Behind the Scene at Brooklyn Square

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The Warner Dam

Contributing Writer
Joan V. Cusimano Lindquist

When I was a girl growing up on Derby Street, just a stone’s throw south of Brooklyn Square, my playmate was Carol Galati, the only girl my age or close to it in a neighborhood full of boys that included her brother Sandy, the three Hennas brothers, Tony Raffa, and my brother John who was seven years older than I was. Because all of these young boys were about the same age and had more freedom than we girls to explore the environs of what we now call the Lost Neighborhood, my brother recalled in an article he wrote for my third book, REMEMBERING BROOKLYN SQUARE: THE 1930s TO THE 1960s, the discovery of Warner Dam on the Chadakoin River that literally ran through Brooklyn Square. In fact, my brother called attention to the fact that the Chadakoin, which I recall formed a boundary at the corner of Derby Street and Hanchett Place, ran eastward under Brooklyn Square and “exited to daylight” as he put it, somewhere north of Taylor Street. An alley that was off the western corridor of the Square near the railroad viaduct was called Shearman Alley that led to an area west, in other words, just behind Brooklyn Square.

My brother’s memory was a little fuzzy regarding how the Derby Street Gang of Four—John, Sandy Galati, and George and Andy Hennas—found the alley that ended at the Warner Dam just below the municipal power plant. Nevertheless, the dam formed what appeared to be a small lake or large pond along Steele Street to the south and the elevated Erie Railroad tracks to the north. And that’s when these adventurous young boys discovered and were introduced to FISHING!

As my brother recalled, ten cents would get you a hand-line fishing kit at Noah’s Ark that consisted of a small open wooden frame wound with green linen twine, a red and white bobber, a fishing hook, and a split lead sinker. That and an abundant supply of worms found under rocks in the Maddox lot on Derby Street were all they needed to become summer fishermen at the dam!

They usually fished a small eddy of water where a small concrete wall that jutted out from the shore allowed them to stand or sit as they caught sunfish and occasionally watched turtles swimming along in the quiet waters. Their “philosophy” was CATCH AND REEASE because bringing any fish home would spill the beans that they were playing in a dangerous spot and probably none of them could swim! As my brother intoned: “Mothers never knew about the Warner Dam.”

In the late afternoons, when the factories let out, “real” fishermen would show up with rods and reels to fish for carp. My brother recalled that sometimes the boys would go to the dam after supper before it got dark and find a man fishing for what he called “bullheads” below the spillway. The fish was of the “ugly” catfish family, that is, skin without scales, sharp spines, and whiskers like a cat; they were usually dark gray and black and were known as “bottom feeders.” Being a seasoned fisherman, the man used bait that he called “dough balls” by plucking out a center piece from fresh store-bought bread and rolling it between his fingers to make a ball smaller than a marble that he placed on his fish hook. According to my brother, the bullheads loved it!

From his research, my brother stated that the Warner Dam where the boys fished in the 1940s was erected some time between 1916 and 1919. As of the writing of his 2015 article, which bears the name of this column, “Behind the Scene at Brooklyn Square,” there has been a dam at this site for over two hundred years when in 1812 James Prendergast, founder of Jamestown, NY, built a dam to provide water power for his sawmill. This inauspicious beginning, the natural resources provided by hardwood forests, and Prendergast’s vision undoubtedly gave rise to the furniture industry in the city, at one time, second only to Grand Rapids, as a furniture capital.

In its history, Prendergast sold the sawmill to Henry Baker in 1836 and Baker replaced the dam in 1856. In 1878 the dam “washed out” and Lucius B. Warner replaced that dam and the name has stuck ever since. The dam that the Derby Street boys fished from was replaced by the present dam in 1979. The primary purpose for the Warner Dam was flood control for Chautauqua Lake via the Chadakoin River. Now the dam is part of the many recreational and municipal activities of the Riverwalk Park, which was built on the footprints of old Brooklyn Square after the 1970 urban renewal project.

As my brother stated at the end of his article, his intent was to let “people know that there was something interesting going on behind Brooklyn Square that many of the townspeople may not have known about. When I reflect on my new-found history of the dam site, it becomes readily apparent that if it were not for Prendergast’s need for a dam for his sawmill, there would not be a Jamestown or a Brooklyn Square. So, for all intents and purposes, Jamestown started right behind Brooklyn Square.” Amen.