Flooding the Catskills

Flooding the Catskills

With the sanction of higher political authorities, the city appropriated what it saw as the countryside’s resources, and remade ecosystems to sustain its own growth for decades. While Catskills settlers whose land was taken over by eminent domain did see their day in court, many said they only received a modicum of social and economic justice. While thousands of people obtained steady employment as laborers on the Catskill project, waterworks construction harmed the local economy overall by damaging  boardinghouse tourism and flooding fertile agricultural land. History repeated itself, in this case often less violently, and glossed over the sacrifices made by displaced watershed residents.

A blue tinted photo of a natural falls in a river. The falls look to be about the size of the two-story wood barns that surround it on both sides. There are mountain ranges in the far distance.
Bishops Falls, Esopus Creek, about 1/2 miles above Olive Bridge dam site. The falls and surrounding area were completely submerged in 1913, and now lay one hundred feet below water in the upper basin of the Ashokan Reservoir. Source: NYPL Digital Collections, Link.

By August 1905 the Board of Water Supply ordered engineers to draw up maps and develop a plan to collect and transport Catskill water. Quickly, they identified Esopus Creek for development of a massive reservoir and retaining dam, which became the centerpiece of the Catskill branch of the NYC water supply. 

A map of lower Hudson Valley and surrounds, oriented horizontally (north to south runs left to right). The Catskill Aqueduct is lined in pink and runs from Manhattan to the Catskill Mountains. Parts of the Catskill Watershed are highlighted including Rondout, Esopus, Schoharie,  and Catskill.
Map and profile showing sources of, and manner of obtaining, an additional supply of water for the city of New York. Created 1905. Source: NYPL. Link.

The City submitted its plans to the State Water Supply Commission, which began a series of public hearings in the Catskill region. Many locals voiced opposition to the City’s plans to seize their land and transform the landscape and their livelihoods with it.

“Objections in the mountains were immediate. A jurist with the serendipitous—and real—name of Judge Alphonso Clearwater, representing the interests of the soon-to-be-affected towns along the creek, declared at a packed public hearing, ‘The powers asked by New York are too great. They ask the power that the Almighty would not delegate an archangel, let alone, if I may use such an irreverent comparison, a Tammany contractor.’”

“Except, who could fight City Hall? Even in the face of lawsuits and complaints, the necessary state authorizations were effortlessly secured, and the city moved quickly. Test borings commenced in early August 1905, nine months before either the city or the state had formally authorized plans to develop the Catskills watershed. Once the appropriate regulations were passed, surveyors moved into the Esopus Valley without warning. Trespassing onto people’s property, cutting down trees, knocking down stone fences–even though no money to purchase lands had been exchanged. Signs also spontaneously sprang up, advising landowners that within two months title to their property would be vested in the city and they would be subject to a ten-day notice to vacate.”

—From The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America by Stephen M. Silverman and Raphael D. Silver, p. 184-185. 

Despite legal challenges, City Hall’s influence held. When the dust settled, 8 villages ceased to exist, 2,000+ residents had been forced to relocate, 500+ homes and 10 schools were destroyed. For those who lost land, this project of urban expansion was devastating, upending a way of life that could not be recovered.

A black and white map with a part of the Ashokan Reservoir noted blue over existing land. A ring of green surrounds the reservoir, indicating NYC land..
Map of the Town of Olive circa 1890. This map shows the impact of the Reservoir Project on the Town. Source: Town of Olive Archives. Link.

“I began dredging up the story of the forgotten Town of Olive. That story became linked to New York City’s historic quest for clean and abundant water. As I learned of the expansion of the New York City population, I began to envision the movement and confinement, use and abuse of the same water supply system on which millions of New Yorker’s lives depend; that history sheds light on the current efforts to protect the watershed which supplies New York City with drinking water.”

— Camila Calhoun, “A Town Called Olive

Construction of a new aqueduct began in 1907. Water, pulled by gravity, had to travel from the west of hudson mountains to the southeast, crossing beneath the Hudson River along the way.

