McKownville Improvement Association
McKownville water supply and Water District

The Pitkin-Witbeck Realty Co system
      in Mckownville 1927 USGS map1927 USGS map showing the three dammed ponds along the Krum Kill west branch in McKownville;
(west to east: Harrington's ice pond, the McKownville Reservoir, McKown Grove pond)

The McKownville water supply was begun by William H Witbeck, and developed by the Pitkin-Witbeck partnership, using the ponds on the Krum Kill adjacent to the north side of Western Avenue, originally dammed  and piped by William McKown in the early 1800's. The Pitkin-Witbeck partnership laid out the Country Club Highlands development in 1912, and installed water supply and combined storm drain/sewer systems to service all the streets in that development. However, this water supply was mainly by 2½ inch pipes at low pressure, minimal treatment provided water of dubious quality and, as there were no hydrants, the system gave no significant fire protection. The minutes of the McKownville Improvement Association from its beginning in 1924, and continuing in the 1930's and 1940's show that there were numerous discussions and reports of attempts to remedy and improve the supply. One significant improvement, made by about 1930, was the installation of a 6" main along the south side of Western Avenue to Brookwood Ave, with six fire hydrants along its length.

The 1948 Decision document of the NY State Water and Power Control Commission gives a good summary of the situation at that time:
"Two privately owned water supply systems are now serving water in parts of the district. On of these, known as the Witbeck system, has as its source of supply two small adjacent shallow storage reservoirs located on a tributary of the Krum Kill within the westerly part of the district and in close proximity to Route No. 20. Approximately ¼ of a mile above the upper of the two storage reservoirs, another small and shallow pond, known as Harrington’s ice pond, is located on this same tributary. The watershed of the storage reservoirs consists of some 1.1 square miles of fine sandy soil largely over-grown with scrub oak and pine. This watershed at present is sparsely settled, although several houses are located along Western Avenue and a somewhat larger number along a dirt road crossing the westerly portion of the watershed. Most of these houses have outside toilet facilities. The supply from this system is pumped from the lower of the two storage reservoirs into a 12,000 gallon concrete tank from which it is delivered to the consumers through a distribution system consisting principally of 2½-inch pipe. The use of this source of supply never has been approved by this Commission or any of its predecessors."....."Neither of these systems have ever been entirely satisfactory because of insufficient pressure, obsolete mains, poor control over the quality of the water and complete lack of fire protection. The only treatment now afforded the Witbeck source of supply is chlorination and a source of this character requires at least filtration and sterilization."
William J Embler, who moved here in 1942, in his reminiscences of McKownville wrote: "The only treatment was by dragging a bag of copper sulphate through the pond behind a small boat. This was done by Frank Miller who operated the gas station [owned by the Witbecks] at the end of Fuller Road." However, minutes of a McKownville Improvement Association meeting in November 1931 are clear that at least by then the water was being chlorinated. The copper sulphate treatment would have been to control the growth of algae in the reservoir; Altamont used the same method in their reservoir.
A letter in 1983 to the Altamont Enterprise from Mr. Newton Ronan containing reminiscences of growing up in McKownville in the 1920-30 period (his family lived on Knowles Terrace) says this: "I wonder if [he] can remember how horrible that water was. My mother used to tie cloth flour sacks over the faucets in an attempt to filter it. The sacks would soon be muddy yellow and so would the clothes she washed."
Map from 1945 showing the Pitkin-Witbeck water system (and the separate Farley system), including a plan (not the one implemented) for upgrade [5.9MB pdf]. Descriptions of the two systems are given in the engineers report which this map accompanied.

