An Enduring Source of Drinking Water

By the turn of the 20th century, the inadequacy of New York City’s water-provision systems was evident. A more radical solution was needed.

This is the second 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.

Bridge under construction at Ashokan Reservoir, 1913.
Traver Hollow Bridge under construction at the northwestern end of the Ashokan Reservoir, 1913. [NYC Water © Flickr, courtesy DEP NYC]

By the dawn of the 19th century, New York City found itself in the position of the sailor in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798), who is stuck on a becalmed ship for many long days: “Water, water, every where, / Nor any drop to drink.” The city was surrounded by ocean and salt estuary, but had fouled or exhausted nearly all its springs, wells, streams, and ponds, and was forced to consider importing fresh water. This it eventually did, in stages that covered the following century and a half. Between 1837 and 1842, city authorities built the 400-acre Croton Reservoir in Westchester County to the north, along with a 41-mile aqueduct, and receiving and distributing reservoirs in Manhattan. As the urban population grew exponentially over the decades, its need for water strained these arrangements too, and after the Civil War the city began adding smaller reservoirs, eventually a dozen or so, to the Croton System. Soon they, too, proved insufficient. At the beginning of the 20th century, the municipal government built a new aqueduct and vastly enlarged the original reservoir, although the system’s long-term inadequacy was evident to engineers even before these enlargements were completed. A more radical solution was clearly and urgently needed.

New York City is surrounded by ocean and salt estuary, but the population had fouled or exhausted nearly all its springs, wells, streams, and ponds.

The watershed of the Catskill Mountains was first proposed as a large and enduring source of drinking water by a chemical engineer writing in a supplement to Scientific American in 1886. He even specified the optimal location for a dam, at Bishop Falls on Esopus Creek in Ulster County, a natural drainage point. When, in 1905, the Water Supply Board of New York City sent a team of engineers to survey the Catskill watershed, they also recommended Bishop Falls as the dam site for a reservoir that would eventually cover 8,300 acres. It would flood the Esopus Creek roughly midway in its course from the mountains to the Hudson River, in a section known as the Ashokan Valley. The city proceeded to seize the villages of West Hurley, Glenford, Ashton, Olive Branch, Shokan, West Shokan, Boiceville, Brodhead’s Bridge, Olive City, Olive Bridge, and Brown’s Station, as well as land owned by the Ulster & Delaware Railroad and some patches of forest preserve owned by the state.

Map of the NYC water supply system, 1938.
The New York City water supply system, 1938. [NYC Water © Flickr, courtesy DEP NYC]

The expropriated properties included some 500 private houses, along with schools, churches, stores, hotels, mills, quarries, farmland, and vacation homes. Under the terms of eminent domain, owners could not refuse, although they had to be compensated. The city’s representatives, in the form of three-person condemnation commissions, acquired territory just a step ahead of the demolition crews, giving residents 30 days to pack up and leave, as clearances moved in a clockwise direction through the valley. The commissions consistently lowballed estimates and generally paid around a third of the appraised value of properties, not even taking loss of business into consideration until forced to by a series of lawsuits. That only served to increase the long-simmering tensions between upstate and downstate, country and city — even between the county seat and its rural dependencies. The farmers, as well as the millers, boardinghouse keepers, quarrymen, foresters, trappers, and others who depended on the land for their survival, had always felt vulnerable to the machinations of lawyers, politicians, and contractors, who represented the power of the city. The chain of events proved their deepest fears to be correct — they were entirely naked and powerless, without recourse when it came to negotiating with downstate powers. They were losing their homes without so much as proper compensation, for the benefit of people a hundred miles away whom they already regarded with suspicion.

Ashokan National Bank and post office, Brown's Station, 1909.
Ashokan National Bank and post office, Brown’s Station, postcard circa 1909. [Courtesy Lucy Sante]

Lower spillway, Olive Bridge Dam, upstate NY..
Lower spillway, Olive Bridge Dam, 2020. [Tim Davis]

The communities, some of them dating back to the mid-18th century, were valley villages of the sort that, had the reservoir never intervened, might have grown to support two gas stations and a regional high school — or they might have just blown away, their only remaining trace a historical marker on a roadside. At one commission hearing, a witness from New York City professed himself unable to construe what, exactly, was Brown’s Station. A citizen named Edwin Burhans volunteered to enlighten him.

