An Account of Human Costs

For upstaters, the reservoirs that provide water to New York City represent at best an imposition and at worst an imperial pillage of the landscape.

This is the first installment in a four-part series on the reservoirs of upstate New York. Constructed to supply water to New York City, these feats of engineering exemplify the social compact that undergirds ambitious public infrastructures even as they intensify divisions between city and country, wealth and poverty.

Fire hydrant tests, NYC, 1908.
High-pressure hydrant test at Union Square, New York City, 1908. [NYC Water © Flickr, courtesy DEP NYC]

New York City became one of the world’s great cities in large part because it is one of the world’s great natural harbors. From Manhattan Island to Staten Island to Long Island (read: Brooklyn and Queens), the place is surrounded and permeated by water. But none of it is potable, not the East or Harlem Rivers, which are effectively arms of the sea, and not the Hudson River, which in its lower reaches also becomes a tidal estuary, combining sea and fresh water in a varyingly brackish mix for 153 miles from its mouth in New York Harbor back up to the Federal Dam in Troy, near the center of the state. For drinking, cooking, and washing purposes, the first European settlers were able to tap the islands’ ponds, streams, and springs. But an ever-expanding population eventually drained such resources — those not already tainted by pollution or disease. And the population galloped on relentlessly: from a thousand or so Dutch nationals in 1650, fourteen years before the British invasion and seventeen before the first wells were dug, the number had jumped to nearly 25,000 by the time of the Revolution. By 1800, it was 60,000. It was then that the city’s political and financial powers recognized a crisis, and understood that water would have to be brought in from outside the city.

New York became one of the world’s great cities in part because it has one of the world’s great natural harbors. But none of that water is potable.

It was the first of many such realizations and interventions over the succeeding century and a half. Once the idea of importing water had seated itself in the public mind, it was hard to dislodge, for without more reliable sources, the city could not survive. The moral justification for the seizure of water belonging to other regions — the landowners were always compensated, but under the terms of eminent domain they were not permitted to refuse — was invariably that the needs of the many overrode the rights of the few. That was true as far as it went; more and better water would benefit immigrants, freed slaves, disabled veterans, the chronically ill, and the destitute, in addition to the middle and upper classes. But although such arguments were politically convenient, the architects of New York’s water-importation schemes across the decades seem to have been rather more concerned with the needs of business. The requirements of the great mass of people reached their ears only on occasions when the city was in the grip of what was called a “water famine,” when pipes lacked sufficient pressure to serve the upper floors of buildings, making the whole metropolis a fire hazard. It follows that politicians and their commissioners tended to think of the extramural regions from which they proposed to pump as essentially uninhabited, since no industry was occurring there. Their attitude, in a word, was colonial.

Panoramic view of Hudson River, 1907.
Panoramic view of the Hudson River, during construction of the Catskill Aqueduct, 1907. [NYC Water © Flickr, courtesy DEP NYC]

Map of upstate NY, 1917.
The New York City water supply system, 1917. [NYC Water © Flickr, courtesy DEP NYC]

The people whose land was taken reacted with disbelief, sorrow, anger. That land might have been in their families for generations, might have been the family’s sole support, might have been the only home they’d ever known. The city decreed and mobilized and condemned properties for seizure without asking residents’ permission; found all sorts of legal subterfuges for denying the value of their fields and homesteads as established by expert witnesses; lowballed every estimate; treated them with distant contempt. Since the politicians and commissioners were not running for office upstate, they felt no need to package their enterprise as a humanitarian mission; they spoke in numbers and legal precedents. There was already a long history of mistrust between the city and its rural neighbors, who felt themselves sidelined in the political discourse that traveled between Manhattan and the state capitol in Albany; the small farmers and small-town business owners to the north of the great city were routinely caricatured in the press as “apple-knockers” and “rubes”; were exploited by prosperous urbanites who built summer homes in choice locations and then prosecuted trespassers. That these same remote and implacable beings were now proposing to drown pastures, raze villages, usurp water, and even decree how remaining land should be worked was a shock if not exactly a surprise.

The city seized properties and denied the value of fields and homesteads by legal subterfuge. Their attitude, in a word, was colonial.

You could say that the very idea of diverting water from somewhere else to benefit the inhabitants of New York City represents a version of the trolley problem. In that ethical thought experiment, you are standing by the switch as a railcar comes barreling along, headed for five people tied up on the tracks. You can pull the lever and turn the car onto a branch line, but there you see one person tied up. Do you do nothing and permit five deaths, or act and cause one? Do you do nothing and impose a water famine on a teeming city, or do you pull the lever and shift the onus onto much more sparsely populated rural areas? There is no satisfactory solution to this dilemma, and New York City had no real choice.

