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Kinzua Dam: A triumph and tragedy on the Allegheny River

The Kinzua Dam, on the Allegheny River in Warren County, is one of the largest dams in the United States east of the Mississippi River and is within the Allegheny National Forest.Wikimedia photo

The Kinzua Dam, on the Allegheny River in Warren County, promised economic might and stability to Pittsburgh, but its construction meant tremendous loss to the Seneca Nation of Indians.

The decision to build the dam wasn’t made when the nation was expanding westward in the 19th century, when the removal and destruction of Native peoples was commonplace and considered necessary by many settlers. It occurred in 1960, on the eve of the Civil Rights Movement, when many Americans were belatedly recognizing the incompleteness of the American Promise.

The Kinzua Dam flooded over 10,000 acres of the Allegheny Reservation of the Seneca Nation of Indians in western New York and most of the historic Cornplanter Tract in northern Pennsylvania.

The dam project destroyed several Seneca communities, caused the abandonment of others, and required the displacement of between 600 and 700 people. (Perhaps ironically, “Kinzua” means ‘fish on a spear’ in Seneca, according to Americanheritage.com.)

For Pittsburgh, however, the dam brought an end to the devastating floods that had plagued the city since its founding and protected the city’s industrial interests. It also included a valuable hydroelectric plant, and created the Allegheny Reservoir that provides extensive recreational opportunities for those visiting the Allegheny National Forest.

But the land that was flooded belonged not to the United States but to the Seneca Nation of Indians. The nation received the land after American leaders embraced diplomacy, instead of the violence that had marred dealings with Native Americans who resisted the United States’ expansion into their homeland.

Historical battles that led to diplomacy included a series of battles in 1790, collectively known as Harmar’s Defeat, that cost the United States nearly 400 casualties and failed to convince native peoples to stop resisting American settlement along the Ohio River Valley.

The following year, Native Americans delivered an even more devastating blow when an army led by Gen. Arthur St. Clair suffered just under a thousand casualties.

President George Washington and Secretary of War Henry Knox understood the weakness of the United States in these early years and changed tactics.

Chief Cornplanter, portrait by Frederick Bartoli, 1796. Pennsylvania Historic Preservation photo

To avoid additional conflict with the Seneca, Washington signed the Treaty of Canandaigua in 1794 with Seneca leaders Cornplanter, Red Jacket and Handsome Lake. The treaty, considered one of the nation’s first diplomatic agreements with a sovereign people, promised the Allegheny Reservation in western New York to the Seneca in exchange for peace.

Two years later, Cornplanter additionally was given 1,500 acres in Warren County, Pennsylvania, in what was called the Cornplanter Tract. For nearly 170 years, the Seneca lived on this land, building communities and raising families.

The valley that became the Allegheny Reservoir was the best agricultural land on the reservation, and it provided a comfortable life for its people. Many continued traditional lifestyles, safe in the knowledge that their homes and way of life were protected by the Treaty of Canandaigua.

By 1960, the treaty was one of the United States’ longest standing diplomatic agreements with a sovereign nation, and respecting its terms was a symbol of the nation’s honor.

Despite being legally considered a sovereign nation, the Seneca supported the United States throughout this period, with its members serving with distinction in the American Civil War and both World Wars.

Perhaps most famously, Ely Samuel Parker, of the Tonawanda Seneca located to the north of the Seneca Nation of Indians, served with distinction as a lieutenant colonel and as adjutant and secretary to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in the American Civil War.

Another of these veterans was George Heron, the unassuming president of the Seneca Nation of Indians when the United States began construction of the Kinzua Dam.

Heron had served four years in the Navy during World War II, participating in campaigns in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and the Pacific.

But with the onset of the Kinzua project, he now was forced to confront the country he had once risked his life for. He did so using the tools democracy offered for protection and conflict resolution.

He and the Seneca filed suit over the dam project but were denied protection by the courts. They solicited a campaigning John F. Kennedy who, despite assurances of assistance, failed to help once he became president, citing the immediate need for flood control.

A view of the effects of the Pittsburgh flood of March 18, 1936. The image looks west from 321 Boulevard of the Allies to Wood Street. It shows the water level, the Gildisch Company and the Keystone Hotel. Flooding peaked at 46 inches, 21 inches above flood stage. Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, 1901-2000, University of PIttsburgh

But Kennedy had opportunity to fulfill his pledge to the Seneca by pushing for an alternative to the dam. A potentially superior idea did exist.

Dr. Arthur Ernest Morgan, accomplished engineer, dam expert, and first chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, had developed the Morgan Plan. It laid out a series of smaller dams that rerouted water through the Conewango Valley to Lake Erie. Critically, this proposal saved the Allegheny Reservation and actually cost less than the Kinzua plan.

The federal government studied the Morgan Plan but concluded it was untenable. (Some believed that the study was not done in good faith and that the decision to proceed had already been made.)

All of the Seneca appeals were denied. The result was sacrificing 700 people’s home and livelihoods for the improvement of Pittsburgh.

A citizen confronts a worker at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Kinzua Dam construction site in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Layers of sedimentary rock beneath the tree line suggest the extent of the environmental impact of the project. Photo courtesy of Warren County Historical Society

The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers began construction in 1960 and completed work in 1965.

The dam is 1,877 feet long, 179 feet high and produces a 7,647-acre reservoir. Critically, it controls a watershed twice the size of Rhode Island and protects that territory from significant flooding.

At a cost of $120 million, the hydroelectric power and flood protection provided by the dam has paid for its construction many times over.

A stable Allegheny River allowed Pittsburgh to continue its industrial progress in the 20th century and its postindustrial renaissance in the 21st century.

In fact, Pittsburgh served as a model to the world in 2008, when then-President Barack Obama selected Pittsburgh to host the third meeting of the G20 summit. A city the size of Pittsburgh is rarely selected for such a significant international event but its cleanliness and vitality, partly achieved by its flood protection, modeled to the world what is possible after factories and mills go silent.

With a train and two pickup trucks in the foreground, the Kinzua Dam can be seen in the early stages of construction. The dam would span 1,877 feet or more than one-third of a mile across the Allegheny River, creating Pennsylvania’s second-deepest lake. Photo courtesy of Warren County Historical Society

For some, then, the story of the Kinzua Dam is an American triumph.

For the Seneca, the Kinzua Dam represents a tragedy, with their lives were irrevocably changed for the worse.

Relocated to newly constructed towns -- often with armed National Guards standing by to make sure they departed -- the Seneca were removed from their land and traditional way of life.

Their communities could not be simply transplanted elsewhere. Nor could their trust in the federal government be restored.

The terms of the Treaty of Canandaigua had been broken and the United States of America had trampled a sovereign nation.

The emotional pain of the treaty’s failed promise continues to be felt.

In November 2019, Mercyhurst University in Erie established a collaborative relationship with members of the Seneca Nation of Indians just across the New York border.

In conjunction, a colleague and I launched an annual educational event during Native American Heritage Month for students and the public. For the inaugural event, we screened a documentary, “Lake of Betrayal: The Story of Kinzua Dam,” and invited members of the Seneca community who had been affected by the construction of the Kinzua Dam.

As the 57-minute movie played, several Seneca men watched in silence, apparently feeling the searing pain of wounds that had yet to heal in 60 years.

At one point, a man interrupted the screening to point out a house being burned to the ground by the Army Corps of Engineers.

“That was my childhood home,” he said.

Benjamin G. Scharff, Ph.D, is an associate professor at Mercyhurst University and chair of the Thomas B. Hagen Department of History.

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