Brown’s Station includes everybody who receives mail from the Brown’s Station  postoffice. There are fifty-seven buildings. Twelve of these are used for residential purposes only. There is a school maintained by the local authorities, a postoffice and a railroad depot. A public telephone, telegraph office and a store complete the places of prominence. 1

He adds that from the post office the village extends one mile west, more than a mile east, one-and-a-quarter miles north, and a mile-and-three-quarters south. The population consists of 57 families; there are nine or ten boardinghouses, two sawmills, a pulp mill, and several quarries. There are five roads, one of which leads to the pulp mill and then goes on to Kingston, the others with more local issue. Pressed by a commissioner, Burhans admits that, yes, all five roads could really be considered one big road.

Upstaters were losing their homes without proper compensation, to benefit people a hundred miles away whom they already regarded with suspicion.

Besides the living residents, the villages also harbored the dead, and these, too, had to be moved. There were 2,413 graves, or 2,637, or 2,720, or 2,800 — every source gives a different, oddly specific total — in a dozen cemeteries and many more small family graveyards, one of which turned out to abut a much older burying ground established by the Lenni Lenape at an unknown date. The Native American remains, along with unclaimed or unidentifiable bodies of European Americans, were removed to a cemetery at the far end of Watson Hollow, west of the westernmost part of the reservoir. There had been a tussle over damage claims to monuments before a judge ruled that tombstones were legally real estate, and hence that families could be compensated for their loss or relocation. It cost a total of $300,000 to move the bodies, the sums mostly borne by their descendants: $42 for a new lot in the town graveyard of their choice, four dollars to open the grave, four dollars for reinterment, $20 for a cheap metal coffin, ten to transport the remains, five to move the headstone. The city allowed $15 for the move and $3 for the stone.

Drovers and mules at the reservoir site, circa 1910.
Drovers and mules at the reservoir site, circa 1910. [Courtsy Lucy Sante]

Crusher plant and power plant, Brown's Station, postcard circa 1915.
Crusher plant and power plant, Brown’s Station, postcard circa 1915. [Courtesy Lucy Sante]

Once New York City had acquired a property — by 1909 it owned all the land in the Ashokan Valley — it would clear it immediately if it stood in the way of imminent construction. Most holdings, however, were not urgently required at first, and so the city would rent out the houses, sometimes to their original inhabitants. It would auction off produce that did not need to be tended, such as apples (in 1911 the city made $457 on the apple harvest), and reap the hay, which would be fed to police horses and labor mules. Reminiscing in the 1980s, a woman who had been a small child during construction of the dam remembered that a mule would begin to bray every morning at exactly ten minutes to five, soon accompanied by all its stablemates — a more effective wake-up than the company whistle.

The villages also harbored the dead, and these, too, had to be moved.

Three hundred animals were employed in the project (331 at its peak in August 1909). The mules, who accounted for about 200 of the total, worked in teams of three, driven by African Americans, most of whom had been recruited in the South, mainly Alabama. These drovers, who in one account numbered 123, lived in a segregated camp, allegedly for their own protection. But then the other camps in the great temporary city near Brown’s Station were segregated as well. The workers onsite numbered between 1900 and 2500, depending on the phase of the project (there were also 178 women, primarily there because their husbands were, and 301 children). More than half were Italians — most unskilled, but some of them master stonecutters — and their camp was called Little Italy. The papers spoke darkly of the so-called “padrone” system of patronage and kickbacks; any time an Italian was arrested, he was alleged to be a member of the Black Hand. Other workers came from Austria, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Finland, and Germany, and naturally there were some locally recruited hands as well.

Highest paid were the stonemasons, at $3 a day. Pipefitters, pumpers, and plumbers got $2 a day; powdermen, who worked with dynamite, earned $10.16 a week; unskilled laborers received between $1.20 and $1.60 a day. Waterboys, as young as nine or ten years old, were given a dollar a day for many mile-long round trips bearing two twelve-quart pails. From their wages workers paid for room and board at a rate of $20 to $22.50 a month. About a hundred laborers went on strike in 1908, demanding an increase of five cents a day, and the International Workers of the World sent out an organizer, but the strike failed and the workforce was never unionized. The jobs were hazardous; workers were killed or maimed by collapsing scaffolds, inopportune explosions, being scalded by steam, being pulled into stonecrushers or caught in the gears of steamrollers — and subject to lesser injuries and disease, such as the typhoid outbreak of 1913. But the city was inconsistent in its care. I was unable to find even a speculative statistic for on-the-job fatalities.