Throughout the 19th century, as multiple plans were suggested for bringing in water, those that avoided imposing on the countryside tended to lie on the farther shore of practicality. Unrealized schemes — all of them soberly submitted and considered — ranged from an 1834 proposal to dam the Hudson at Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, to one in 1950 for damming it at Haverstraw in Rockland County 40 miles north; a 1905 plan for a pipeline from the Great Lakes, and a 1966 scheme to dam Long Island Sound and turn it into a freshwater lake. The more realistic ideas all involved tapping upstate watercourses, and these raised their own momentous engineering challenges, not least of which was the basic question of how to convey water to the city through many miles of diverse topography and shifting geological properties, let alone the problem of getting it across the broad and deep Hudson.

Rondout Reservoir.
Rondout Reservoir, 2020. [Tim Davis]

The system that was eventually built comprises six great reservoirs — Ashokan, Schoharie, Rondout, Neversink, Pepacton, and Cannonsville — that were put in place between 1907 and 1967 in the Catskill/Delaware watershed on the west side of the Hudson. They, along with the older and much smaller Croton System on the east side of the river, continue collectively to supply the city with approximately 1 billion gallons of fresh water every day. The reservoir system has been a great success, even if it required frequent expansion over many years. A half-century after its completion, contingency schemes are intermittently discussed. But aside from the occasional year of drought, no real crisis has appeared to make the New York City Department of Environmental Protection consider immediate plans for further expansion.

The system became a microcosm of the urban/rural polarity that continues to unbalance the nation as a whole.

Nevertheless, from an upstate perspective, the reservoir system represents at best an imposition and at worst an imperial pillage of the landscape. Twenty-six villages and countless farms, orchards, quarries, and the like were bought for a fraction of their value and demolished and then submerged, some of them within living memory, leaving broken hearts and fractured communities. The system has further affected a political polarization between upstate and down, city and country, that was already well underway before the first shovel of soil was removed, and appears as a microcosm of the urban/rural polarity that continues to unbalance the nation as a whole. The regional ecosystem was altered, including in ways we cannot fully appreciate; no biologists were on hand in 1907 to count the number of endangered species or trace the deleterious effects of lost habitats. My purpose here is not to condemn the reservoir system, without which New York City might have faded into insignificance over the course of the 20th century, not only squelching its vast financial powers but aborting its function as shelter for millions of people displaced from elsewhere. I would simply like to give an account of the human costs, an overview of the tradeoffs, a summary of unintended consequences.

The yellow fever epidemic of 1798 was the proximate cause for the chartering, a year later, of the Manhattan Company, which built a 550,000-gallon reservoir on Chambers Street east of Broadway, near what is now Foley Square. The facility served 2,000 households — naturally the wealthiest — with 25 miles of mains constructed from hollowed-out tree trunks, which at intervals for the better part of two centuries kept being disinterred by construction. (The original plan had involved bringing water to Manhattan from Rye Pond in Westchester County, some 30 miles to the east, but that part of the proposal was never implemented.) The head of the Manhattan Company was Aaron Burr, who had his own scheme in mind, to which the water-bearing endeavor was subordinate; he introduced into the company’s incorporation papers a clause permitting its surplus capital to be used in any transactions not inconsistent with state laws. That allowed for creation of a bank, with which Burr aimed to challenge the Bank of New York, headed by his rival Alexander Hamilton and at that point the city’s only chartered bank; the bankers’ rivalry was perhaps an underlying cause of the duel in 1804 in which Burr killed Hamilton. (The Bank of New York merged with the Mellon Financial Corporation in 2007; Burr’s firm is still in business as Chase Bank).

Water well in Manhattan, built ca. 1800 (1926).
Remains of the Manhattan Company well, built circa 1800 near Centre and Reade Streets, during excavation for Court House Square building, 1926. [NYC Water © Flickr, courtesy DEP NYC]

New Croton Aqueduct pipeline in Central Park, 1890.
New Croton Aqueduct pipeline in Central Park, 1890. [NYC Water © Flickr, courtesy DEP NYC]

The inadequacy of the Chambers Street reservoir was dramatically illustrated by devastating fires in 1828 and 1835, the latter of which destroyed 700 buildings in a seventeen-block area, and by the cholera epidemic of 1832, itself intensified by the fact that there was no municipal sewer system. By then, the Manhattan Company had lost interest in any but the banking aspect of its operations. The reservoir was nevertheless not abandoned until 1835, and it was 1914 before it was torn down.

