It was the best of times for New York City. And so in the fall of 1917 a great celebration took place. Schoolchildren danced a rain dance; politicians gave fine speeches and presented medals; a special exhibition of Hudson Valley landscapes was unveiled; and the crowd cheered when a jet of upstate water — clear, clean, pure water — rose on cue into the fetid city air. Improbably, miraculously, a tiny creek originating high in the Catskill Mountains had been successfully dammed to create a 13-square-mile drinking fountain for city folk.
It was the worst of times for the Catskills. Thousands of acres of farmland vanished under the new, man-made Ashokan Reservoir. Eleven villages were forcibly evacuated and burned to the ground to make room for the 8,300-acre body of water — at the time, the world’s largest reservoir. Boarding houses closed, doctors and shopkeepers moved, families broke apart. Even the dead were unearthed and sent packing lest they, too, contaminate the water supply. Some people believe that when the reservoir is low, you can see church steeples and chimneys poking above the water. This is pure mythology — or perhaps wishful thinking. The engineers left not a trace of the civilization they conquered.
Deep Water, a documentary made in 2002 by Hudson Valley filmmakers Tobe Carey, Robbie Dupree, and Artie Traum, uses archival photographs and silent films from the Library of Congress to show how completely the area was cleared of human habitation. The film tells the story of Harlow McClain, a local man who hired on with the city to help with the demolition effort, and ended up having to burn down his own house. The filmmakers interviewed a granddaughter from the Lennox family, who recalled that “even the ashes were removed… Tree roots were grubbed or blasted out. My mother showed more resentment than my [grandparents]… but I’m sure they were heartbroken, losing a 12-room home and their store and all. My mother had fond memories of that area as a child… and never really got over… the hurt of losing the land, home, friends.”
As Bob Steuding, a humanities professor at Ulster County Community College in Stone Ridge, wrote in his fine history, The Last of the Handmade Dams: The Story of the Ashokan Reservoir (Purple Mountain Press, $12.50), the reservoir destroyed the independent character of a rural place and people. According to Steuding, in the area that became the West Basin of the reservoir, there had been 504 dwellings, nine blacksmith shops, 35 stores, 10 churches, 10 schools, seven sawmills and a gristmill. “An old, successful way of life, rooted in unanimity of purpose and the shared values of self-sufficiency and community, had come to an abrupt and disrupting end. And thus a place that had once been called ‘home,’ a place which had been tended lovingly for generations, disappeared and was lost forever.”
Steuding is a social historian who writes with humor and perspicacity about his native Catskills. He grew up near the Ashokan Reservoir, in Hurley, and today lives in Olivebridge, a village beside the dam, which was named for the village of Olive Bridge that disappeared underwater. Steuding recognizes that, for all its painful history, today the reservoir is unquestionably an asset to the area: It preserves open space and provides recreation. The first of five Catskills reservoirs, the Ashokan project remains a work of integrity, of great engineering skill and even beauty, given its careful siting in a natural glacial bowl created by the last Ice Age. Certainly for Steuding, who courted his wife gazing out from the dam, and whose son, Miles, caught his first fish in the reservoir, the Ashokan has been more friend than foe.
But at the time, most local residents found the coming dam a true enemy. When water from the newly built Croton Aqueduct first poured into Central Park’s reservoir in 1890, it seemed that the city’s chronic water shortage might be over. And yet by 1900 consumption again threatened to overtake supply. The city commissioned a study of all possible sources of clean water; officials found none better than the Catskill Mountain variety. In 1903, New York’s mayor appointed J. Waldo Smith, a graduate of MIT, as chief engineer of a dam to be built at the lower end of Esopus Creek. Smith proved to be, as Steuding wrote, “an extremely good choice… All who worked for [him] became personally fond of him, and their esprit de corps and loyalty undoubtedly contributed to the success of the Catskill Water Project.” Smith’s unflappable good nature proved more than a match for the confusion and panic engendered in a populace the New York Times dubbed “Aboriginal Ulster.” In June 1906, a ceremonial shovel, inlaid with silver by Tiffany & Co., first struck ground.
A workers’ camp rapidly arose on the southern slope of Winchell Hill near the town of Brown’s Station. The camp had running water, electricity, paved streets, a sewage disposal plant, a hospital, and garbage collection. It became customary for locals to drive to the camp on Sundays to inspect their odd new neighbors. There were Southern blacks who’d journeyed north to ride the big wagons hauled by mules. Also at work were Russians, Slavs, Rumanians, Lithuanians and Poles; Swedes, Finns and Danes; Hungarians, Austrians, Germans, Irishmen and, according to Steuding, one Greek. The Italian workers, who hung homemade spaghetti out to dry on clotheslines, proved especially amusing: local children flocked to the gelato man, who praised his wares in an Italian tenor.
New customers also meant new business models: Local doctors vied with urban M.D.s to administer such cures as amputation for on-the-job leg or arm wounds. For wounds of the heart and mind, 13 taverns sprang up in the stretch between Brown’s Station and Stone Ridge; brothels ministered to other organs. Local farmers, stonecutters, liverymen, and undertakers found work digging up and reburying thousands of bodies from the region’s cemeteries. Easy money, but it didn’t last long.
By August 1913, the villages of Ashokan were nothing more than “a barren waste, with only stone walls and gaping cellar holes,” one observer remarked. “Not a chimney was left standing.” Before the reservoir, 85 percent of the male population of Ashokan drew most or all of their income from farming; after the reservoir, farming ceased to be a significant economic force. The region’s other industry, tourism, also declined drastically: Once the city had a clean source of water, residents no longer felt impelled to migrate to the Catskills’ boarding houses every summer. Compounding the bitterness, according to Steuding, was the fact that awards made to property owners had varied considerably. Steuding writes that one litigant complained that “Influential people received better awards than small fry.” (Yet it is interesting to note that 80 percent of those who were forced to move — nearly 2,000 residents — remained within 25 miles of their old homes.)
Over time, animosity toward the city’s imperial thirst diminished. Today the dam “conjures up positive images of picnicking around the old aerator… a scenic automobile ride along the Ashokan Boulevard… or a walk with one’s dog on the Middle Dike,” Steuding writes. It was only after he grew interested in the history of the dam, and began poking around — literally digging through old boxes in library broom closets — that Steuding realized how much had been lost. “People in the Catskills grew their own food and made their own clothes,” he said. “Nowadays if the electricity goes out, we’re completely helpless. I’m not saying we should go backwards, but I do think it’s important to understand that people didn’t always live the way we do today.”