Pipefitters, pumpers, and plumbers got $2 a day; powdermen, who worked with dynamite, earned $10.16 a week.

The Kingston Daily Freeman, the principal local newspaper, covered many of the accidents, sometimes in grisly detail. It also recorded onsite murders, of which there seem to have been maybe half a dozen, all of them accomplished with knives, and it published summary notices of raids on dives and brothels and numerous arrests of illegal hooch vendors. By and large, however, its focus was on the legal and financial machinations of the project. There was the ongoing matter of the local telephone companies, of which there were two: the Hudson River Telephone Company, which received a settlement of $25,000, and the Citizens’ Standard Telephone Company, which got $15,500, both of them also granted perpetual use of New York City’s right of way for their cables. However, the companies had paid easements of a dollar apiece to all the landowners whose property their cables originally traversed, and these were never recompensed by the city. More serious was the long struggle between New York City and the Ulster & Delaware Railroad. Its owner, Samuel D. Coykendall; its general manager, his brother Edward; and its general counsel, Judge A. T. Clearwater, had been among the earliest and most outspoken opponents of the Ashokan Reservoir, and had made significant efforts to defeat it through the legislature and the courts at Albany. They were prepared to fight it out to the end. Faced with defeat at the hands of the city they demanded $4,555,174, including $1,600,000 to relocate the tracks on a route just north of the reservoir; in June 1911 they finally settled for $3.1 million in compensation, with a $200,000 rebate to the city if it laid the new tracks for them. Two years later the route had been built, minus six stations but including two new ones, and rolling stock shifted to it, soon to run at least 20 trains a day. On opening day, an oblivious driver coming from the old track shot his engine into the path of another at a crossing on the new line, killing the reservoir project’s chief mechanical engineer, Curtis Peters. All work stopped for his funeral.

Ulster & Delaware train at the Brown's Station depot, circa 1899.
Ulster & Delaware train at the Brown’s Station depot, circa 1899. [Courtesy Lucy Sante]

From 1907 to 1913 a steady trickle of people moved out of the Ashokan Valley. Of 1,908 migrants, 163 died during the six years of the project, 712 relocated in the immediate vicinity of the reservoir, 472 moved to Kingston and its surrounds, 71 moved west to Woodstock and Mount Pleasant, 162 moved south to Port Ewen and environs, and 328 moved clear off the map. Sometimes entire communities were relocated. West Hurley, Shokan, West Shokan, and Boiceville shifted themselves north or west, moving buildings as well, even if it meant repurposing them in the new setting; a church became a fraternal hall, a school became a store. A 1913 photograph of relocated Shokan looks much the way it does today, along a straight stretch of Route 28: a widely spaced row of substantial houses — presumably carted there by their owners on log rollers, drawn by oxen — across from the U & D tracks, nowadays idle. The only village to relocate south of the reservoir was Olive Bridge. Although Glenford did not relocate, the congregation of its Methodist church decided to move its edifice north. The only wrinkle was that part of the building lay on the newly designated Ulster & Delaware line, which gave the railroad majority ownership. Coykendall had no objection to the move, but deferred salvage rights to the reservoir’s general contractor, J. O. Winston, who approved the shift at no charge. So the church was moved to a lower slope of Ohayo Mountain (where it still stands) — whereupon the city demanded its immediate return, on byzantine legal grounds. The case finally went to trial in December 1914, the press rejoicing in the phrase “the stolen church.” The court at length returned a sealed verdict awarding the city $45.

Money was an endless source of discussion; the city was still negotiating settlements late in the 1930s.

Money was an endless source of discussion, as reports were released, sums contended, lawsuits joined; the city was still negotiating individual settlements late in the 1930s. The largest single award to a private citizen was made to John Boice, owner of Bishop’s Falls, once a celebrated beauty spot and now the site of the main dam, who received $112,303.18, with $27,000 in accrued interest and $12,000 in costs. By 1910 the property awards amounted to nearly $4 million — and the cost of the attendant proceedings almost $3 million: 75 cents on the dollar. That year an editorial writer for the Freeman brought up a current scandal concerning lawyers who had descended on the Oklahoma Territory and were extorting unwarranted fees from Native Americans who were trying to get proper compensation for lands they had sold to the government in the passage to statehood. Much the same was occurring down the road, the Freeman observed.