The Croton System

The first surveys for an upstate reservoir were carried out in 1833. Rye Pond was again considered as a source, along with the Passaic River in New Jersey. But the site settled on was Croton Lake on high ground in Westchester County, then rural and “a remarkably healthy region,” according to a 19th-century account. 1 DeWitt Clinton, Jr., the civil engineer who headed the surveying commission, proclaimed that “This supply may … be considered as inexhaustible, as it is not at all probable that the city will ever require more than it can provide.” 2 Construction extended from 1837 to 1842 on a vast project, which included the Croton Dam, creating a 400-acre reservoir; a 41.5-mile gravity-driven brick-lined aqueduct; a 38-acre receiving reservoir holding up to 180 million gallons, known as the Yorkville Reservoir and now the site of the Great Lawn in Central Park; and a distributing reservoir at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, on the present site of the New York Public Library. Extending the duration of the project was a protracted debate regarding whether the water should pass over or under the Harlem River. The former won out, resulting in the aqueduct known as High Bridge, the city’s oldest extant bridge and a tourist attraction for many years. (The bridge’s appeal faded when the river became polluted in the 1960s, after construction of the Major Deegan Expressway and Harlem River Drive; it was closed for half a century and not rehabilitated until 2015). Every element of the Croton project foreshadowed the many New York water-utility projects to come: recalcitrant landowners, aggrieved landowners feeling cheated by their remuneration (some land was bought for $160 an acre and some for $565 an acre), labor disputes, ethnically-based disputes among workers, outbreaks of disease, fatal blasting accidents, and innumerable delays.

In 1842, when the Croton System opened, the city’s population was 300,000. By 1860 it had almost tripled.

In 1842, when the Croton System opened, the city’s population was 300,000, but by 1860 it had almost tripled. By then daily water consumption had risen to nearly 70 million gallons, from 12 million in 1842; by 1890 it had jumped to 145 million. The city built a second, larger receiving reservoir, known as Lake Manahatta, just north of the first in 1862 — it no longer serves but still exists, known now as the Central Park or Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. Four years later, construction began on the Boyd’s Corners Reservoir in Westchester County, and the city started quietly buying up lakes and ponds in Westchester, Putnam, and lower Dutchess counties — fourteen small bodies of water by 1882. And thus ran the pattern: as the city expanded, more reservoirs were connected to the Croton pipeline. Around the time the population hit the one-million mark, the Middle Branch Reservoir opened in 1878; the Kensico Reservoir followed in 1881. In the 1890s, when the addition of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the northern and eastern Bronx dramatically enlarged the city and brought the total number of inhabitants to three-and-a-half million, the East Branch (1892), Bog Brook (1893), West Branch (1895), Titicus (1896), and Amawalk (1897) reservoirs, along with some smaller entities, were added to the chain. By then, the old aqueduct had proven insufficient. The New Croton Aqueduct — which passed under the Harlem River — began construction in 1890 and was finally completed in 1910 (the old one continued to serve alongside until 1955). The New Croton Reservoir, which engulfed its predecessor, opened in 1905.


The Ashokan Reservoir

At the turn of the century, city’s population had risen to four million, and even as the new aqueduct was being completed, it was clear that DeWitt Clinton Jr. had been wrong: the Croton System would no longer be sufficient. The idea of tapping the Catskill watershed had first been proposed in 1886, in a paper titled “The Water Supply for New York City” by a chemical engineer named R. D. A. Parrott, published in a supplement to Scientific American and expanded by him in another identically-titled paper three years later. “The origin of any scheme for furnishing water to the city is found in a desire to supply a demand not yet developed, but foreshadowed,” 3 wrote Parrott, who was known for being the first to derive mineral wool from coal slag, but does not appear to have written anything else. Parrott, in any case, accurately predicted what would come to pass 20 years later: a dam on the Esopus Creek, in the town of Olive in Ulster County on the west side of the Hudson, 100 miles north of New York City. He reasoned that this would be the best location to draw from all across the Catskill Mountains, and provided details on the superiority of that range: its ideal ground of sandstone and shale, proving its early geological origin, with quartz crystals indicating that its water table lies  beneath any coal formation, along with its exceptionally low quantities of iron, copper, magnesium, soda, and lime.

Olive township had 2,924 inhabitants in 1855. By 1880, it had grown larger by exactly three persons.

