Tapping the Delaware River

Tapping the Delaware River

After the Supreme Court ruling, New York City built four new reservoirs. Bounded by Ulster and Sullivan County, the Rondout Reservoir commenced building in 1937 and was in service by 1951. The communities of Eureka, Lackawack, and Montela were flooded. The Neversink Reservoir in Sullivan County was completed in 1953, and the hamlets of Neversink and Bittersweet were flooded. The city acquired more than 13,000 acres for the Pepacton Reservoir in Delaware County, which was completed in 1954. The 2,400-foot-long dam enclosed the largest of the reservoirs at eighteen miles long. The Pepacton displaced 974 people in the communities of Arena, Pepacton, Shavertown and Union Grove. Another Supreme Court case allowed the city to take additional water from the Delaware River. So, in 1965 the Cannonsville Reservoir was built and completed the Catskill/Delaware water system. This reservoir displaced an additional 941 people with the flooding of five more communities: Beerston, Cannonsville, Granton, Rock Royal, and Rock Rift.

A contemporary map of the West of Hudson watersheds, aqueducts, and reservoirs. The Delaware watershed is shaded green and touches the Delaware River on the right, close to the PA/NY border.
New York City West-of-Hudson Watershed map. Source: Catskill Watershed Corporation website. Link.
An old illustrated map of Delaware County bordered with drawings of historic or important buildings and homes and enlarged maps of some of the towns.
Map of Delaware County, NY. Published in 1856. Source: Library of Congress. Link.
A black and white photo taken from the base of a valley with sloping mountains in the background. In the foreground is farmland and three houses scattered in the landscape.
Site of Future Downsville Dam. General view of the site of the future Downsville Dam on the east branch of the Delaware River, about a mile north of the village of Downsville. May 8, 1935. (Caption by NYC Water) Source: NYC Water on Flickr. Link.
A black and white photo of a construction site on the side of a hill looking down on an empty valley. There are structures being prepped to pour concrete into.
East Delaware Tunnel Intake Chamber. View of construction at the East Delaware Tunnel Intake Chamber. Note grooves in place for rocks and rows of granite ready for placing at the north wall of the chamber, as well as cleared and grubbed reservoir area in the background. October 27, 1953. (Caption by NYC Water) Source: NYC Water on Flickr. Link.
A black and white photo of rocky cliffs in the foreground surrounding a dam wall and brick building that overlooks the reservoir. In the background sits a mountainous horizon.
East Delaware Release Chamber. View of East Delaware Release Chamber, showing waste channel on the left, and Pepacton Reservoir in the background. March 6, 1957. (Caption by NYC Water). Source: NYC Water on Flickr. Link.

“Most residents found themselves on a one-way street. Even those hired to help construct the water system felt outgunned by the arsenal of a city whose needs far outweighed their own. “People were angry with the city and they had to give up their land,” said Bob Steuding, “but it was also a source of revenue for them.””

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

Two newspaper clippings. The left is a dark photo of a man standing in a workshop. The headline reads "A forge soon to be quenched" and the small type below mentions Mr. Evans who was Lackawack's blacksmith. His forge "was soon to be swept into the limbo of things that were, when New York City takes over that village as a reservoir site." The other clipping is headed "Awaiting the Flood Waters" the photo features a old man and woman with the man reading a book and the woman at a yarn wheel. The caption highlights that these are one of the scores of homes that laborers will soon destroy.
Two black and white newspaper photographs of people being displaced by the Rondout Reservoir from homes in Lackawack, New York: Will Evans, blacksmith, and Lorin & Cora Wright, farmers, 1936. Source: Ellenville Public Library & Museum / New York Heritage Digital Collections. Link.

The residents of Eureka, NY were displaced to make way for the Rondout Reservoir.

A black and white photo of a class of children and their teacher standing in front of a wood building.
Photograph of the Eureka School with a group of school children posing in front with their teacher Nancy I. Moore. Source: New York Heritage Collections. Link.

“Dislocation was only the beginning. For years New York City refused to acknowledge that the dams were taxable improvements and paid taxes only on the amount of unimproved lands it owned around the reservoirs. Local citizens felt violated, aware that there were few other places in the country where a government, unresponsive to the electorate, could impose such dramatic changes on a region’s way of life.”

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

A black and white photo of a rivers edge with a group of boys in and out of the water.
Swimming in the Neversink River. Families swim in the refreshing Neversink River at Fallsburg’s Flagler Hotel, south of the future Neversink Reservoir. The Flagler was a popular Catskills resort where many New Yorkers escaped the summer heat in the first half of the 20th Century. August 25, 1929. (Caption by NYC Water) Source: NYC Water on Flickr. Link.
A black and white photo of a white three story wood building with gas pumps outside and coca cola advertisement signs affixed to the outside of the building.
Neversink, NY. Socony Mobilgas station with gasoline pumps, Royal Scarlet general store, and Bob Pue soda fountain. Circa 1940. The town was claimed in order to build Neversink Reservoir. (Caption by NYC Water) Source: NYC Water on Flickr. Link.
A black and white photo looking down onto an excavation site. It looks like a slit in the earth has been cut.
Neversink Dam excavation. View down the length of the Neversink Dam in its early stages of construction. Excavation is underway on the cut-off trench, with the cut-off wall being placed at center. February 20, 1947. (Caption by NYC Water) Source: NYC Water on Flickr. Link.