Perhaps they [in Oklahoma] had heard of how civilized white men in Ulster County had … agreed to pay a bonus of 10 per cent to a lawyer whose pay was already guaranteed by the city of New York, or [were] believing the tales they heard and selling their property for less than its value to speculators who hoped to collect many times its value. 2

Those speculators, otherwise unrecorded, must themselves have felt cheated when the payout came. The city did very well. Its completion estimate had been $176,663,000; the final total cost was $184,707,540, the difference accounted for by the need to expand the reservoir police, and an enlarged workforce owing to the demands of the newly won eight-hour day. Nevertheless, the city was known for not paying its bills. The prosecution of crimes committed by reservoir employees had strained local budgets to the tune of $13,000 by 1910, but the city would only compensate local authorities if the crime had been perpetrated by an employee on a day of employment — it declined to cover Sundays and absences, and would not pay justices of the peace and the like. In 1910 the city began a campaign to make the reservoir tax exempt, which failed. Piqued, the city refused to pay its tax bill, for years, until in 1930 the Ulster County treasurer and the supervisors of the townships of Olive, Hurley, and Marbletown put the reservoir up for sale for back taxes. The city finally coughed up $576,023.40, with $54,000 in interest and fees, in 1932.

Road construction at the Ashokan Reservoir, 1915.
Road construction atop the middle dike at the Ashokan Reservoir, 1915. [[NYC Water © Flickr, courtesy DEP NYC]

Railroad bridge across the Ashokan Reservoir, postcard circa 1916.
Railroad bridge across the Ashokan Reservoir, postcard circa 1916. [Courtesy Lucy Sante]

Building a bridge, upstate NY.
Bridge builders at Esopus Creek near Mt. Tremper, 2020. [Tim Davis]

By June 1913, the last stubborn holdouts moved out of the valley — though more than 800 had still been living within the taking lines earlier that spring. The place was eerie by then, with few recognizable landmarks. Lifelong residents of Brown’s Station and Olive City would get lost in their own villages and need to ask their way. Workers were still blasting stumps and burning trees, and the night sky was punctuated by columns of fire. (Despite the long-running legend that droughts afford a chance to see steeples cresting above the reservoir’s water line, all remaining buildings had been burned as well, and even the ashes removed; a severe drought now reveals only cellars and roadbeds.) In October, an inspection by the New York Board of Water Supply indicated that roughly two years’ worth of finishing touches still needed to be done. But water was now flowing into the excavation, the reservoir “so nearly completed that were New York City to be afflicted with a water famine within the next few weeks the Catskill water supply could be turned into this immense connecting tunnel and from the Croton watershed sent to the city through the regular channels.” 3

Local water was so pure that New Yorkers had long been buying it from the Crystal Spring Water Company of Pine Hill.

In 1914, the wings of the dam were terraced with three- to four-ton blocks of bluestone quarried locally, and 780 men and 244 mules and horses laid macadam over the 40 miles of reservoir roads. The local water was so pure that (as the aptly named Judge Clearwater pointed out in 1905, in a speech against the proposed reservoir) New Yorkers had long been buying it in five-gallon carboys from the Crystal Spring Water Company of Pine Hill. So the facility did not need a filtration plant, but was instead given an aerating fountain. Water passed though an aeration basin, a small reservoir 500 by 250 feet, its bottom lined with pipes four or five feet apart, from which streams were ejected 40 to 60 feet in the air. This oxidized vegetable organisms and removed taste and odor. (Eventually alum was introduced to counter the effects of turbidity and soda ash to prevent over-acidity, and the water was chlorinated twice, at the Kensico and Hillview Reservoirs.) On June 24, 1914, all the steam whistles in the zone were set off at once, marking the official end of the project. Only the cleanup remained. Throughout 1916, workers slowly demolished the camp at Brown’s Station and the plants and temporary railroads.

