. He hopes that this experience will further his education on the history of western Pennsylvania, and that he will prove to be an asset to the Historical Society.

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