Creating Candlewood Lake – A Brief History

On July 15, 1926, the Connecticut Light & Power Company’s board of directors approved a plan to build a man-made reservoir in order to produce electric power.

What would become Candlewood Lake was the first large-scale project in the United States to employ the concept of a pumped-water storage facility; basically, water from the Housatonic River was pumped up a 13-foot-diameter pipe and then held in a large reservoir. Letting the water pour down the immense pipe, called a penstock, and into a turbine, the utility could produce electricity.

Within weeks, an army of 50 surveyors swarmed into the valley, and lawyers were hired to process the deeds transferring land held by some families since before the American Revolution into the hands of CL&P. The utility had the power of eminent domain and so the farmers sold their land — $2,356 for 53 acres, $3,000 for 34 acres, $100 for 3 acres.

In all, there were thirty-five families who owned property in the area to be flooded. Most of these families sold their property to the company but a few refused and some of the lake bed property is still privately owned. Approximately one hundred buildings, including schools, houses, barns and churches were demolished or moved. Even gravestones were moved, as were remains that workers were paid $1 to exhume for reburial.

Starting in late July, 1926, nearly 1400 men labored to create Connecticut’s largest body of water. About 500 men from Maine and Canada, hand-felled 4,500 acres (18 km²) of woodland, burning the lumber in massive bonfires – reminiscent of Indian campfires that once burned in the valley centuries earlier. Several dams were built. The largest, at the north end of the valley, measured 952 feet (290 m) wide and 100 feet (30 m) high upon completion.

Nearly two years later on February 25, 1928 the first pumping operation began pouring water into the valley from the Housatonic. Engineers had planned on the Rocky River and its tributaries filling the valley one-fourth of the way, with the generating plant pumping the remaining three-fourths of the water out of the Housatonic. The valley filled quickly and only 7 months later, on September 29, 1928, the water reached an elevation of 429 feet (131 m) above sea level and Candlewood was considered complete.

Even before the lake’s filling was completed, it became apparent it would draw summer vacationers from as far away as New York City. Land prices on what would become the shoreline had already jumped to an unbelievable $1,000 an acre and summer developments sprang up almost immediately.

Although it was almost called Lake Danbury, Candlewood Lake ultimately got its name from New Milford’s Candlewood Mountain – which was named after the Candlewood tree, whose sapling branches were sometimes used as candles by early settlers.

Candlewood Lake is 16 miles long, 3.2 miles wide with an average depth of 40 feet, and covers a surface area of 8.4 square miles or 5,400 acres