“Men who have been on the ground and have seen the supply say that it will reach anywhere from 300 to 450 million gallons per day,” 4 Parrott writes, suggesting that he himself had not gone there. Throughout both papers he situates himself at a lofty remove from quotidian human concerns, focusing instead on mercantile ones. He cites the most pressing need for water in the city — $150 million worth of dry goods sitting uninsured in warehouses because water supply was inadequate for putting out fires — and asks, invoking his own version of the trolley problem, “Under what pretext of dire necessity can it be maintained that one public shall sacrifice nine units in order that another public may gain one unit?” He warns that “under the beneficent principle of eminent domain [lies] the sceptre of oligarchy.” But in the next sentence he evades the matter: “The acquisition of territory under this right presupposes that the use of it shall not injuriously affect adjacent land.” 5 He goes on to show that the Catskill territory in question suffers from “backwardness” with regard to population increase. Olive township had 2,924 inhabitants in 1855 and by 1880 had grown larger by exactly three persons; the total affected watershed population was 23,430 in 1855 and in 1880 it was 23,436. The combined population increase in Ulster, Greene, and Delaware counties between 1870 and 1880 was one-and-a-half percent, while in the watershed townships it was minus-seven-eighths of a percent. Furthermore, Parrott assured his readers, “It is assumed as a generally admitted fact that New York City exerts a positive influence of growth on the surrounding territory.” 6

Coffer dam being built across the Esopus Creek at the Olive Bridge Dam site, 1907
Coffer dam being built across the Esopus Creek at the Olive Bridge Dam site, 1907. [NYC Water © Flickr, courtesy DEP NYC]

There were other contenders besides the Catskill counties, yet those faded as soon as the city began its inquiries. In 1904, Dutchess County (on the east or “Croton System” side of the Hudson) passed an act banning city access to its Ten Mile River watershed or any other source. The prospect of a similar ban scotched an idea to tap the Housatonic River in Massachusetts, while the perennial notion of drawing on the Hudson itself proved perennially unpopular given the river’s pollution — despite the fact that the city of Albany drank filtered Hudson water.

In 1905, New York City’s Water Supply Board assembled a crack team of engineers and sent them off to survey the Catskill territory: J. Waldo Smith, the chief, who had become chief engineer on the New Croton reservoir in 1903; John R. Freeman, who had consulted on the Panama Canal and the Grand Canal in China; William H. Burr, professor of civil engineering at Columbia University; and Rudolph Herring, a German-born sanitary engineer. They recommended what Parrott had envisioned: a dam on the Esopus watershed in Ulster County, and after conducting drilling tests at various points — Cold Brook, Lake Hill, Wittenberg, Shandaken, Big Indian — proposed that the main dam be constructed at Bishop Falls, in Olive Bridge, which had solid bedrock and would permit the work to be done two years sooner than at rival sites. Ulster County did not possess sufficient political sway or capital to resist.

In that time of accelerating industrial progress, even local powers viewed the valley as a mere beauty spot, permanently unimprovable.

Bishop Falls was a tourist attraction, a gently curved array of shallow falls in narrowing tiers like a fan, shown in numerous prints and postcards poised between a mill on one bank and a barn on the other, with Catskill peaks in the distance. The area had long been a summer resort for city people who could afford second homes, but had more recently been democratized by the establishment of boardinghouses, where visitors would pay for a bed, perhaps a bath, and three meals taken communally, and generally spend their time loafing. John Boice, who owned the falls, valued his property at $500,000. Under the relentless terms of the city’s condemnation commissions — the three-person boards that reviewed evidence, heard witnesses, and set final valuations on land the city sought to seize — Boice was eventually given $112,303.18. Bishop Falls now lies at the deepest point of the reservoir. Isaac Whittaker owned the “romantic gorge” below the falls, which was said to be “one of the most sightly places in the mountains” and was constantly subject to offers by prospective hoteliers; it was assessed by the city at less than $5000. 7

Bishop Falls, postcard circa 1905.
Bishop Falls, postcard circa 1905. [Courtesy Lucy Sante]

Shokan village and the Ashokan Valley, 1899.
Shokan village and the Ashokan Valley with Ulster & Delaware train, circa 1899. [Courtesy Lucy Sante]

In those days the Kingston Daily Freeman, the most important newspaper in Ulster County, had correspondents in villages, who would report primarily on social events in dedicated columns. In March 1905, the paper’s man in Shokan was moved to editorialize:

Many Shokanites are wondering at the new and evident opposition on the part of some Kingstonians to the proposed New York City Ashokan reservoir. Why citizens of Olive are and should be, some angry, some terror-stricken, some confused, all can understand. But that Kingston and Ulster County should antagonize the project is more of a puzzle to us. We never dreamed that it was true, as is now heralded abroad, that our little valley contained such a large percentage of Ulster’s taxable property, the most of its fertile land or that our population was so enormous or our trade the chief asset of Kingston’s merchants, and our destruction the greatest calamity that could befall the Empire State. Mayhap if the water does not come we will hold our heads higher hereafter in consequence of a true appreciation of our importance, and perchance, if the water does come our residents will be more equitably reimbursed for their loss of homes and seizure of property, since publicity has truly appraised us. 8

Then he went on to note that Landon Churchwell was ill with pneumonia, that Mrs. Abigail Markle was visiting her daughter in Brooklyn, and that Miss Inez Dumond had returned safely from a visit to Port Ewen.