The McKownville Water District system
Starting in September 1944 the McKownville Improvement Association appointed a committee to investigate and report on the possibilities for improvement of McKownville's sewer and water system and the cost of such improvements. A summary report was released to residents in June 1946, based in part on the engineering study and map done in 1945. A taxpayers petition to the Town was passed, to form the McKownville Water District and take over the Witbeck system and make significant improvements to it. The Town Board tentatively approved this plan in April 1947, and gave its final approval in August 1947 after receiving assent to establish the Water District from the State Comptroller. An application by the Town filed in May 1948 with the State Water Power and Control Commission received approval in June 1948. Acquisition of the existing facilities and construction of the new water system started soon thereafter; when completed by about 1951 it provided hydrants on the side streets as well as more along Western Avenue. The planned sewer system replacement, however, was not approved by the State Comptroller, being judged too large a cost burden for the taxpayers of McKownville. The old sewer system was after resident petition in 1954 taken over by the Town, but improvement of this had to wait until 1972-3, when a system similar to the replacement plan proposed in 1946 was approved and constructed.
Part of the acquisitions made for the McKownville Water District were the ponds and the land surrounding the reservoir, purchased 1 April 1949 from Pitkin Witbeck Realty Company. Some very small additional leftover pieces of land nearby were purchased by the Water District much later, 17 April 1961, from McKown Farm Realty Company, a successor to the Pitkin Witbeck Company. From this property, a considerable part has later been transferred by easements to Stuyvesant Plaza, although two proposed sales were prevented. The residue now forms the McKownville Reservoir Park.
McKownville Reservoir and Stuyvesant Plaza 1960
McKownville Reservoir in 1960 (on left, between Western Avenue and Stuyvesant Plaza), after construction of the NY Thruway and Adirondack Northway (crossing the picture left to right). Harrington's ice pond is in the center, just beyond the Thruway.
(click on the image for a larger version)

While the resulting system was a significant step forward, it was soon degraded by careless acts during construction of the New York Thruway in 1953, resulting in significant silting of the reservoir, and temporary inability of the filtration system to cope with the turbidity. Similar degradations occurred in 1959 during construction of the Adirondack Northway, and in 1969 because of the installation of a sewer main by the City of Albany along Washington Avenue Extension. Quite apart from these temporary events, routine runoff from sections of all three of these highways, including salt from winter operations, was designed to flow untreated into the Krum Kill drainage upstream of the McKownville Reservoir.

Fred Abele in an article in the Altamont Enterprise of 15 Aug 1980 recounted the chequered history of the McKownville reservoir and water supply, and in that noted: "Raw McKownville reservoir water contains rather high levels of iron, and the town had a rather poor record of success in removing the iron. As a result, the water, while safe, frequently had an undesirable taste, and tended to leave permanent brown stains on laundry. The purified water also contained considerable sediment." Dissatisfaction with the water quality was a recurring issue throughout the period when water was sourced from the McKownville Reservoir. Abele stated that in 1970 the Water District began to supplement the supply with water purchased from the Westmere Water District, and in November 1973 switched entirely to water from that source, and ceased to use the McKownville Reservoir.

Map of the McKownville and Birchmont Water Districts in 1967 [18MB pdf]  Map of the McKownville Reservoir locality in 1968 [4.6MB pdf]

Attempts were made by the Town Board after 1970 to merge the McKownville Water district with the much larger adjacent Westmere Water District. As there were a sufficient number of qualified objectors, on both occasions the proposed merger required majority votes separately in both districts in a permissive referendum of property owners. The first referendum was held 3 May 1977 and the merger was rejected by a majority of McKownville owners. The second attempt was held 27 August 1980, and in this a majority of McKownville property owners voted in favor. Detailed articles were published in the Altamont Enterprise, one by Fred Abele, and another by the Town Water Department Superintendent, explaining the reasons for supporting the merger, but these also show understanding of why some were opposed. 

Guilderland Water District (successor in 1984 to Westmere, and McKownville Water Districts, consolidated in 1981) 
Since 1973, McKownville water has been supplied by the Water Department of the Town of Guilderland. The source is mainly from the Watervliet Reservoir, formed by a dam on the Normanskill, located northwest of the hamlet of Guilderland Center. A small amount of Guilderland water comes from three wells in the area south of Nott Road in the central part of the District. The Town may also take water from the City of Albany system through an interconnection in Westmere. The Water Department Annual reports have more detail on these sources and the treatments applied.

Residences in McKownville on the north side of Western Avenue have had new water mains and house connections installed recently (2019-2020), as part of a project to upgrade the older drainage and water supply infrastructure, and to separate entirely any storm and basement drainage water from the sanitary sewer system. The last small part of the water main replacement in this project should be completed in 2021. The old water pipes targeted for replacement were all those of asbestos cement, (marked A.C. on the 1967 map), and cast iron pipes of less than 6 inch diameter (marked 4" C.I. on the 1967 map). New trenches mostly within the lines of the streets were excavated to place the new system; most of the old water pipes were in different locations and have been capped off and abandoned in place. Only the 6" C.I. pipes in the Parkwood Street circle, and on Waverly Place, were retained in the system in the residential streets north of Western Avenue.

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