An Air of Permanent Mourning

The polarization between city and country is an old story, but now it is entrenched in the upstate communities that were sacrificed to provide water to the downstate metropolis.

This is the third 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.

Fisherman in upstate NY.
Angler at Pepacton Reservoir, 2020. [Tim Davis]

New York City, its population ever expanding through the decades, continually needed more drinking water, having exhausted its local supply by the early 19th century. Between the 1830s and the end of that century, the Board of Water Supply built the Croton System of twelve reservoirs in Westchester County just north of the city, but construction barely kept pace with demand. As the 20th century dawned, the municipality set its sights farther north, and west of the Hudson River. The Catskill Mountain watershed was vast, pure, and barely tapped by the sparse local population; surely it could serve the city for many decades to come. Beginning in 1905, the Board began construction of the Ashokan Reservoir and its attendant pipeline. That meant flooding the middle section of the Esopus Creek valley, in the process seizing and razing eleven villages. The city employed its power of eminent domain to acquire properties, so that residents of the valley could not refuse. They had to be compensated, but municipal authorities paid them as little as possible, usually about a third of the estimated value of their holdings, and would not even consider damages to livelihood until ordered to by the state Supreme Court.

Construction of the reservoir was spoken of as a disaster — a volcanic eruption, say —  whose consequences resonated for generations.

Upstaters, predominantly rural, had felt slighted and neglected by the downstate metropolis since at least the late 18th century. The city had the power and the numbers to impose its will in any dispute, and it tended to view the regions to its north as a renewable and exploitable natural resource, essentially uninhabited. The residents of Ulster County, where the Ashokan Reservoir sits at the very center, seethed that they had not been consulted about the choice; in their view the city could just as well have dammed the Hudson River and filtered its tidal impurities with no damage to anyone. And the statistics the city proudly threw around — its daily water consumption weighed eight times as much as its total population! — made the whole proposition seem prodigal, excessive. Why couldn’t urbanites simply regulate themselves? Of course, by couching the city’s enormous need for water in simple human terms, as life-giving sustenance for the widow and orphan, the public-relations squad was finessing the fact that the project was primarily driven by the needs of business. Insurers, for example, would not cover warehoused goods unless there was at all times an adequate supply of water to douse potential fires. As new buildings grew higher and higher, so did the required increase in water pressure.

Board of Water Supply, Grand Gorge, postcard 1920s.
Board of Water Supply, Grand Gorge, postcard 1920s. [Courtesy Lucy Sante]

Orders for removal of bodies from cemeteries in Neversink, 1939.
Poster ordering removal of bodies from cemeteries in the town of Neversink, 1939. [Courtesy Lucy Sante]

The city altered portions of the upstate landscape permanently, eliminating some 25 villages, drowning thousands of acres of farmland and forest, and building not just six reservoirs but also whole networks of roads that are owned by the city and have their own traffic laws and speed limits. As an intruding foreign entity, New York City has real power in the lives of the locals, affecting their tax rates and able to limit access to the reservoir lands at will. The city had been mistrusted and feared upstate before construction of the Catskill reservoirs, but its attitude throughout the 60-year process — imperious, exploitative, cold —further cemented that mistrust and fear. In 1955, a resident of Cannonsville wrote to the Binghamton Press concerning the city’s accusation that a local lawyer had created a hostile climate: “I would like to say that Mr. Gottfried has not built the ‘hate’ for New York City. They have done the deed themselves, but typical of the metropolis they are passing the buck.” 1

In the 1990s, I lived not far from the Pepacton Reservoir, the existence of which I barely knew before I got there, despite having spent the previous 25 years as its beneficiary in New York City. Within a month or so of taking up residence in Delaware County, I was struck by the local attitude toward the reservoir. Its construction was spoken of as if it were a disaster — a volcanic eruption, say — that might have occurred decades previously but whose consequences resonated into the present day. Displaced citizens of the drowned villages, who were then still numerous, never felt fully accepted or at home in their new towns; they held regular reunions, with testimonials and home movies, and wrote wrenching reminiscences in local newspapers and self-published books. To be sure, as a former Tompkins Town Supervisor said of those displaced by the Cannonsville Reservoir — which was completed in 1965 — “There were people who couldn’t wait to get out, people who took it lying down, and people who took what they could get.” 2 But an air of permanent mourning hovered over the county.

For the past 20 years, I’ve been living close to the Ashokan Reservoir, where the upheaval of construction occurred more than a century ago. Immediate passions may have died out with the generation that experienced the building of Ashokan, but the city is still regarded as an occupying power — like the United States military in Japan, say — that profits from the region while offering little in return and definitely not keeping the best interests of the locality in mind. Residents are subject to strict regulations concerning where they can build and dig and keep livestock; the Esopus Creek below the reservoir trickles along sluggishly until water is released from the spillway; when released it floods, sometimes ruinously. The taint of the city has spread, as well, via the county’s many new residents who come from there, bringing with them liberal attitudes that are regarded with disdain if not outright hostility. The polarization between city and country is an old story, but now it is entrenched in upstate communities.