“Neversink Reservoir: Completed in 1955 to provide water for New York City. The Neversink River, flowing through the valley, was a great attraction for trout fisherman and flytiers. This Valley was settled over 200 years ago. [The] Villages of Neversink and Bittersweet lie beneath these waters. There were farms, a sawmill, a casino, a bowling alley, general stores, boarding houses, churches, schools and more here.”

— Text from a plaque at Neversink Reservoir (Link)

“I’ll never forget having to witness my grandmother… a quilter, and grandfather… crippled with arthritis, walk away from their home as it was being bulldozed, waiting for the gasoline to be poured on it and then burned.”

— Evelyn Norris, granddaughter of  H.V. and Anna Dumond who lived in Union Grove, one of the towns flooded for the Pepacton Reservoir, which came into service in 1954. (Norris quoted in The Catskills)

A panoramic photo made of three black and white photos pieced together. The camera is looking down into the valley under construction. The valley construction spreads way into the background on the left, surrounded by mountain ranges off in the distance.
Construction of Pepacton Reservoir and Downsville Dam. Panorama showing construction of cofferdam, diversion tunnel, and cut-off wall at Pepacton Reservoir and Downsville Dam. In dead center is the contractor’s lower bridge over the east branch of the Delaware River with a connecting road to State Highway Route 30. Also shown are the inclined tunnel portal, a portion of completed concrete cut-off wall, the wide cut-off trench and a portion of cut-off wall on the south abutment. White house to the right of the downstream rolled fill area houses the boiler plant to develop steam power for driving piles in the sheeted trench. (Caption by NYC Water) Source: NYC Water on Flickr. Link.
A black and white photo taken inside of a tunnel under construction with workers posing on four stories of scaffolding.
Pepacton Reservoir Diversion Tunnel Drill Crew. The crew on this “jumbo” manned 18 drills that made holes for dynamite to be placed in the rock face. The rock was then blasted out to create a diversion tunnel that carried water around the Downsville Dam during construction of the Pepacton Reservoir in Delaware County. September 29, 1948. (Caption by NYC Water) Source: NYC Water on Flickr. Link.
A black and white photo of a group of workers in hard hats against a dark background. Four are in a steel tub attached at the top to a crane hook.
Holing-through at Pepacton Reservoir. Drill crew in a shaft after the holing-through of two tunnels at Pepacton Reservoir, about to be taken to the surface in a four-man bucket. September 7, 1951. (Caption by NYC Water) Source: NYC Water on Flickr. Link.
A black and white photo taken from high up on a hill looking down on a large, deeply dark body of water. Mountains loom in the background.
View of stilling basin of Pepacton Reservoir. In the background is a deck girder highway bridge built to allow traffic to cross. The outlet channel flows into the old channel of the East Branch of the Delaware River at the bridge. December 14, 1950. (Caption by NYC Water) Source: NYC Water on Flickr. Link.
A color photo of a road sign that reads "Pepaction Reseroir, Former site of Pepacton" The sign is brown with yellow writing and a decorative wave border.
Sign marking the former site of the town of Pepacton. Source: Atlas Obscura. Link.

“By 1965, every key waterway in the Catskills, with the exception of the Beaverkill, had been dammed to provide water for New York City. Sixty thousand acres of land had been appropriated, twenty towns and villages had disappeared, six thousand people were driven from their homes, and more than ten thousand graves had been dug up and the bodies moved to other sites, all so New York City could access sixteen hundred square miles of Catskill watershed pouring through the city’s aqueducts.”

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

A black and white photo of tombstones in a cemetary.
Pepacton Cemetery. Cannonsville Reservoir reinterments. Board of Water Supply force placing memorials and concrete markers at graves, and resurfacing the cemetery by placing topsoil, seed and fertilizer. Camera located at north end of Section 62 looking southeasterly. View shows a portion of the cemetery, including Section 63 to 76 and 102 to 107, in 3 different stages of the topsoiling and seeding operations. In the foreground is shown the condition of the area prior to any topsoiling operation; in the upper middle a section which has been topsoiled, graded and raked; in the top rear an area which has been topsoiled and graded only. In the foreground also are seen concrete grave markers each with a copper strip, on the top surface, on which identification numbers are to be stamped. Note also at the lower right the concrete base on which no memorial has yet been placed. At the lower left is seen the very old slab memorial to the Cannon family, which has been embedded in concrete. Storage piles of topsoil stripped from the area are shown at upper right. May 10, 1965. (Caption by NYC Water) Source: NYC Water on Flickr. Link.
A black and white photo of a group of wood boxes stacked on top of one another and a shovel leaning against the stack.
No full-sized caskets were used in the reburials. Pictured here are the boxes used, the size of apple crates. Due to cost, as many as six boxes of remains were buried in a single new grave. Source: Hudson River Valley Heritage Exhibits website. Link.

Further Reading

“The Price of Water” shared by Time and the Valleys Museum on the museum’s website and Youtube page explore this period in the history of the Catskill/Delaware region and the expansion of the NYC Water Supply. The videos, and the Museum’s exhibits and programs more broadly, share the personal experience and narrative history of the residents of the communities displaced by the City’s waterworks.

Learn more about the communities displaced by the Rondout Reservoir through this digital exhibit created by the Ellenville Public Library & Museum and New York Heritage Collections: Lost Hamlets of the Rondout Reservoir.

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