I have an idea. When it comes to the current controversy surrounding Cooper Lake, the Kingston Water Department and the Niagara Bottling Company, let’s all just blame William Cooper and be done with it.
On second thought, I take that back. After all, it has been 120 years since Mr. Cooper first shook hands on an agreement that would lease the water rights for his property to the water-deprived folks in Kingston. In addition, it is doubtful that, in 1894, Cooper actually envisioned people, someday, wanting to buy water in plastic bottles. And, while Cooper controlled most of the property that then bordered the lake that bears his family name, he would not be alone in the coming years when it came to granting riparian rights to Kingston. For, contrary to the belief of some, the whole, early, “muddy” history of how we got to where we are today never really involved “agreements” between the Town of Woodstock and the City of Kingston. Rather, the use of Woodstock water by Kingston evolved through a rather haphazard process of property agreements, condemnations, lawsuits, problems with privies, pipes being laid here and there and a series of access restrictions that, over the years, has left a number of Woodstockers scratching their heads.
Let’s go back a bit. Following the creation of the Kingston Water Department in 1895 and its assumption of control over the city’s water system, Kingston began to seek a back-up system for its Zena based water supply. Eventually settling on Cooper Lake, along with tapping into the Mink Hollow stream through a mile long, twelve inch pipe, the City of Kingston began to exert increasing, unilateral control over Woodstock’s waterways — sometimes with the agreement of property owners, sometimes not. As historian Alf Evers described in his history of Woodstock, “There had been no public discussion or consultation with Woodstock people as a whole. That helped explain why a good many people resented the taking over of rights in their water by their bigger and stronger neighbor.” That resentment was further enhanced early on as townspeople watched the small lake drained and cleaned and, as reported by the Kingston Argus, “the shores were literally covered by dead fish.”
At the time, it should be noted, Cooper Lake existed on a much smaller scale than what we see today. Originally carved out through glacial activity, the City of Kingston would expand the lake’s size over the years while also increasing the height of the dam designed to hold the lake’s waters back — a fact that also heightened the concerns of those Woodstockers whose homes sat perched below.
To be clear, however, not all of Woodstock was in open revolt over the city’s control of its waterways. Some Woodstockers would come to actually appreciate the expanded waters at Cooper Lake and the protection from commercial development that the city’s strict oversight provided. Early on, for example, Kingston permitted recreational use of the lake, including fishing, boating and picnicking. And, as Evers also reminded us, “the beauty of Cooper Lake was one of the features of the Woodstock landscape which in the spring of 1902 would draw approval of a man named Bolton Brown, hunting for a site for an art colony.” In short, had things frozen in place right there, as Woodstock entered the twentieth century, perhaps the initial concerns of Woodstockers might have dissipated over time. Then again, this was Woodstock and, as other powerful outsiders attempting to control Woodstock resources had found over the years — going back as far as the Down Rent War — nothing is ever quite that simple, nor that easy in the town.
In 1901, litigation was first initiated against Kingston by Elting Simpkins for “damages resulting from construction of the dam at the outlet of Cooper’s Lake.” Simpkins, who owned a sawmill along the waterway, claimed that prior to the work on the dam water flow had been sufficient enough to permit his mill to operate. Following construction, however, as Simpkins offered in court, the flow of water was reduced enough to render his mill inoperable. Simpkins sued for $3000. Despite a wait of four years — and legal opposition from Kingston — the court eventually sided with Simpkins. According to a report in the Kingston Freeman at the time, the judge held “that the storage of water in the manner in which the city stored it is unusual and irresponsible. The city undertook to impound the waters of Cooper Lake without first purchasing the rights of Mr. Simpkins or taking condemnation procedures to acquire his rights or to pay him damages.”
Two years after Simpkins first filed his lawsuit, neighbors along the Mink Hollow stream also found their way to the courthouse. There, representatives of the property owners claimed that the tapping of Mink Hollow waters for diversion to Cooper Lake entitled them to damages because, during the summer months, “when they need water the most of all and the stream is at its lowest, the water is all taken away from them.” Boarding houses along the stream also got into the act claiming, “the diversion of water has ruined trout fishing and therefore injured their businesses by making their houses less attractive to boarders.”