New York City water supply system. Circa 1950.
New York City water supply system, circa 1950. [NYC Water © Flickr, courtesy DEP NYC]

In 1919, when the Ashokan was only four years old, New York City began construction on the Schoharie Reservoir and Gilboa Dam, in Schoharie County. This was a much smaller affair than the Ashokan, and more remote, and it only destroyed one village. Still, its residents fought hard, though all they could manage was to refuse to leave, and that could only be sustained for so long. Their houses were set on fire the minute they left them. In 1925 the New York Times estimated that a third of the inhabitants of Gilboa had died since the beginning of the project — of heartbreak, it implied. One could have compiled such statistics concerning all of the reservoirs. But Schoharie was only a stopgap. Even while the Ashokan Reservoir was in the early stages of construction, planners at the Board of Water Supply had their eyes on a much greater prize: the Delaware River watershed. The Catskill Mountains, which cover portions of Ulster, Greene, Schoharie, Sullivan, and Delaware counties, are divided between two watersheds: tributaries of the Hudson River and those of the Delaware. The split runs northeast to southwest, roughly along the boundary between Ulster and Delaware counties. The Hudson watershed is very large, but the Delaware is larger.

The Board of Water Supply was eyeing a greater prize: the Delaware watershed. The Hudson watershed is very large, but the Delaware is larger.

There were two obstacles. The first was sheer distance, since the Delaware system was considerably farther from the city — but that was a purely mechanical problem that could be solved by proper engineering. The bigger one was that, unlike the Hudson, the Delaware watershed was not entirely within the control of New York State. While the headwaters of the Delaware stood at two locations in New York, the greater part of the river was divided between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, whose mutual border it defined — and the city of Philadelphia also needed ever larger quantities of water. Negotiations among the states, along with lawsuits and countersuits, ate up a decade before the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1931 that New York City was entitled to a share in the Delaware water: 440 million gallons a day, considerably less than it had been seeking. The ruling fell at the beginning of the Depression, which was followed by the war, further delaying action. In the meantime, the city built the Rondout and Neversink reservoirs in a corner of the southwestern Catskills. They were smaller and more remote than Schoharie or Ashokan, and the drowning of five villages for their construction did not occasion much coverage in the press. The Rondout drew on the Hudson watershed, the Neversink on the Delaware, but the primary function of each was to serve as a receiving and holding reservoir for the proposed Delaware system, and they had their own shared pipeline to the city.

Shavertown, postcard, 1906. Handwritten note says, “The R. R. will be here in a few weeks.” [Courtesy Lucy Sante]

Downsville Flood, postcard 1933.
Downsville Flood, postcard 1933. [Courtesy Lucy Sante]

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

Rondout and Neversink, begun in 1937 and 1941 respectively, were themselves delayed by World War II and the Korean War, as well as by domestic shortages of building materials that continued until the late 1940s, so that they were not completed until the mid-1950s. In the interim, the city had confirmed its plans for the Pepacton Reservoir, on the East Branch of the Delaware River. The locale had been surveyed as early as 1907; rumors about land seizures had circulated among the local citizenry at least since 1910. But it was November 16, 1948, when Vincent Impellitteri, president of the New York City Council, finally threw a switch that set off 2,000 pounds of dynamite, creating a 30-by-50-foot hole that represented the first excavation for a dam in Downsville, at the western end of what would be the Pepacton Reservoir. In his speech he said, “It takes a lot of public spiritedness to forgive our tearing down the old homestead where the children were born and in many cases the grandparents and great-grandparents were born and raised.” He thanked Delaware County for its “forbearance and friendship.” 3

Delaware County, densely forested on its eastern and southern sides, with rolling farmland farther north, looked like an ideal of the northeastern landscape, like a chromolithograph on a calendar issued by a seed company. The great naturalist John Burroughs (1837-1921) was born there, in Roxbury, and in 1881 wrote a book called Pepacton, after a then little-used Indian name for the East Branch of the river, said to mean “marriage of the waters.”

The Pepacton rises in a deep cleft or gorge in the mountains, the scenery of which is of the wildest and ruggedest character. For a mile or more there is barely room for the road and the creek at the bottom of the chasm. On either side the mountains, interrupted by shelving, overhanging precipices, rise abruptly to a great height. … Yet the Pepacton is a placid current. … It drains a high pastoral country lifted into long, round-backed hills and rugged, wooded ranges by the subsiding impulse of the Catskill range of mountains, and famous for its superior dairy and other farm products. 4

Tompkins Store, Union Grove, postcard circa 1910.
Tompkins Store, Union Grove, postcard circa 1910. [Courtesy Lucy Sante]

Cox's Mill, Shavertown, postcard circa 1910.
Cox’s Mill, Shavertown, postcard circa 1910. [Courtesy Lucy Sante]

Even so, the land was poor. The title of a history of the county conveys the essence: Two Stones for Every Dirt (1987). 5 Despite its lush appearance, Delaware County farmland was really only good for a few things: dairy, sheep, and cauliflower, which benefits from a cool climate and does well in the county’s abbreviated growing season. By the early 20th century, many of the mountainsides had been shaved clean of trees, and livestock grazed on sometimes alarmingly canted slopes. The timber, which was lashed into rafts and floated downriver to market, was exhausted by 1898. Many of the people who came to the county in the 19th and early 20th centuries — often from New England — did not tarry long before heading farther west. In 1875 there were 5449 farms, averaging fewer than ten cows apiece; by 1930 the number had dropped to 2913, with an average of 26 cows; by 1969 there were 1456 smallholdings. Today there are 135 dairy farms left (although beef cattle, not much raised in former times, have taken up some of the slack). Over the decades, suicides of dairy farmers became a serious social issue; in the 21st century, the county’s suicide rate remains double the state average.