A black and white photo of an underground concrete tunnel with a high arched ceiling. At the end of the tunnel there are a grid of concrete columns, 5 across and others lined up behind the first row. There's a little water in the tunnel with a shovel leaning against one of the columns.
Catskill Aqueduct Headworks. Lower Special aqueduct showing connection to Lower gate-chamber at left and Waste channel at right. Overflow weir in center. Contract 10. September 25, 1913. Part of the NYPL collection of Photographs of the Catskill water supply system in process of construction. Source: NYPL. Link.
A black and white photo of 3 structures laying in a row along a rocky cliff with an old house on the hill in the background. There are men posing inside and around the structures. They look to be made of metal and are arched with a flat bottom, and about 15ft high.
Turntable with blaw collapsible form. Issued between 1910 and 1912. Part of the NYPL collection of photographs illustrating the construction of the Catskill Aqueduct, Croton Division. Source: NYPL. Link.

“Also gone were the boarding houses and the summer trade. Once the dam and reservoir were finished, “a place and a way of life that had long been supported by old and tested patterns was forever lost,” Steuding further explained. “Within the space of one, or at the most, two generations, the Catskills’ vibrant traditional culture disappeared; the old folks and their old ways were quickly forgotten and, not unlike a fond and fading memory, they soon became the stuff of myth and folklore.” So did villages like West Hurley, Brown Station, Olivebridge, Stoney Creek, and Ashton.” 

—From The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America by Stephen M. Silverman and Raphael D. Silver, p. 194.

A black and white topographical map of the Catskill Mountains. Fancy text on the side says "Map Showing Summer Resorts Among the Catskills"
From Van Loan’s Catskill Mountain Guide, 1885. The guide features a bird’s-eye view of the Catskill Mountains (see below), with maps, illustrations and a list of “the best summer hotels and boarding-houses on or near the Catskills”. Source: NYPL Digital Collections. Link.
A yellowed map drawn in black with red text noting towns and mountain ranges. It is a topographic map showing the ridges and valleys of the Catskill Mountains with the Hudson River on right.
The Ashokan Reservoir was constructed on land covering the bottom-middle of the map above. From Van Loan’s Catskill Mountain guide, 1885. Bird’s-eye view of the Catskill Mountains (covering an area of 1,200 square miles, looking northerly), drawn from nature by Walton Van Loan. Source: NYPL Digital Collections. Link.

“One target for extinction was Bishops Falls, which would eventually find itself under 190 feet of reservoir water. ‘At the lovely small falls,’ said [ environmental professor David] Stradling, ‘the Bishop family—hence the name, Bishops Falls—built not just a farmhouse, but a sawmill and a grist mill, which were on either side of the falls. They also built a boardinghouse, the Bishops Falls House. From the name alone you could see that this was a family that had lived there for generations, and expected to continue living there for generations. When New York City took their land through eminent domain, several different Bishop families went through the process of divining the right value for their property. As they did this, it became apparent that it was impossible for New York City to pay what was really the value of this place to that family. The Bishop family would not find another Bishop Falls.’” 

—From The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America by Sephen M. Silverman and Raphael D. Silver, p. 185-186.

A black and white photo of a body of water with in a narrow valley. There are 5 piers being built across the water and one small dam.
Ashokan Reservoir. View at site of Olive Bridge dam, showing coffer-dam and piers under construction for supporting the 8-foot pipes to carry the flow of water in Esopus creek. May 18, 1907. Source: NYPL. Link.
A black and white photo taken from high on a mountain overlooking the Hudson River below. There is a rounded mountain on the other side of the river, right on the edge of the shore. There are plumes of smoke rising from the shore. Four structures forming a row across the river rise from the water.
Catskill Aqueduct construction: Hudson River Crossing, looking west from Breakneck Mountain toward Storm King, showing borings being driven from scows, 1907. Source: Library of Congress. Link.

“The transformation of what was once a tranquil rural valley became a noisy, unsightly, gigantic manufacturing zone…” said a Westchester Land Trust account. 

—From The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America, p. 191.

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