The year 1914 had been dry, but in 1915 the rains came, filling the reservoir to a hundred feet; on November 22, water was released into the aqueduct. In an era of superlatives, when postcards were published comparing, for example, the height of skyscrapers with the length of ocean liners, the press reveled in statistics. The project was rivaled only by the Panama Canal as an achievement of America’s engineering might. The Ashokan Reservoir, bigger than the whole Croton System, with an aqueduct eighteen miles longer than both Croton pipelines laid end to end, through which water flowed by gravity alone, had the potential to deliver 660 million gallons a day. The reservoir’s surface was equal to that of Manhattan below 110th Street. Its contents could fill the Hudson River from the Battery at the southern tip of Manhattan to Hastings-on-Hudson in Westchester County. It took three days for a theoretical drop to travel from the Catskills to Staten Island, which received its first Ashokan water in January 1917. In October 1917, New York City held a three-day celebration of its new water supply, during which 15,000 schoolchildren and a thousand women from Hunter College participated in a pageant in Central Park called “The Good Gift of Water.”

But the Board of Water Supply had already known for years that the Ashokan Reservoir alone would be insufficient in the long run. Engineers were surveying for a proposed reservoir on Rondout Creek in Lackawack as early as July 1907; mention of a reservoir on the Neversink River first appeared in the papers in 1911; in 1912 there was talk of new dams on Schoharie Creek and the Delaware River. These projects would all come to fruition, but completion of the full scheme of linked reservoirs in upstate New York would take more than half a century longer.



The first additional project to be undertaken was the dam on Schoharie Creek, in Schoharie County, due north of the Ashokan Reservoir. This undertaking, approved by the city in June 1916, was smaller in scale than its predecessor, but represented a devilishly complex engineering challenge. The Schoharie flowed north from the foot of Indian Head Mountain, at the southwest corner of Greene County (which lies between Schoharie and Ulster), into the Mohawk River. Its course had to be diverted south, into a tunnel running from near Prattsville, in Greene County, down to Allaben, on the Esopus northwest of the Ashokan Reservoir. Eighteen miles long, this would be the longest continuous tunnel in the world, its course blasted almost entirely through solid rock. The dynamiting and boring was to be accomplished via seven shafts, ranging from 320 to 630 feet in depth; the tunnel’s slope would average 4.4 feet per mile.

The dam was to be constructed atop the site of the village of Gilboa, officially founded in 1848 but dating back to the mid-18th century.

The reservoir, tapping into a 314-square-mile watershed, had been tentatively planned for Prattsville, which a century earlier had been the national center of the tanning industry until its hemlock forests, required for that process, were decimated. By 1919, engineers had shifted the location to Gilboa, twelve miles north. The dam was to be constructed right atop the site of the village of Gilboa, founded in 1848 through the merger of the villages of Blenheim and Broome, both dating back to the mid-18th century. The village was home to about 350 people; with outlying residents the total number for relocation came to roughly 500. Condemnation proceedings began in 1918, taking 204 properties, with the city operating in its accustomed way — three-man panels, relentless lowballing, dismissals of many claims for damages and loss of business.

Panoramic view of the Gilboa Dam and the village of Gilboa, 1922.
Panoramic view of the Gilboa Dam and the village of Gilboa, 1922. [NYC Water © Flickr, courtesy DEP NYC]

The village of Gilboa, 1919.
The village of Gilboa, 1919. [NYC Water © Flickr, courtesy DEP NYC]

Fossilized tree stumps unearthed during construction of Schoharie Tunnel, 1921. [NYC Water © Flickr, courtesy DEP NYC]

The residents, forewarned by the example of their Ulster County cousins, put up fierce if ineffectual resistance, relying on the fact that city employees could not legally enter their houses to turn them out. When people refused to move, however, workers tore off their roofs. Even then some hung on, in empty houses, having prudently removed their furniture. Mary Brooks stood firm until she had to leave for a moment to confer with a neighbor, whereupon workers set her house on fire. A large fire in October 1925, which consumed eighteen buildings, may also have been deliberately set. One man had a brainstorm early on; he built a new house in a critical location, thinking he could soak the assessors. When he was offered a niggling sum, he refused to leave. But he made the mistake of advertising rooms for rent, which gave workers legal right to enter. When the man stepped out on an errand, they padlocked the house. The New York Times noted in 1925 that of the residents of Gilboa in 1917 “almost a third are dead,” and suggested that broken hearts had hastened their end. 4 The 1330 bodies lying in seven cemeteries also had to be moved. A witness recalled years later that when the graves were opened the only thing that remained intact were men’s silk ties.

When people refused to move, workers tore off their roofs. Mary Brooks stepped out for a moment, whereupon her house was set on fire.