The Pepacton Valley was sufficiently wild in appearance to pass for Alaska in a 1921 Vitagraph feature film.

Despite its strategic importance for the watershed, Delaware county was remote. Legend has it that the local Native Americans — primarily Mohawk — did not live there, but used it as a hunting preserve; white settlers did not arrive until the very end of the 18th century. It took until 1906 for the first railroad to be built in the Pepacton Valley — the Delaware & Eastern, or, as of 1911, the Delaware & Northern — which connected to the New York, Ontario & Western at East Branch, and to the Ulster & Delaware at Arkville. Its line was sufficiently wild in appearance to pass for Alaska in a 1921 Vitagraph feature, The Single Track, directed by Webster Campbell and starring Corinne Griffith and Richard Travers. (It is now lost.) The railway was so underused that in 1926 steam passenger trains were discontinued in favor of a gasoline-powered “brill” car — essentially a rail-mounted bus. (It was affectionately called the Red Heifer because its whistle sounded like a moo.) Not many residents owned motor vehicles. In 1950, half the farms had no tractor or truck, a third had no telephone, a tenth had no electricity — and the ones that did mostly obtained it in the wake of the Rural Electrification Act of 1935.

The Pepacton Reservoir

After the initial surveys (and rumors) around 1907, formal surveys for what would become the Pepacton Reservoir were carried out between 1918 and 1923. Exploratory boring was done at Shinhopple in 1927, and the location for a dam at Downsville was decided on in 1933 (reported in the Downsville News on April 6 that year). The reservoir’s location was chosen in 1938 (reported in the Catskill Mountain News, out of Margaretville, on March 18). 6 Thus it was that nearly a dozen years elapsed during which citizens of Pepacton, Shavertown, Union Grove, and Arena were aware of their valley’s imminent doom before condemnation proceedings actually began.

Downsville Dam weir channel, 1952.
Downsville Dam weir channel, 1952. [NYC Water © Flickr, courtesy DEP NYC]

The reservoir was to be fifteen miles long by a seventh of a mile across at its widest point, and up to 160 feet deep, draining a watershed of 370 square miles. It remains the largest reservoir in the system, equal to the Ashokan and Schoharie combined and 40% bigger than all twelve in the Croton System, holding 140.2 billion gallons at full capacity and supplying a quarter of the city’s drinking water. At its eastern end it sends its water through the Rondout reservoir into the Delaware Aqueduct, which conveys it to the West Branch and Kensico reservoirs in Westchester County. From there it flows to New York City, which when Impellitteri threw the ceremonial switch was consuming more than 1.2 billion gallons a day — and there was a drought on; one day in the summer of 1949, the total rose to 1.5 billion. All this infrastructure came at a price: $9 million for land acquisition;  $33 million for the Downsville Dam (which was nothing fancy — entirely earthen except for stone facing on its upstream side); $50 million for the tunnel; $5 million for cleaning, grubbing, and grading the land; $13.5 million for replacing the highways; and $2.5 million for replacing the Shavertown Bridge (the single river crossing between Downsville and Margaretville, some 25 miles apart, other than a couple of rickety covered bridges).

Pepacton remains the largest reservoir in the system, holding 140.2 billion gallons and supplying a quarter of the city’s drinking water.

The reservoir displaced 974 people: roughly 250 from Shavertown, 175 from Arena, 100 from Union Grove, 70 from Pepacton, and the remainder from outlying farms. In addition, 2,588 bodies had to be moved from thirteen cemeteries, many of them to the new Pepacton Cemetery, created for that purpose. The villages were tiny, and of an earlier age. Pepacton, which had one general store and about 25 houses, had only been incorporated since 1902, though it had been a center of commercial shad fishing since 1785. Arena, known as Lumbertown until around 1890, began as a single store in 1795. Shavertown, the hub of the valley, was large enough to possess three general stores, six gas stations, three churches, and a barber shop. By 1950, the villages seemed to embody a bygone halcyon era, a vision of “simpler times.”

They certainly cast a powerful nostalgic spell on the big-city papers. The New York Times and the Daily News both sent reporters there for a week or so — three years apart — and both drew heavily on interviews with Inez Atkins, postmaster of Shavertown and owner of one of its general stores, as well as with her sprightly 81-year-old neighbor Amanda Fletcher, who had held the post-office job before her. There was also Earl Van Keuren, proprietor of another general store, who was certain he would die when the village did and sat listlessly on the porch while his daughter sold off the remaining stock. (In fact he survived.) And there was Mary Fletcher Thain, beloved of all, an army nurse in World War II who upon returning bought her riverside dream house (with a window through which she could throw breadcrumbs to the fish down below) for only $2,500 because her fellow citizens gallantly refrained from bidding on it. Now she had done the unthinkable and married a construction worker on the dam from somewhere out of town (“like a Southern belle falling for one of Sherman’s soldiers”), and yet she was still beloved. 7

Looking up the River, Shavertown, N.Y., postcard circa 1910.
Looking up the River, Shavertown, N.Y., postcard circa 1910. [Courtesy Lucy Sante]

Main Street, Union Grove, N.Y., postcard circa 1910.
Main Street, Union Grove, N.Y., postcard circa 1910. [Courtesy Lucy Sante]

