Starting in the 1800s, New York City needed a bigger and more reliable water supply. With so many of the water sources originating in the Catskills, the comparatively empty land was eyed for potential dams and reservoir sites. Towns in the valleys were vulnerable and seemingly dispensable to the state, and many were sacrificed for one city’s needs. The citizens were evicted from their homes and towns by the usual ploy, eminent domain.
Dams were erected, floodgates were opened, New York City was guaranteed a huge, seemingly endless supply of mountain water. Mountain water that drowned towns. Whatever existed in the towns was submerged and diluted by billions of gallons, including moral turpitude. Some might consider it a crime against small town America.
These disappeared towns, their fate similar in many respects to being outfitted with cement shoes, are referred to as “drowned towns” or ghost towns. Townsfolk’s lives were abruptly ended, they were transplanted to other towns or new artificially established ones. It has happened in many other states in our country, mostly in mountainous regions that have proximity to large metropolises which have no natural resources. Most likely those who are run out of town are rural and poor. Sacrifice of the few for the many.
This, from A Town Called Olive, by Camilla Calhoun: “Imagine the logistics of getting 2,000 people, some who had lived there for generations, to move from their homes in this lush, fertile valley at a time when transience was uncommon. One thousand New York City residents who had second homes there, also lost their homes. Located in the valley, among other things, were 35 stores, 10 churches, 10 schools, 1 gristmill, and 7 saw mills. In order to begin the exodus from the valley, the Commissioner of Appraisal had to post notices warning property owners ‘that in less than two months title to their property would be vested in New York City and they would be subject to a ten-day notice to move.’ The state Water Commission had supported the plan despite the fact there were hearings and residents fought the city’s plans with capable lawyers.”
And from Water for a City, by Charles Weidner: “A woman with 21 acres of land and a boarding house was awarded $6,500 while another with a half acre and a small house was awarded $4,000.” According to Weidner, business claims were also unfairly paid: “Mrs. Emma Cudney received only $8,707.50 for the loss of her 20,000 ginseng plants…. In 1909, Ginseng was being sold for $6-$7 per pound…. While these claims moved extremely slowly, construction of the reservoir progressed at an incredibly fast pace, including the building of a village camp for the immigrant laborers. The 3,900 laborers outnumbered the inhabitants of the valley, which also was a factor in the displacement felt by the local residents.”
There are instances where water levels in the reservoirs decline and some of the towns become visible once more, hence the name ghost towns. (In fact, it’s happening now, in the Midwest, where the terrible drought is causing reservoir-buried towns to reappear in Indiana.) Talk about rising to the surface. Foundations, wells, even railroad tracks are detectable at times when water is in shortage. Ironic that the towns reappear when water levels are low – there are at least eleven reservoirs in New York state that evaporated twenty-five towns in their creation.
Now there are scuba clubs that dive into reservoirs in search of these Atlantises of the east. And there are descendants of the townspeople who gather, gazing longingly into the consuming and soon-to-be-consumed water when the levels are low, hoping to catch a glimpse of their homes, their history, their decades- and generations-long mistrust and dislike of the way they were pushed aside in favor of the thirsty giant downstream.