Despite such attentions from the newspaper, the Ashokan Valley was not in fact highly regarded in Kingston, the county seat, where more prosperous citizens regarded themselves as urbane, cultured, and educated to a degree that made them equal to their metropolitan cousins and quite unlike the hayseeds of the valley, who were barely capable of subsistence farming and added little to the county’s economic profile. 9 Despite its farms, which seldom produced much to export; despite its bluestone quarries, which for decades had supplied sidewalk paving to the city of New York; and despite its forests, rich in spruce, pine, maple, ash, oak, and hickory — which Parrott dismisses as merely providing material for “chairs, piano bars, roller blocks, clubs, bowls, trays, etc.” 10 — the valley’s principal economic engine was in fact tourism. (Even so, Parrott writes: “To exclude the boarder and the excursionist from 530 square miles out of 4121 would not be a public privation.” 11) It is fair to say that the valley was taken for granted even by the local powers, who in that time of accelerating industrial progress viewed it as a mere beauty spot, permanently unimprovable.

The area contained 504 private houses, 35 stores, ten churches, ten schools, nine blacksmiths’ shops, seven sawmills, and a gristmill.

The territory acquired by New York City between 1905 and 1910 was a strip measuring roughly one by twelve miles, a total extent of 8,300 acres. Included were the villages of West Hurley, Glenford, Ashton, Olive Branch, Shokan, West Shokan, Boiceville, Brodhead’s Bridge, Olive City, Olive Bridge, and Brown’s Station. Also seized were the tracks and right of way of the Ulster & Delaware Railroad, and some parcels of forest preserve owned by the state, which later led to rapid legal adjustments when statutes turned up prohibiting these woods from being flooded. The inhabited area contained 504 private houses, 35 stores, ten churches, ten schools, nine blacksmiths’ shops, seven sawmills, and a gristmill. The $162 million earmarked for the Ashokan project included the cost of acquiring these properties, along with the construction of the dam, the dike, the waste and dividing weirs, the embankments and roadways, the temporary railroad that served construction, and of course the aqueduct, 92 miles of cut-and-cover, grade tunnel, pressure tunnel, and steel-pipe siphon, traveling under the Hudson near the mouth of the Wallkill River to connect with the Croton watershed at the Kensico Reservoir, back on the east side of the Hudson, outside what is now the New York City suburb of White Plains.

This was all made possible by the McClellan Act of 1905, named after the then-mayor of New York, George B. McClellan, Jr. — son of the Civil War general; a conservative Democrat later famous for cancelling moviehouse licenses on Christmas Eve, 1908, as both a moral and a fire hazard. Among other things, the McClellan Act “allowed the city to take possession of land and/or dwellings just ten days after an appraisal commission was appointed and upon payment to the owner of one-half the assessed valuation of the property.” 12 Charles T. Coutant, who represented Ulster County in the New York State Assembly, introduced a countermeasure, the Coutant Bill, which argued that the city could very well take its water from the Hudson, since Albany did so, and could put its land-purchase money into a filtration system instead. At a hearing in Albany, another Ulster County representative, S. D. Coykendall warned, “If our mountainsides and valleys are taken by New York City, it will not be with the consent of our people, but because it is forced upon us by the representatives of the other counties in the state. And please remember, gentlemen, you who represent interior counties, if Ulster County is sacrificed your turn will come next.” 13

Street scene in the Ashokan District, near Brown's Station, postcard circa 1907.
Street scene in the Ashokan District, near Brown’s Station, postcard circa 1907. Handwritten note reads, “This is on the Tongore side.” [Courtesy Lucy Sante]

Street scene, West Hurley, ca. 1899.
West Hurley,  circa 1899. [Courtesy Lucy Sante]

Olive City, circa 1899. [Courtesy Lucy Sante]

The Kingston Daily Freeman reported in May 1905 that experts appointed by the city to the condemnation commissions were instructed to accept only a third of the valuation placed on land by its owners; a local expert denied he had been told to fix a value of $20 per acre across the board on all condemned lands. The total value for the valley’s residential area (minus, that is, land owned by the railroad) was $34 million; shortly after this figure was made public, an item ran in the New York World: “A silver ewer has been sold at auction in London for $21,000. In proportion to the amount of water it will hold it was relatively as dear as the Catskill reservoir.” 14 At a hearing before the state legislature, when the county demanded protection from the land-grab, the city’s “attitude was best exhibited by Corporation Counsel [John J.] Delaney when he assured the Ulster County property owners that they need never fear about collecting their money for they could come to New York and ‘attach City Hall.’ […] ‘Cheer up, boys, there ain’t no hell,’ was the quotation he used in a peroration filled with pathos — and wind.” 15 Meanwhile, an appreciative crowd at the Kingston Opera House took in Billy Bitzer’s one-reeler In the Valley of Esopus. Bitzer — the cinematographer who  would go on to shoot many of D. W. Griffith’s movies, and who is credited with introducing, among other things, the closeup, the long shot, the fadeout, the iris, and artificial lighting — filmed his picture in a single take from the rear platform of a train traveling backwards through the valley on the Ulster & Delaware tracks. It featured a bit of plot: a man fishing off a trestle refuses to move and the train has to stop, whereupon two other men appear from nowhere and throw him off the trestle. The film now appears to be lost.