Looking toward Granton from Apex, N.Y., postcard circa 1910.
Looking toward Granton from Apex, N.Y., postcard circa 1910. [Courtesy Lucy Sante]

The Daily News, which in 1952 ran a five-part series entitled “This Valley Is DOOMED!” — with the final word in a slashing pulp typeface — spent considerable time conducting an inventory of Mrs. Atkins’s back shelves: bootjacks, calf-weaners, bulls’ nose rings, brass knobs for their horns, Dr. Williams’s Pills for Pale People, and Hopping’s Driveaway, a panacea for colic, cholera, hysteria, scarlet fever, diphtheria, and “augmented throbbing.” There was a large room above the store where square dances occurred, although fewer of them recently. Three years earlier, in the Times, Mrs. Atkins had been less amenable. She charged that “the city has no sentiment,” and referred to the authorities’ rumored and publicized intentions as “the pestilence that has come down through the valley,” pointing out that the 1927 master plan by the Board of Water Supply, which first made known the city’s interest in the East Branch, had kept property values depressed for 20 years. 8

The Times tried to put the best face on things: “Farmers, dairymen and storekeepers in the valley’s tiny hamlets are in the main alert to the city’s needs and recognize the inevitability of the project, even in view of the fact that it means ouster from homes they have built and occupied for generations.” 9 Its reporter pointed to Fred Miller, of Downsville, who requested $3,000 for his property and received a respectable $2800, and John Bouw of Holliday Brook, who sold his 600-acre farm for $30,000 and two years later was still living and farming there rent- and tax-free while waiting for the construction crews. 10 “You can’t stand in the way of progress,” said a man interviewed by an NBC News crew. But the locals were not all so pliant. In 1950, the Walton Reporter published an editorial arguing that New York City should install water meters for its residential customers, which would reduce consumption by 20% — reasoning also advanced by the state of New Jersey in its lawsuit 20 years earlier — and that the city should be tapping the Hudson instead. A letter to the Daily News by a reader from Narrowsburg praised the paper’s series, but added: “The only sour note was the statement that all this was designed to provide more drinking water for you N. Y. C. people — at least 30 extra gallons for every man, woman and child. Even a camel couldn’t drink that much.” 11

The legal climate had changed since 1915. There were more upstate lawyers, and they were more attentive to individual complaints.

A few months later, the Catskill Mountain News reported that lawyers for the city were delaying proceedings “so they can compile evidence substantiating their contention that farming is not a business.” 12 This matter appeared nowhere else in the press. But the city in any case was operating the way it had since the Ashokan seizures, employing condemnation panels of three men (one local, one from the city, and one from elsewhere in the state) and — despite what Mr. Miller in Downsville had received — typically offering about a third of estimates. George Hoag, for example, owned 441 acres with 2,442 feet of river frontage, on which he had a 12-room house, cow and hay barns, six henhouses, a tool house, a spring house, a milk house, and a garage. He asked for $65,860; the city offered $21,950; they settled on $48,000. Still, land payments were relatively simple overall. More complex were the claim categories that had been written into law since Ashokan: business damage, loss of wages, and indirect damages. The valley residents also had a powerful ally: Herman Gottfried, the lawyer accused of fomenting “hate,” who had worked for three years in the Board of Water Supply office in Kingston, switched sides in 1950, and represented hundreds of clients affected by the Delaware County reservoirs, despite an attempt by the city to disqualify him for possessing “inside information.” (That case was dismissed by the State Supreme Court in 1957.)

Walgreens sign reflected in house window, Hancock NY.
Across from Walgreens in Hancock, 2020. [Tim Davis]

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

The legal climate had in fact changed greatly since the Ashokan Reservoir was built. There were more upstate lawyers, for one thing, and they were more attentive to individual complaints, even if no one was in a position to challenge the city directly. Now the city had to pay claimants’ witnesses and a portion of their lawyers’ fees, and had to compensate farmers for five years’ profits in addition to their land, buildings, and equipment. And now anyone who had worked for at least six months at a business adversely affected by the reservoir construction was entitled to six months’ wages. Ira Terry and Harry Eckert lost their jobs when the Delaware & Northern was eliminated, but got better jobs elsewhere — Eckert became superintendent of the Margaretville Hospital — and so the city tried to deny them their six months, taking the case to the State Supreme Court, where it lost. Then there were claims for indirect damages. The aforementioned John Bouw, who lived three-and-a-half miles from the village of Pepacton, claimed adverse effect because he now had to go to Downsville — five miles farther — for feed, sawdust, and groceries; he was awarded $3250 for damage to his land value, and another $2000 for the additional cost of bringing his milk to the creamery. Stanley Sidorowicz, owner of Stan’s Tavern in Arena since 1939, was paid $28,700 by the city in 1955; two years later he sought $50,000 more.

