GREAT BARRINGTON — Marstonia lustricasnails. Cyanobacterial algae. Eurasian milfoil. Menaces to public safety. Conflicting remedies. Lake Mahkeenac has had its issues this year. But then, Stockbridge Bowl, as it is mostly called, has long experienced discomfort.
It started with native Mohicans, who were first to dam the water. "The south end of this lake, which is a mile long in the town of Stockbridge," according to a New York Times report in 1926, "is believed to be over a coal mine. According to a legend that has been handed down for two centuries, the Indians discovered coal and worked the mine. When they were driven out of the country, before 1800, they built a dam on what is now the Forbes estate, raised the lake and flooded the mine so that the white men could not work it."
White folks took over tampering with the lake.
"The earliest record regarding the water rights on the lake is dated 1760 and on record are 216 transactions relating to those rights, all of which have been confirmed by the land court," the Springfield Republican said in a 1931 story, adding, "The first dam was built in 1823. It was known as the Newton dam and was used for a sawmill, a gristmill and a tannery. In 1833 a larger reservoir dam was built above the Newton structure. This was three feet, one and three-fourths inches high. Its flowage rights and height were certified in 1833."
The reservoir dam was rebuilt in 1840 and raised a foot and a half. Curtisville Cotton Manufacturing acquired flowage rights. "This concern owned what is known as the Pagenstecher mill and lower pulp mill," the Republican said. "In 1868 the Barker family bought equal rights in the reservoir dam and in the Pagenstecher property. They also acquired the right to raise the so-called Newton dam to the height of the reservoir structure, thus merging the two water privileges of the lake... All those industries have vanished and Interlaken formerly called Curtisville is dependent entirely upon agriculture and its summer resort business."
The Bowl's industrial purpose gradually ceded to residential/recreational. West shore cottager Dan R. Hanna sued dam owner Ralph E. Forbes of Milton. He wanted more water in the Bowl.
Some time after the litigation had been settled between Hanna and Forbes, Hanna [in 1915] placed flashboards on his dam and raised the lake to an abnormal height. The result was a damage suit filed in superior court by Cortlandt Field Bishop of Lenox for property that had been flooded. Bishop won and soon afterwards the structure was blown up, causing the lake to go down to the lowest level in more than 100 years. Hanna wanted the high level maintained so that a big powerboat he had placed on the lake could reach his dock on the west shore."
"The fiery Bishop won the case," Richard V. Happel wrote in this newspaper in December 1965, "and Hanna in a fit of pique blew up the whole dam and the whole Bowl became more like a teacup. Unsightly, slump-littered shorelines were uncovered."
Time passed. Lake cottagers became impatient. Mary Aspinwall Tappan and her sister, Mrs. Richard C. Dixey, who owned the Nathaniel Hawthorne cottage, were vocal supporters of Charles A. Acly's plan in 1930 to again raise the water level. Charles S. Rackemann, Boston attorney and a former Stockbridge resident, represented them at a Boston hearing before the Inland Waterways Commission. Congressman Allen T. Treadway of Stockbridge and County Commissioner Robert S. Tillotson of Lenox attested the lake was at least 3 feet lower than it had been three decades before. William H. Clarke purchased the Forbes waterpower rights. He formed Stockbridge Water Co. and tried without success to revive manufacturing downstream of the outlet.
Meanwhile, Molly Covington Hanna gave the town a recreational park near Treadway's cottage. The receding water on the beach aroused a public urge to purchase the water rights.
Stockbridge historian Rick Wilcox found in town records: "Special town meeting, August 27, 1928, article 3, voted that the town appropriate the sum of $7,500 to acquire the tract of land with water rights appurtenant thereto at the outlet of Lake Mahkeenac, commonly known as the Forbes property, for a playground or recreational center...."
Further, he told me, "When the town was digging under the gas pipe line in that area they dug up and old wooden dam, c1750 and also found another rock dam. No sign of a coal mine."
The Berkshire County Commission praised the townspeoples' forward thinking, exhibiting "a high type of civic action when they voted funds to buy the water rights at Lake Mahkeenac and to build a dam there, so that the waters of this beautiful lake could remain at a fixed level."
At that time the Bowl covered some 377 acres and had a maximum depth of 80 feet. The dam's spillway today is of concrete and stone. The 340-foot dam's maximum height is 19 feet.
And now other controversies seek resolution.
Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.