The New York Times found the doings rustically comical. But, of course, each condemnation revealed a small, specific narrative.

The actual process began in the spring of 1907, when the first of the nine condemnation commissions got to work. These commissions were formed sequentially, although their actions overlapped. They seized land just before it was needed for the process of demolition and construction, so that, beginning at Bishop Falls on the southern tip, they moved first eastward and then clockwise through the valley in a process that would not end until 1911, closely followed by the contractors. In the summer of 1907, the New York Times found the doings rustically comical: a farmer told their reporter he wanted the city to pay for rabbits and woodcocks driven away by the commotion; someone else’s cow ate a stick of dynamite and died, for which he was given $100 by the contractors. But, of course, each condemnation revealed a small, specific narrative. The local jumble of small villages and smallholdings were home to other recurring types — small shopkeepers, boardinghouse keepers, millers and blacksmiths and quarrymen, ministers and schoolteachers. Their connection to the world beyond their own fence lines was, at best, the daily newspaper; few had telephones. The trip to Kingston, no more than ten miles away, was undertaken by most maybe a couple times a year. They spent very little money, consuming mostly things they cultivated themselves or bartered with a neighbor. But they weren’t isolated; dense family ties spread across the region, and neighbors had been the same for decades. They were bonded and pledged and sealed to the land. “There probably are not two properties exactly alike in the entire Ashokan region,” wrote the Kingston Daily Freeman, “and elements and circumstances which enter into one case will be supplanted by very different elements in a different case.” 16 Recurring names in the newspaper stories show descent from the Dutch, who had arrived in the area around 1614: Boice, Elmendorf, Krom, Van Kleeck, Bogart, Stoutenburgh, Van Wagenen, Palen, Winne, Roosa. “Among some of the people of Ulster County,” the Times wrote, “many deeds are unrecorded and have to be obtained directly from the owners to be copied. In the mountains deeds are handed from one person to another when land is transferred, and so pass through many hands without ever being recorded.” 17

Each determination by the condemnation commission in effect dismantled a life — and at cut rate.

Charles Pierson’s farm was exemplary. A bachelor at age 52, he owned 23 acres inherited from his father and grandfather that had been improved with a house, a hay barn, a cow barn, a granary, a hen house, a wood house, twenty acres of meadowland, an apple orchard, a plum orchard, and a raspberry vineyard. He had harvested 33 bushels of oats and two tons of hay per acre for almost 20 years (the average price per ton at Olive Branch Station had been $15 for the preceding five or six years); he grew potatoes, onions, corn, and numerous smaller crops. His location was ideal: three-quarters of a mile from the train station and eight miles from Kingston. He lived alone, but probably hired help at harvest time and had siblings and their families close by; he had run his farm for decades according to his own terms and on his own schedule. The records do not say what became of Charles Pierson — except, presumably, to note his compensation in a long list of settlements. He may well have purchased another farm west or south of the reservoir, but this could never have been the same as what he had lost. There are no accounts of illnesses or deaths, emotional crises or suicides following the land seizures, and the term “post-traumatic stress disorder” was decades from being coined. But such sufferings must surely have been common. Each determination by the condemnation commission in effect dismantled a life — and at cut rate.

Reservoir Motel sign, Shokan NY.
Reservoir Motel in Shokan, 2020. [Tim Davis]

Boiceville, NY.
Boiceville, 2020. [Tim Davis]

The most famous case, locally, was that of Rachel Everett of Olive, who claimed $10,000 for her house, land, and ginseng garden. The court needed to learn what ginseng was, which led counsel to pronounce the word “aphrodisiac,” leading in turn to three days of bantering between lawyers and many more of newspaper witticisms. Everett’s husband, Egbert, testified that he had been born a few miles from the couple’s home in Olive and had been engaged in the trucking business in Brooklyn, but that a degenerative spine disease had caused him to become almost completely blind. He had discovered the lucrative properties of ginseng, and with his wife had bought the land and undertaken its cultivation. He testified that North American ginseng went for between $6.50 and $8.00 per pound, whereas Manchurian ginseng fetched $40 for the same amount. The Everetts sold their produce to the Mee-Wun-Wing-Lee Corporation, which exported it to China; Egbert alleged that all the ginseng produced in the United States since 1852 had been similarly exported. Their counsel tried to support their claim by arguing, “There is an unlimited demand, as there are over 400 million Chinese.” 18 When the city granted only $2900 to Mrs. Everett, disregarding the value of the ginseng business, the court intervened to award her $8000. But this was an exceptional case. The first awards in damage cases came in November. The total claimed by Ashokan Valley property owners was $122,610.30; the city’s total valuation was $44,731.49. The court awarded $50,600, with an additional $4086.18 in counsel and witness fees.