Then there was the matter of trout streams. Fishing rights had been a minor bone of contention in the Ashokan case, as the city dithered for years after the reservoir’s completion on whether to allow locals to fish in it (they eventually did). Delaware County, prime angling territory, presented other sorts of problems. In 1948, fishermen worried that the Beaverkill and the Willowemoc, nationally renowned trout streams, would be taken or damaged by the reservoir construction. “It is just as if baseball fans learned that Yankee Stadium and Ebbets Field were to be chopped up into building lots or hot dog stands and shooting galleries,” wrote Daily News sports columnist Jimmy Powers. 13 (When that didn’t happen, local scuttlebutt had it that highly-placed anglers in city government had intervened.) In 1957, the Tuscarora Club on Mill Brook, a tributary of the East Branch, sought $125,000 in damages on the grounds that perch and pickerel from the reservoir were invading their trout stream. (The city eventually installed a barrier dam on lower Mill Brook, with “iron fingers” to prevent trash fish from entering, while trout used a fish ladder.) The owner of a boardinghouse four miles below the Downsville Dam sought indirect damages because he now had too little water on his property — fishing was spoiled, the swimming hole had shrunk, and the stream was too narrow for boating.

The Times groused about laws written by ‘dairy country legislators,’ compensating locals for such things as ‘esthetic values.’

All this was too much for the Times, which groused about laws written by “dairy country legislators” to protect their constituents, compensating locals for such things as “esthetic values.” “This statutory liberality contrasts with the city’s refusal to compensate for business losses when it dislocates its own shopkeepers and businessmen for slum clearance, road widenings, new schools or other improvements.” 14 When the city took property within its own bounds, owners were compensated only for the value of that property, and for fixtures only if they could not be moved. If property was taken for public housing, the city paid tenants $500 for moving expenses; if it was taken for Title I slum clearance, the shopkeeper could get up to $2,500; if it was taken for a public school or a fire station or for widening streets, the business tenant got zilch. Comparatively, the Times grumbled, upstaters were being treated lavishly. The claims in Delaware County did go on and on. In January 1988, there were still 829 claims outstanding from the Pepacton and Cannonsville reservoirs.

But before such claims and counterclaims could begin, of course, the condemnation process itself had to play out, and having begun in 1947, it too seemed to drip on endlessly. Five years elapsed between the first buildings burned in Pepacton and the last ones burned in Arena. Local newspapers marked one final curtain after another, seemingly every week: the auction at the Van Dusen farm near Shavertown, in the family since 1887; the last Christmas pageant at the Union Grove Methodist Church; the last trip on the Delaware & Northern and the last mail at the Shavertown post office, which occurred on the same day; a month later the last mail at the Union Grove post office, which had opened in 1857; the house-by-house sale of every building in Arena, for relocation or scrap. The Catskill Mountain News published twelve verses by “a resident of Shavertown”:

Nestled in a peaceful valley

With the mountains towering high,

Shaded round by shapely maples

With the river flowing by;

The iron bridge, the crossroads

Leading from the mountains down.

This, a meeting place of country folks,

The place called Shavertown.

Now the axe of condemnation

Has fallen on your head,

Your people all have scattered

With a listless, weary tread

To find a place to live in

Which never will be home,

Like travelers now in exile

Cast on the world to roam.

Trees uprooted, crushed and broken

Pushed in piles mountains high,

And the buildings cast reflections

On the springtime evening sky.

Oh Shavertown still hanging

By a single silver thread

Which is just about to sever

And the world pronounce you DEAD. 15

In October 1955, Mayor Robert Wagner of New York City toured the area, visiting Arena, deserted but still standing, and driving through villages where, as the Times crisply observed, “the city’s contribution in school taxes sometimes accounts for as much as 90% of the school district’s receipts.” 16 Wagner was also taken to admire the replacement for the Shavertown Bridge, which had spanned the East Branch. The State Supreme Court had ordered the bridge to be rebuilt to cross the new reservoir at the same point, but the city had instead elected to erect a 25-foot-high earthen causeway, which cost only $200,000 — $2.3 million under the estimate. The causeway had already been battered by hurricanes Connie and Diane that August; mere hours after the mayor’s visit Hurricane Hazel demolished it entirely, washing away its 200-foot midsection, which included the eight tubes that were to have “handled the flow of East Branch water in the upper reservoir.” 17 There was no crossing the reservoir at all until August 1956, when a 170-foot steel bridge was completed.


The Cannonsville Reservoir

The East Branch is one of several tributaries to the Delaware River proper. It rises near Grand Gorge, in Delaware County, while the West Branch originates near Mount Jefferson, in Schoharie County; they merge near the Delaware County town of Hancock. There is also the Little Delaware, rising near Bovina and joining the West Branch at Delhi. By the mid-1940s, it was generally understood by the authorities concerned that there would need to be a third Delaware County reservoir. A position on the West Branch, near Cannonsville, had been proposed in the 1925 treaty with Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and was finally announced as a firm choice in 1950. Almost immediately, the Delaware County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution against the plan, which would inundate 100 dairy farms that produced more than 2 million gallons of milk per month and remove 800 people from their homes.

Once densely forested, the Cannonsville Valley was the last part of Delaware County to receive settlers.

The Cannonsville valley is the flattest part of Delaware County and scarcely counts as a portion of the Catskills; topographically, it flows westward into the rolling farmland of the Southern Tier. Once densely forested, it was the last part of the county to receive settlers from points east and south. Jesse Dickinson arrived in 1786 from New Jersey, hacking a trail through the forest, and built a town hall and a grist mill at a place the Mohawks called Ganuissy or Ganiswissa, which he named Dickinson City. But he went broke in the process and sold out to Benjamin Cannon, who renamed the site again. Cannon’s house, finished in 1809, was a massive thing with five fireplaces and basement doors big enough for an ox team to drag in six-foot logs. (After his death it served various community functions, then became precinct house for the Board of Water Supply police; it was the last house to be destroyed, in the summer of 1964.) Settlers in significant numbers did not arrive until after 1811, when a road was finally built along the West Branch, from Stamford to Deposit.

