A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

What Lies Beneath the NYC Reservoirs

by Terence P Ward   

In the 1991 novel Drowned Hopes, author Donald Westlake imagined what it would be like at the bottom of one of the New York City reservoirs. A character in the book stashed the loot from a robbery before spending decades in prison, only to discover his buried treasure was now under water, as well. A recovery operation is thwarted by thick mud and a forest of submerged, long-dead trees. 

The Ashokan Reservoir.
Westlake wasn’t the first who, upon being confronted with the tales of whole communities being evicted to create the reservoir system, tried to picture what was left behind when the water filled the valleys that had been seized lock, stock, and barrel by the City of New York in the name of progress.

In one sense, the answer to the question of what lies beneath the reservoirs is a simple one: not a whole lot. The physical environment was scoured of anything that might pose a risk to the new water supply. Looking at it from an historical or spiritual perspective, what lies beneath those lapping waves is an entire way of life.

The agrarian life in the Catskills just before the turn of the 20th century was itself a product of the wholesale deforestation taking place there. As chronicled in an earlier issue of Country Wisdom News, tanning had been a major industry in these mountains for decades, fueled by the thick forests of hemlock, the bark of which was ideal for this toxic, smelly trade. Any doubt that tanning was a dirty business should have been put to rest in 1861, when planners in Kingston rejected the idea of building a reservoir by damming Ashokan Creek at Bishop’s Falls because filtering out the effluent would have been too costly. Instead, they developed Cooper Lake in Woodstock as the city’s water source. The lack of trees led to so much silt being deposited in the Hudson that commerce was threatened, causing the state legislature to create the “forever wild” forest preserve through constitutional amendment in 1895.

While the preserve wasn’t fated to be entirely wild for long—within a few decades, another amendment authorized the building of a ski center on Belleayre, thus placing a very high-intensity use in its heart— the lack of industry did clean the water up. The difference was so drastic within a few years that the Catskills became an area of interest to engineers seeking a larger water source for the City of New York, its population swelling from a huge wave of immigration. Other sources were considered and discarded: piping water from the Great Lakes would be too costly, for one; while sources east of the Hudson tended to be defended by monied interests. The counties to the west were thinly populated, so passing another constitutional amendment—to authorize New York City to develop a water source in the Catskills—was relatively easy. The city began surveying land months before it was legal to do so, and the court cases disputing the value of lost property and income extended for many decades. But despite these facts, the massive project of damming Catskill creeks to collect and remove the region’s water proved inevitable. Had it not been for the simultaneous construction of the Panama Canal, the NYC reservoir project might have been a nationwide news sensation. In its impact locally, however, there was no question: 10,000 people displaced, dozens of villages relocated or simply erased, and years during which this previously quiet countryside was packed with “man-camps” similar to those which have sprung up in North Dakota to support hydrofracking.

No trace was left behind of those lives and those communities, according to Bob Steuding, author of The Last of the Handmade Dams: The Story of the Ashokan Reservoir. In old photographs, “it looks like after Sherman marched through Georgia,” he said. “All the houses worth moving were sold by the city, and the buildings that weren’t dismantled and moved were burned down. Trees and brush were cut before the reservoir was filled. There was just soil, and rock, and walls, and foundations.” The soil itself was not removed because geologists determined that with its high clay content and bedrock beneath, it would hold the water just fine. Anything that could conceivably contaminate that water, though, was removed—privies and barnyards were dug up and thousands of bodies exhumed from their graves. In the Ashokan basin, as many as 2,500 bodies were relocated, which exceeded the living population. Although Steuding did not study the history of the other reservoirs, it was likely a similar story. And while the search for graves was extensive—and even led to the uncovering of unmarked graves that may have belonged to murder victims—about a hundred known graves were never located in Ashokan alone.

Little physical trace exists under those reservoirs, but lives were left behind, according to Carol Smythe, author of Around Neversink: From the Rondout Reservoir to the Neversink Reservoir. “You can’t imagine the disruption to their lives,” she said. Most were unable to be as successful after moving, due to local competition or other factors, and most of the settlements paid fell far short. Steuding, who interviewed people alive at the time, said that the memory of that separation has been passed on through generations since. Water mills, fly fishing, boarding houses, and farms all were obscured in the depths, and now people only live around the rim. Both Steuding and Smythe are scheduled to speak in the coming months; Steuding on November 2 at the Pearce Library, and Smythe on September 13 at the Time and the Valleys Museum, both in Grahamsville.

A hundred years later, the natural beauty and history of the Ashokan Reservoir area is once again being shared.  The city’s Department of Environmental Protection has committed to spending $2.5 million to open up rail trails around the Ashokan Reservoir to the public without charge. Soon power walkers, stroller pushers, dog trotters, and families alike will be able to relish the stunning beauty and nature around the Ashokan Reservoir. The towns can never be unsunk, but at least the area can serve as a hub of recreation and enjoyment for visitors and residents both.