A Times reporter, writing in 1926 near the end of the project, marveled at the new if temporary city that had grown up in place of Gilboa, with 5000 residents, paved streets, schools, national and savings banks, electric streetlights, sewers, and 30 miles of railroad tracks with 33 locomotives and 380 cars, as well as 60 derricks and nineteen steam shovels. He may have overestimated the population. The project only employed 1,200 people at any one time, and many of them lived in the individual camps set up at the tunnel shafts, although it is estimated that 10,000 workers were hired overall; grueling conditions ensured a constant turnover. Recruiters for the project were the first in the area to use buses, which shipped in laborers from Philadelphia and Buffalo. The ethnic cross-section seems to have been roughly the same as that of the Ashokan workforce: African Americans, Italians, Poles, Russians, Swedes, though with a larger representation of Native Americans from northern and western New York.

Gilboa Dam seen through orange plastic.
Gilboa Dam, 2020. [Tim Davis]

During tunnel boring in 1921, workers came upon what the press would refer to as a “petrified forest.” In the bluestone stratum they found dozens of fossilized stumps, some measuring three feet in diameter, of seed-bearing tree ferns dating to the Devonian era, 300 million years ago. The reservoir, meanwhile, stretched 5.8 miles long, from Gilboa to the outskirts of Prattsville. It was seven-tenths of a mile wide and drowned a total of 1,200 acres, with a capacity of 20 billion gallons. The dam, of Cyclopean masonry, was 150 feet wide and 155 feet high. The construction process was awe-inspiring in its scale, with conveyor belts rigged to scaffolding bringing in material from three directions: stone from a nearby mountain, Portland cement from across the valley, and sand from Prattsville. The reservoir began to be filled in July 1926, during a drought; a massive storm on November 16 brought in eleven billion gallons the first day and a billion gallons each of the next six. An initial dispatch of 660 million gallons headed down the tunnel on November 24, destined for New York City with its 412,000 commercial and residential accounts and 46,000 fire hydrants, where water consumed on a daily basis weighed eight times as much as its residents. The supply at that point was estimated to be ample until 1935. Nevertheless, the city again refused to pay its taxes, $60,000 worth by the time the Schoharie County treasurer threatened to sell the dam, a month before the November 16 storm.

Neversink and Rondout

Although surveyed and mapped by 1910, the beginnings of another New York reservoir system, this time on the Delaware River — drawing on a massive watershed that sprawls across large portions of three states — were not undertaken until after the Depression, delayed by lack of funds and by political difficulties as well as by the construction of City Tunnel #2, crossing the Bronx and the East River into Brooklyn, which for a time usurped the title of world’s longest continuous tunnel. 5 (City Tunnel #1 and City Tunnel #2 both carry water from the Hillview Reservoir in the Catskill System). The Rondout Reservoir, the first in the Delaware watershed chain, began construction in 1937 but was interrupted twice — by World War II and the Korean War — and was not completed until 1954. Its neighbor, the Neversink Reservoir, 22 miles away, was begun in 1941, just in time for the war, and finished in 1953. Both sit in a valley at the southern end of the Catskills. The Rondout lies across the border between Wawarsing, at the southwestern end of Ulster County, and Neversink, at the northeastern end of Sullivan County. The Neversink is entirely contained within the town of that name. The Rondout collects from Rondout Creek, which rises on Rocky Mountain in the eastern Catskills and describes a counterclockwise course down into Sullivan County before flowing northeast to enter the Hudson at Kingston. The Neversink draws on the Neversink River, a tributary of the Delaware. Each facility was intended primarily to serve as a transfer and collection point from hypothetical future reservoirs farther northwest.

Construction was delayed by the Depression, two wars, and delicate negotiations with Pennsylvania and New Jersey, over rights to the Delaware watershed.

In 1937 the hamlets of Eureka, Montela, and Lackawack were condemned in the usual way, consuming 158 parcels in 6500 acres and displacing around 1,200 residents, as well as the remains from eight cemeteries. An unknown number of buildings was destroyed — one source claims a thousand, which seems unlikely — along with unspecified other properties. The largest industry in Lackawack was a tannery; in Eureka it was a grist mill. Perhaps the largest compensation went to one Nora Plunkett of Lackawack, who was awarded $79,000 in 1939, although the specifics of her property do not appear. The valley, not on a railroad line, was relatively remote — the nearest town of any size was Ellenville, population 4000 in 1940 — and events there were not closely covered by the press, which perhaps was bored by then with the water drama. When the Neversink Reservoir displaced 250 people from the hamlets of Neversink and Bittersweet four years later, scarcely a detail of the operation made the papers. Lackawack and Neversink both relocated, the latter now the hub of its township. The land where the five hamlets had been was to lie stripped and bare for many years.