Old Home Day, Cannonsville, 1956.
Old Home Day, Cannonsville, 1956. [Courtesy Lucy Sante]

Sign shaped like a cowboy, Harvard NY.
Harvard, 2020. [Tim Davis]

Girl on ATV, upstate NY.
Ox-Bow Campsite in Harvard, 2020. [Tim Davis]

Swimmers at campsite, upstate NY.
Ox-Bow Campsite, Harvard, 2020. [Tim Davis]

When the reservoir’s location was decided, the valley contained 74 farms, two creameries, six stores, three post offices, five churches, four schools, two hotels, three restaurants, and a community hall, distributed among the villages of Cannonsville, Granton, Rock Rift, and Rock Royal. There had been a time when the valley bustled, driven by the timber trade and its associated industry, such as factories that produced wood acid; an 1896 Cannonsville directory lists more than a hundred businesses. But all this was contingent on a steady supply of timber, and that gave out in the early 20th century. The last acid factory closed in 1924, and there remained only Cannonsville’s two timeworn sawmills, descriptively named Slow & Easy and Speedwell. Soon the place was entirely dominated by dairy farming. The pride of the valley was the Rock Royal cooperative creamery, which opened in 1938 and by the end had 153 members, 50 of whom were to lose their land to the reservoir. Besides the creamery, Rock Royal held only a few houses, and much the same was true of Granton, though it did also have a store. Rock Rift had a population of only about 100, many of them lodged in former acid-factory company houses, yet it was a bit busier, with a butcher, a baker, two taverns (Walton, the nearest sizeable town, was dry), an Italian restaurant, a general store, and a church. The greater part of the 941 people who would have to relocate lived on outlying farms. The valley also contained eleven cemeteries with 2150 graves.

The reservoir was to extend sixteen-and-a-half miles from the dam site at Stilesville, near Deposit, to above Rock Rift, with a five-and-a-half-mile finger from Cannonsville up Trout Creek to Rock Royal. The dam was to cut across the western end of a large flat island two-and-a-quarter miles above Stilesville, and to stretch about half a mile wide. The village of Cannonsville was to lie under 75 feet of water. Route 10 from the dam to Rock Rift would be almost entirely flooded; the dirt road from the dam to Granton would be sunk; the blacktop from Cannonsville to Rock Royal would drown. The maximum width of the reservoir was little more than a mile, at a point opposite Johnny Brook. It would have a capacity of 118 billion gallons and could send up to 323 million gallons a day to the metropolis. The costs were estimated at $20.6 million for the dam and the spillway; $6 million for gatehouse and tunnel construction; a million-and-a-half for clearing and grubbing; $17.7 million for highway relocation, land acquisition, and damages; $980,000 for fencing, planting, and land maintenance; and $7.7 million for administration, engineering, and police, with a 15% contingency fund attached, in addition to $80 million earmarked for the tunnel to the Rondout Reservoir. The total $140 million was approved by the New York City Board of Estimate on January 27, 1950. It was expected that the new reservoir would be completed by 1960.

At the time, during a period of extended drought, New York City was observing ‘Dry Thursdays.’

But there was strong opposition to the Cannonsville scheme. At the Board of Estimate hearing, a lawyer for the townships of Walton and Tompkins along with the Rock Royal Co-op, William Fancher, argued that farmers would have to ship their milk 40 to 60 miles farther, leading to an increase in prices everywhere. Three months later, at a hearing at Delhi, Lawrence Beck, a consulting engineer appearing on behalf of the valley communities, urged the state Water Power and Control Commission to consider instead a low-level dam across the Hudson near Haverstraw. This dam, of a type known as barrage or gate-pierced (designed to prevent saltwater from passing through), would cost a mere $200 million. But Benjamin Nelson, director of laboratories for the Board of Water Supply, called the Hudson dam idea “hazardous” and “unreliable,” adding, “The Hudson River … is virtually a reservoir of infection.” 18 At the time, during a period of extended drought, the city was observing “Dry Thursdays,” a weekly “water holiday” when citizens were urged to keep consumption to the absolute minimum. Momentum was on the side of the plan already in place.

In November 1950, the Cannonsville Reservoir was approved by the state; all that was pending was the sanction of the United States Supreme Court. Beck’s engineering plan, which by then included such refinements as ship locks, fish ladders, and a six-lane portion of the New York State Thruway, was rejected. The state noted that the Hudson dam would require an initial capital outlay of $629 million and an annual operating cost of $6 million — and anyway, Beck was unqualified. The argument was taken up again four years later, this time by Harold Riegelman, a brilliant gadfly in city politics who in 1933 had established the independent Citizens Budget Commission to mediate among the mayor, the governor, the legislature, and the bankers in a successful effort to prevent the city from defaulting on its loans. Two decades later, Riegelman, still representing the Citizens Budget Commission, alleged that the city was fiddling with the figures on the reservoir, and had secretly capitulated to the wishes of their counterparts in Pennsylvania — who insisted that Philadelphia have first dibs on Delaware water and that New York should be ready to release 400 million gallons to its neighbor on demand.