The fees racked up by lawyers, appraisers, and expert witnesses, indeed, were bounteous — so much so that the Freeman and other papers began referring to the proceedings as “shaking the plum tree” and the Ashokan region as “plumland.” Prices were negotiated per counts of individual trees and vines in orchards, but stalled on usage values for any kind of land, a matter that came down especially hard on owners of the many small bluestone quarries, as well as the proprietors of the boardinghouses, who were compensated only for their buildings’ value and not for lost business. In July 1907, Appraisal Commission No. 2 ruled that property owners could not recover damages to their land — a strategem apparently meant to compensate for the commissions’ treating all parcels as equivalent, whether they held farmland, brush, a quarry, a dump, or a natural prospect — or for the loss of business conducted upon it, and the ruling was upheld by the Special Counsel. When Commission No. 5 attempted to counteract the ruling, accepting evidence of damage and lost business, the Special Counsel objected, “declaring, according to the report, that for a man whose property was taken to get damages for his business was ‘absolutely monstrous.’” 19

The undertaking would require the excavation of some two million cubic yards of dirt and 400,000 cubic yards of rock.

The most persistent litigant was Mrs. Tina Lasher, who ran a boardinghouse and a small store near the depot in Brown’s Station, with which she supported herself and her children. She claimed $18,712 for her 24 acres, including $3000 for loss of business. Her witnesses testified to a value of $13,212.50; witnesses for the city countered with a value of $7,500; in July 1907, the city allowed her $6,500. Mrs. Lasher was denied permission to testify before Commission No. 2, but Justice Cantine of the State Supreme Court granted her an injunction and order to show cause, requiring the city to demonstrate why a permanent injunction should not be issued restraining interference with her business. In April 1908, State Supreme Court Justice Howard denied the permanent injunction, but ruled that business owners in the Ashokan district were indeed entitled to recover damages. In December, Mrs. Lasher’s attorneys served papers on the mayor of New York, the Board of Water Supply, and the Corporation Counsel to compel the city to appoint a commission to ascertain damages to her business. In February 1909, Justice Howard granted her a writ of mandamus to further compel the city in the matter. “Every owner of a business in the Ashokan section received the news as a sure indication that claims for businesses and indirect damages would have to be recognized and settled by the city.” 20 The city took the case to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, which handed down its decision in September 1909, upholding Howard’s decision. In May 1910, the Court of Appeals also upheld the verdict. Before this occurred, however, Mrs. Lasher died; the date and cause are unrecorded and there was no obituary. Nevertheless, from that point — a bit late in the game — the city had to recognize claims and appoint commissions to determine business loss.

The Tongore steel pipe siphon, Catskill Aqueduct, 1924.
The Tongore steel pipe siphon, Catskill Aqueduct, 1924. [NYC Water © Flickr, courtesy DEP NYC]

Test shaft at Breakneck Ridge, during construction of the Catskill Aqueduct, 1907.
Test shaft at Breakneck Ridge, during construction of the Catskill Aqueduct, 1907. [NYC Water © Flickr, courtesy DEP NYC]

Meanwhile, construction was proceeding. The Olive Bridge Dam was to be 252 feet high, 4650 feet long, and 35 feet wide at its top. Its masonry was of the kind known as “cyclopean” — a type of ancient Mycenaean stonework using massive irregular blocks — which involved dropping huge chunks of uncarved local stone into beds of concrete. The dam would be built in 83-foot sections to prevent cracking from contraction and expansion caused by weather. The ends would be earth embankments 700 feet thick at the base and 34 feet at the top. To measure seepage, a system of drainage wells would be sunk twelve feet apart in the dam’s upstream face, and connected to inspection galleries. Along the axis, a core wall of concrete would extend to the bedrock. The dividing weir would feature a causeway accessible to vehicles, from which one could enjoy the “lacustrian” scenery. The whole undertaking would require the excavation of around two million cubic yards of dirt and 400,000 cubic yards of rock. It would call for 1,100,000 barrels of cement for 900,000 cubic yards of masonry; the embankments alone would require 7 million cubic yards of material — enough to build a pyramid 200 feet square at its base and 400 feet high. The grandeur of the project — and those that would follow it — was invariably expressed in figures. That was the poetic language of enterprise in the 20th century. Nowadays numbers have become so large they often dissolve into abstraction. But in the era of reservoir-building, nothing else conveyed so well the immensity of every new undertaking and its dwarfing of whatever had preceded it — and it could be appreciated by the average piker with a fourth-grade education.