The old saw mill, Montela, postcard circa 1910.
The old saw mill, Montela, postcard circa 1910. [Courtesy Lucy Sante]

Office of the Sullivan County Democrat newspaper, upstate NY.
Offices of the Sullivan County Democrat newspaper in Callicoon, 2020. [Tim Davis]

Besides the Depression, two wars, and the city tunnel, the other matter that delayed construction was a delicate negotiation between the city and the states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey over rights to the Delaware watershed. This matter proved so difficult and time-consuming that the city attempted to undo the Smith Dutchess County Act of 1906, which had barred New York City from taking the waters of Kinderhook, Claverack, and Taghkanic Creeks, Roeliff Jansen Kill, and tributaries of Wappinger, Jackson, Sprout, and Fishkill Creeks, all east of the Hudson — which in the 18th century was known as the “Tory” side, as distinct from the west or “Indian” side of the river. That gambit failed, but in 1925 the states managed to hammer out a treaty allocating Philadelphia three billion gallons a day and New York City and northern New Jersey a billion-and-a-half apiece. The two reservoirs and their aqueducts were then approved by the city Board of Estimate in 1928 and by the state the following year. At that point New Jersey and Pennsylvania brought new objections on technical grounds, but the United States Supreme Court ruled in the city’s favor in 1931, although allowing it to take only 440 million gallons a day, a reduction of more than two-thirds. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, famously pugnacious, feuded with the Board of Water Supply, which he tried to abolish; the state legislature ruled otherwise.

The city expected to draw 900 million gallons a day from the Delaware system, and hoped that might finally be enough.

The work proceeded quickly, but only when it did so at all. The 85-mile-long tunnel from the Rondout Reservoir to the Hillview, in Yonkers, was excavated at a rate of 137 to 270 feet a week — the Prattsville tunnel had averaged only 55 to 70 weekly feet. The dams were simple earth fills — ”unimpressive,” according to one author. Yet delays were frequent, in part because wartime rationing made valves and steel unobtainable. On April 5, 1944, when costs had already risen to more than $300 million, LaGuardia triumphantly announced that “residents of New York City will drink water from the Delaware water project for the first time tomorrow”; a diversion tunnel from Lackawack had been turned on. “The dam can be completed only when we lick Hitler,” the mayor added. But even after the war, supply shortages impeded progress, while severe water deficits in 1949 and 1950 — which saw the Croton-Catskill system down to 70% of capacity — made the matter especially urgent. In November 1952, the 50-billion-gallon Rondout Reservoir was finally completed, with a capacity of around 250 million gallons a day, while the 38-billion-gallon Neversink Reservoir was 90 percent done and the Downsville Dam, the first increment in the construction of the Pepacton Reservoir, was 85 percent finished. Authorities anticipated a full yield by 1956: 100 million gallons a day from the Rondout, 105 million from the Neversink, and 335 million from the Pepacton. That same year the city applied to build a reservoir at Cannonsville, on the West Branch of the Delaware, the last in the upstate chain.

The city expected to draw an eventual 900 million gallons a day from the Delaware system, and it hopefully considered that might finally be enough.

The Neversink Dam cut-off wall, 1948.
The Neversink Dam cut-off wall, 1948. [NYC Water © Flickr, courtesy DEP NYC]

Officials opening tunnel sluice gates of the Delaware Aqueduct, 1944.
Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (third from left) and other officials opening tunnel sluice gates of the Delaware Aqueduct, 1944. [NYC Water © Flickr, courtesy DEP NYC]

Editors' Note

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

  1. Kingston Daily Freeman, July 26, 1907.
  2. Kingston Daily Freeman, August 15, 1910.
  3. New York Times, October 12, 1913
  4. New York Times, September 13, 1925.
  5. The distinction was initially enjoyed by the Shandaken Tunnel, then City Tunnel No. 2, and then the Delaware Aqueduct, which at 85 miles long remains the longest continuous tunnel in the world. Essentially, the city kept beating its own record.
Lucy Sante, “An Enduring Source of Drinking Water,” Places Journal, November 2020. Accessed 03 Oct 2023.

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