We tend to regard the past with nostalgia. We believe life and the environment were better "back then." But were they?
Maybe as many as 2,500 years ago, people wandered the shores of Chautauqua Lake.
Then, and for hundreds of years after, the Native Americans used the land and the lake mostly as hunting and fishing grounds. Perhaps in later years they cleared a little land for crops, but their impact on the environment was light. Europeans discovered Chautauqua Lake in the early 1700s and used it as a passageway to the interior. Although at the time these early explorers had a minimum impact on the environment, their discovery preceded a tremendous impact.
Chautauqua Lake’s environmental problems began long ago, but organizations like the CWC are working hard to prevent further problems and help preserve the quality of the lake for future use.
Photo by Jill R. Eklund
In the Big Tree Treaty of 1897, the Seneca ceded their land west of the Genesee River, which included Chautauqua Lake, to the United States Government. This action provided clear title to the land for Robert Morris and allowed him to complete a previously contracted land deal with the Holland Land Company.
By then, pioneers were bravely moving westward looking to homestead. The Holland Land Company seized the opportunity to provide these settlers with land. Thus the settlement of the Chautauqua region began. It is possible that the Seneca did not understand the repercussions of giving up their land. Native Americans did not believe anyone, man or beast, could own land. They believed all beings simply coexisted on earth. For many years some of the Seneca did coexist with the settlers until the vast tracts of forests that provided them with game and pure waters for fishing began to diminish.
In 1811, James Prendergast established his sawmill on the outlet of Chautauqua Lake. Within 100 years, the shores of Chautauqua Lake were virtually deforested, and the water was anything but pure. Trees fell to the axe by the thousands to make way for homesteads as fuel for homes and industry and to support the lumber, potash and tanning industries. Chautauqua was an ideal location. The lake and its river system provided transportation for people and materials. Logs could be floated to sawmills, and goods such as potash and tanned goods could be transported for sale in Pittsburgh. The lake was the catalyst. There was water for power, transportation and processing. Industry around the lake grew, and industry attracted people.
On Aug. 25, 1860, the first train arrived in Jamestown accompanied by much fanfare. Now the lake region was accessible to vast numbers of people. Cholera was sweeping the country. Cities were plagued with bad water and bad air. "Come to Chautauqua Lake, where the water is pure and the air is clean," advertised the railroad companies. And they did come. Grand hotels sprang up all around the lake. Steamboats wheezed and huffed up and down its shoreline, depositing tourists on the docks of those grand places.
Eventually rail lines ringed the lake to also take tourists to their destinations. Here's the question: Industry and people generate waste; where was this waste going? You guessed it - in the lake.
Here is a quote from a local newspaper clipping dated "4/91," which is assumed to be April 1891: "It is estimated that 5000 barrels of sewage are emptied into the lake at the height of the season from various resorts on the lake. This ought to be stopped and must be some day."
Very little was done about it. Chautauqua Institution built a wastewater treatment facility in 1891, and Jamestown had a "sanitary" method of waste disposal in 1920 as Mayor Samuel Carlson described it. "Each household is required to wrap his garbage in paper bundles, thereby minimizing the task of collection and rendering suitable for the consumption of 500 hogs (residing at a nearby hog farm), making it an inexpensive substitute for a disposal plant." That doesn't amount to much waste control. The big population boom began right after the Civil War. A lot of waste was dumped in the lake before any attempt was made to do something about it. In fact, it wasn't until World War I that wastewater treatment was finally acknowledged as something that should be done. We can only imagine what the environment of Chautauqua Lake was like before that.
We all know Chautauqua Lake has environmental problems. Now you see that these problems began more than 200 years ago and escalated as the population increased. We cannot undo the past. Fortunately, we have become wiser over the years so that we may be able to preserve the quality of our lake for the future.
Most foresters today practice sustainable forest management, and there are laws and regulations to ensure that waste is not indiscriminately dumped in the lake. Meanwhile, organizations like the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy are working hard to conserve what undeveloped shoreline is left and to educate the people of this area about what they can do to prevent this biological gem of ours from becoming the nasty cesspool of mud and pollution it probably once was.
The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local nonprofit organization that is dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty, and ecological health of the lakes, streams, and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, visit chautauquawatershed.org or call 664-2166.