"Stop That Leak!" New York City subway poster, 1940s.
“Stop That Leak!” New York City subway poster by Fred Cooper, 1940s. [NYC Water © Flickr, courtesy DEP NYC]

Groundbreaking at the West Delaware Tunnel, 1955.
Groundbreaking at the West Delaware Tunnel, 1955. [NYC Water © Flickr, courtesy DEP NYC]

In June 1954, the United States Supreme Court amended its 1931 decision, ruling that New York could take an additional 360 million gallons a day from the Delaware, for a daily total of 800 million gallons. “Mayor Wagner said the augmented system should meet the city’s water requirements until the end of the century,” noted the Times. 19 On December 14, an unsigned editorial in the paper of record endorsed the idea of a Hudson River dam. A week later, the city’s Finance Committee voted to leave undisturbed the $91.6 million initial allocation for the reservoir. In January, the Times published a long letter by Riegelman arguing again for the Hudson River plan, and the following month Pennsylvania’s attorney general joined the fray, sternly advising New York that it must yield to its neighbor’s prior claim on the Delaware, and suggesting that a Hudson dam might be a better idea. The fight never really stopped, even through the years when the reservoir was being built. As late as 1963, the Citizens Budget Commission was still issuing press releases calling the Cannonsville reservoir an “inexcusable blunder.” 20

On December 9, 1955, Mayor Wagner broke ground with a clamshell loader at Shaft 2 of the new Delaware Tunnel, near the hamlet of Harvard. The three-man condemnation panels began their work in 1955, with the aim of claiming 19,910 acres, or 3.1 square miles. Herman Gottfried fought for the hearings to be held in Delaware County, while attorneys for the city objected with their claim that Gottfried had “built hate.” After a few select acquisitions, such as the 300-acre farm of George and Maude Conrad, across from the Cannonsville Creamery, and the adjacent 100-acre farm of the Walker brothers, the panels ceased, for years, for reasons the record does not make clear. The Freeman’s Journal of Cooperstown noted some activity in April 1959, after which the panels did not make the news again until June 1961, when State Supreme Court Justice Daniel McAvoy threw out three awards, calling them “shocking and distorted” in their putative generosity. McAvoy, who nine years earlier had cut fourteen awards in the Pepacton cases, denied awards of $171,775 to Mr. and Mrs. Theron Turner for their 205 acres, $123,000 to Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence K. Turner for their 139 acres, and $101,600 to the father and son John and Donald Garrigan. The judge scornfully dismissed expert testimony as “erudite knowledge on water temperature, fish, and aestheticism” and the “unsupported opinion of a so-called real-estate expert to the effect that certain land is influenced in value by some hypothetical use to which it might be put.” 21 Awards left unchallenged were more modest, such as $65,000 to Kenneth and Eleanor Wright for their 150 acres.

In January 1960, the last rock was blown for the Delaware Aqueduct, and a grand holing-through dinner was held in the Starlight Room at the Waldorf-Astoria.

In January 1960, the last rock was blown for the Delaware Aqueduct, and a week later a grand holing-through dinner was held in the Starlight Room at the Waldorf-Astoria, honoring the contractors: Johnson, Drake and Piper; the Tecon Company; the Conduit and Foundation Corporation; and the Winston Brothers Company, descendants of the general contractor who had built the Ashokan Reservoir half a century before. “Each guest at the dinner is to be mailed a handsome office barometer, duly inscribed,” remarked the Catskill Mountain News in a tone of studious neutrality. 22 Condemnation posters started going up in the valley in the late fall of 1961; in 1962, 298 people moved out. In late January of that year, eleven Cannonsville residents filed an affidavit protesting the city’s order to vacate immediately, when it had only acquired title on January 8 — and in addition were asking the plaintiffs to move in the dead of winter. Herman Gottfried called the action “faster than Hilter’s blitz,” 23 and the court allowed a respite until May.

The Times finally sent a reporter to take the local temperature in October 1963. In Cannonsville, he found the graveyard empty of bodies and the creamery with all its windows broken. Valley residents were “vexed” by the actions of the city. Even though the Board of Water Supply had made a point of buying provisions locally and hiring locals for construction and clerical work, they were still bitter. “The farmers have regarded the destruction of these communities as wanton. They consider it symbolic of New York City egomania — an attitude that the outlying provinces exist solely as adjuncts to the city.” A woman who moved her house twelve miles from Cannonsville to Stilesville told him, “When they wipe out a whole community — your friends, neighbors, stores, merchants — there’s no amount of money that can replace it.” 24 Merchants in Deposit were asking for damages; the franchisee for Western Auto (at the time an all-purpose working-class emporium) complained that construction workers, many of whom came from the South and didn’t plan to stay, couldn’t make up for lost trade because they lived in trailers and didn’t buy home furnishings. Owners of downriver properties fretted that the dam had made the river too cold for bass, to which the president of the Board of Water Supply responded that they had no right to complain, since the river now contained trout.

In December 1963, the Deposit Courier told the story of Missy, a German short-haired pointer, who ran away from home and was eventually found by the foundation of her old house, which the family had vacated in July 1962. The Board of Water Supply had opened its Bureau of Claims in 1954 and had handled 200 properties, including more than 80 farms and 100 homes. The last four residents vacated in 1964; the dam was finished on February 16, 1965; the first water went over the spillway in May 1967. The last meeting of the Commission of Appraisal, which since 1935 had reviewed 6700 claims for a total of $26,806,168, took place in October 1993. Its last major award, in 1992, was $20,598 to Margaretville Hospital for lost business, since 301 patients had moved out of its receiving area.