The Ashokan reservoir quickly became a tourist attraction. But it was already clear that its capacity would be insufficient.

By September 1908, a substantial camp was being constructed at Brown’s Station for a population of some 6000 diggers, carters, foremen, and engineers, most of them unskilled, “including negroes, Poles, Italians, and Slavs.” 21 The settlement was intended to last just seven years and was accordingly never named, but streets were laid out with 125 four-room cottages, dormitories, a hospital, a bank, a company store, a sewage plant, and even its own reservoir. Still to come were churches and schools — the latter overseen by the combined forces of the Board of Water Supply and the Society for Italian Immigrants — and a police force intended to curb petty theft and quell disputes, especially between ethnic groups; this corps survives today as the Department of Environmental Protection Police Force, which has jurisdiction over the Ashokan reservoir and surrounding property owned by New York City. In effect, the workers’ settlement became a city, with all a city’s problems: assault, theft, and murder, not to mention drunkenness in significant quantities. There was no saloon onsite and no liquor sold at the company store; but dives, often with a sideline in prostitution, sprang up all over. At one point, there were said to be fourteen on the road to Marbletown alone. As for the police, the Freeman wrote, “The men composing the police force have been taken from various trades and businesses, and in some cases they and work have been strangers. They are not supposed to know criminal law and they don’t.” 22

Boiceville, 2020. [Tim Davis]

Roadside memorial, Shokan, NY.
Roadside memorial, Route. 28 in Shokan, 2020. [Tim Davis]

Bulletin board in Shokan, NY.
Shokan, 2020. [Tim Davis]

Eventually there were “musical and dramatic entertainments and illustrated lectures,” 23 including theatrical productions in Italian. But the dam-workers’ city seems to have been a predictably tough place, rife with tensions between Italian-Americans and African-Americans and Eastern European immigrants, many of the latter conscripted abroad by agents of the contracting firm building the dam, and shipped upstate directly from Ellis Island, with zero knowledge of English. There were nearly daily conflicts between the camp’s administrators and peddlers who came in to sell meat, bread, and milk of higher quality, at lower prices, than what was available at the company store. Injuries, some fatal, were frequent on the work site: falls, clothing caught in machinery, a pickaxe hitting a stick of dynamite. Still somehow the work got done, on time, and the Ashokan reservoir opened in 1915 and quickly became a tourist attraction. But even then it was clear that the new reservoir would be insufficient; newspapers were discussing the proposed Neversink Reservoir as early as 1911. This process — of anticipation or second-guessing — would continue for another half-century.

Editors' Note

This is the first installment in a new series, Reservoir: Nature, Culture, Infrastructure, funded by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.

  1. Moses King, King’s Handbook of New York (1892), 181.
  2. Quoted in Charles H. Weidner, Water for a City: A History of New York’s Problem from the Beginning to the Delaware River System (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1974), 29.
  3. R. D. A. Parrott, “The Water Supply for New York City,” Scientific American Supplement 697 (May 11, 1889), 11132.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 11131.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Kingston Daily Freeman, May 16, 1907.
  8. Kingston Daily Freeman, March 1, 1905.
  9. “Ashokan Valley” here refers to the land seized for the reservoir, as distinct from the much longer course of Esopus Creek, which begins on the slopes of Slide Mountain and pours into the Hudson River at Saugerties.
  10. “The Water Supply for New York City,” 11132.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Diane Galusha, Liquid Assets: A History of New York City’s Water System (Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, Ltd., 1999), 93.
  13. Kingston Daily Freeman, March 16, 1905.
  14. Kingston Daily Freeman, May 7, 1908.
  15. Kingston Daily Freeman, July 12, 1907. He was quoting a popular song of the time: “Little Willie stood a-watching/ While his father dug a well;/ Little Willie lost his footing — / Cheer up, boys, there ain’t no hell.”
  16. Kingston Daily Freeman, June 14, 1907.
  17. New York Times, September 14, 1906.
  18. Kingston Daily Freeman, November 27, 1907.
  19. Weidner, 232.
  20. Ibid., 244-45.
  21. New York Times, May 2, 1909.
  22. Kingston Daily Freeman, July 16, 1908.
  23. New York Times, September 7, 1908.
Lucy Sante, “An Account of Human Costs,” Places Journal, November 2020. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

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