Kinzua, Pennsylvania was a unique small town nestled in between the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Northwest Pennsylvania. It was known for being a great hunting and recreation area.
For years there had been talk of building a large dam to prevent flooding from the Conewango Creek and the Allegheny River. Every spring the flooding created much damage.
The creek also had huge ice jams that were miles long. These jams would create more flooding and were also dangerous. Local town members would go out walking on the ice. If the ice were to shift or start to move while they were out there they could be crushed or fall in the icy water and drown. Dynamite blasts were required to loosen the ice and get the water moving.
Research had been done since the early 1920’s for a dam. It had been talked about so much that in one of the grade schools the teacher asked what the students were going to do over summer break and the one eight-year-old boy said the family was going to go to the dam. This was in the 1940’s.
After so many years of talk of a dam the people in Kinzua considered it an Urban Legend and went on with life.
The dam becomes a reality
It was not until 1959 when final plans were made for the dam. My parents were building onto a house they owned in Kinzua. One day, with no advanced warning, a man showed up at the door. He handed my father papers to halt building onto the house and said the government would be in touch to start talks on buying the house and property.
Many people in the area fought leaving the town. There were families that had lived in Kinzua for five and six generations.
For my family it had been three generations. My relatives had businesses that would have to be shut down or moved. A few of my relatives actually had their houses moved three and four miles away onto Route 59 which lead from the town of Kinzua to Warren Pa.
My parents decided fighting the move would only be a headache and they were actually the first people to sell the house and property to the government. My grandparents moved soon after, from a house they had just built a block away.
My one Uncle was one who fought moving as long as possible. With rumors flying abut abandoned houses people from other areas thought all the houses were empty and would walk into houses to see what they could take. If you locked the doors they tried to break them in.
It was finally so bad at the end those who stayed had to leave one person at home at all times and keep a shotgun at the doors to keep people out of the house.
One other sad outcome of the dam was that the flooding would reach into the Cornplanter tract, otherwise known as the Seneca Indian Reservation. This treaty and tract of land was given to Chief Cornplanter in 1796 for his assistance in trying to find peace for the new Americans and the American Indian. The land comprising or 1500 acres was located in the lower part of New York state on the western shore of the Allegheny River. It was given to him and his heirs “forever.” This was the breaking of the longest Indian treaty
It took until 1965 for all the people to be relocated and the dam to be built. The reservation was moved to lower New York State and is known as the Allegheny Reservation.
Kinzua Dam today
Much history and natural beauty was lost when the dam was built. As with all events there have been positive results. There area is a beautiful recreational area with great fishing. The dam paid for its entire building costs in 1972 when Hurricane Agnes hit the United States east coast with such fury that flooding took a devastating toll in many states.
The water was so high from being held back to protect the lower towns along the Allegheny River in Warren, Pa all the way to Pittsburgh, Pa that there was fear that the dam could collapse if the rain did not let up.
I remember that day. My uncle called to say he had the family up at the dam watching. His reasoning was if the dam broke his house in Warren would be under water so he might as well see the event. Ther is a plaque on the dam that marks how high the water rose behind the dam wall during the storm. There is no doubt the dam saved numerous lives in those few days.
The Kinzua Dam is one of my favorite places. It’s beautiful and has such history. I never visit the place without remembering stories of my families past and remembering Cornplanter and his people.