Pepacton Reservoir.
Closing the gates at Pepacton Reservoir, 2020. [Tim Davis]

Cannonsville Spillway, 2014.
Cannonsville Spillway, 2014. [NYC Water © Flickr, courtesy DEP NYC]

But even then, troubles were not over for the Cannonsville Reservoir, the water of which was generally deemed to be of lesser quality than that of the others in the system. A plan by New Jersey and Pennsylvania to build a new reservoir at Tocks Island, near the Delaware Water Gap, failed in 1976. The following year New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware threatened to go to the Supreme Court to keep New York State — which had assumed responsibility a year earlier — from controlling the flow on the three Delaware reservoirs. That year the Delaware River Commission unanimously approved a plan requiring New York to release an additional 31 billion gallons a year from Cannonsville, Pepacton, and Neversink. In 1996, a flood in Walton caused the road ringing the Cannonsville Reservoir to collapse, throwing four cars down 70 feet and killing six. Floods in 2004, 2005, and 2006 killed nine and caused $500 million in property damage in four states. In 2007, after a long dispute, New York finally agreed to release up to 35 million gallons a day back into the Delaware to maintain temperature and water levels. By 2017, city officials worried that rising ocean levels might endanger New York’s drinking water, since ever more reservoir water would be needed to maintain the salt line in Delaware Bay.

New York, like other cities, is filled with people who have no idea where their water comes from.

Back in 1997, however, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection had been reassuring: “Based on the results of metering, toilet replacement, public information, and other conservation programs achieved to date and expected in the future, it is projected that no additional water sources will be necessary for the next fifty years.” 25 On close inspection, this does not truly reassure. But it has been a while since the Northeast has faced a serious drought, and no incidents or complaints have recently made the news, so the health of the system has not been questioned of late, at least not in public. In the meantime, New York City continues to take its drinking water from those artificial lakes in mountain valleys, so inviting on a hot day in a region with no real lakes, albeit as taboo for swimming or boating as if they were meant for the gods alone. The ghosts of the drowned villages continue to haunt the popular imagination via roadside markers and twice-told tales, even as the tally of relocated citizens — never quite integrated into their new communities, in places where “away” might mean five miles and “new” might mean 50 years ago— continues to diminish. Farms continue to fail, and farmers continue to die, and land and houses continue to be bought by city people who wouldn’t know their sheep dip from their cream separator.  New York, like other cities, is filled with people who have no idea where their water comes from, and are only occasionally made aware that it is a precious and very finite resource that will become scarce again one day — perhaps quite soon. By then there will be no untapped mountain valleys to draw from.

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

  1. Catskill Mountain News, November 25, 1955.
  2. Diane Galusha, Liquid Assets: A History of New York City’s Water Supply (Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, Ltd., 1999), 224.
  3. Catskill Mountain News, November 19, 1948.
  4. John Burroughs, Pepacton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1881), iii-iv.
  5. Douglas DeNatale, Two Stones for Every Dirt: The Story of Delaware County, New York (Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, Ltd., 1987).
  6. The Catskill Mountain News, founded in 1904, ceased publication in January 2020. There remain a number of small local newspapers in Delaware County — the Walton Reporter, the Deposit Courier, the Mountain Eagle (now merged with the Schoharie News) — and they are useful for publicizing 4-H Club benefits, free health screenings, and five-kilometer walks to raise consciousness about rheumatoid arthritis, not to mention providing summaries of sometimes contentious school-board meetings and the like. They have nevertheless lost the flavor they possessed back before television and the interstate highway system, when county residents were more connected by family ties and shared circumstances, when car accidents were significant news items (and there were an awful lot of them in the 1950s, before power brakes and DUI laws), and visits to or from relatives outside the area were still thought worthy of being noted in print. Their coverage of the reservoir construction and its consequences was often granular and very personal. After the villages of Shavertown and Arena were condemned for the Pepacton Reservoir, the Catskill Mountain News published full-page grids of photographs of houses marked for destruction —more than twenty at a time — in full expectation that these pictures would awaken specific emotional associations in their readers.
  7. New York Daily News, October 9, 1952.
  8. New York Times, June 4, 1949.
  9. Ibid.
  10. These crews may not have arrived; in the end, Holliday Brook was not submerged.
  11. New York Daily News, October 16, 1952.
  12. Catskill Mountain News, December 22, 1950.
  13. New York Daily News, September 9, 1948
  14. New York Times, July 28, 1957.
  15. Catskill Mountain News, April 9, 1954.
  16. New York Times, October 15, 1955.
  17. Catskill Mountain News, October 21, 1955.
  18. New York Times, June 8, 1950.
  19. New York Times, June 8, 1954.
  20. Catskill Mountain News, December 26, 1963.
  21. Ibid., June 16, 1961.
  22. Ibid., January 29, 1960.
  23. Ibid., January 25, 1962.
  24. New York Times, October 22, 1963.
  25. Ibid., 229.
Lucy Sante, “An Air of Permanent Mourning,” Places Journal, November 2020. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

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