Tag Archives: reservoir

Acts of Submersion

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.

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A (tour de) Force of Nature

There are, around the country, many public or private lands that have been turned into recreational sites: railway beds converted into walking/biking trails; riparian edges, formerly industrialized, now used as public access to scenic waterways; other brownfields repurposed as parks; canal towpaths dressed up for strolling along 19th-century economic history. This change of direction in land use is an asset for those who live in proximity to any one of these reclaimed sites. I say, with an embarrassment of riches, that I live within walking distance of all the above, plus one other. An extraordinary other.

The long-abandoned Upper Roxborough Reservoir is a dual reclamation – first, as a manmade structure reclaimed by nature; currently, as a naturalized area embraced by people wanting it to be a protected ecosystem – very much like the recently born-again High Line, in New York City. And it is special in another way, too. There the reservoir sits in its present state – smack dab in the middle of housing developments looking to expand, but also adjacent to a long-preserved site: The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education – straddling the thin green line between “progress” and preservation, economic speculation and natural sustainability. Here’s hoping nature prevails.

Coming upon it, in some sense, is like finding the ruins of an ancient civilization and then, after climbing up to it, discovering within it a kind of Eden or, perhaps, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It is most definitely a surprise – a revelation, even. And it is built at the highest point in Philadelphia, so its effect, and it is a powerful one, may be a result of oxygen deprivation. Inside, its structure has the appearance of a volcanic or meteor crater, a deep concave shape in a mound. Looking at it from the street, because it is built up from the ground, it resembles a miniature green planet emerging full-blown from our own, an island rising from land.

When you ascend its ramps or stairs, on foot or bicycle, you find yourself atop a butte with a surrounding pathway similar in feel to abandoned railroad beds (once there were tracks during construction of the reservoir). The path is probably 1½ to 2 stories above street level, but the reservoir’s interior depth seen from the path is much greater. Its bottomless-appearing bottom is encased by a steep cliff face made of brick and patches of concrete, which slopes and tapers down creating a giant bowl, or, rather, two giant rectangular bowls, side-by-side, similar to a set of joined pet bowls (for dinosaur-sized pets – and it does feel like the sort of primeval place where dino-slurping might have occurred). In one bowl has formed a water feature, a fresh-water lake, with undulating grasses and reeds at the juncture of plant material and water, sculpted patterns created by the wind. It is such a lovely thing to behold, and when the water fowl are present it makes it even more magical and real, as they add audible squawking and wing-flapping in addition to some splashing and the gentle whoosh of water landings.

The second bowl, viewable after following the path a while, is the dry-food bowl side – a regenerated woodland which, after heavy rains, becomes a short-lived wetland and provides changing landscapes seasonally. There are a surprising variety of trees, deciduous and non-, which grow ravenously in among the brick-faced walls as well as at the bottom of the bowls and also around the reservoir’s outer edge, making it all the more hidden from the street. And together with the grasses, the resulting ecosystem presents a near-complete education in the various cycles of growth and succession in nature.

The oval path continues around the entire site, the reclaimed area’s 34 acres inaccessible but visible through a chain link fence that surrounds the bowls. The journey provides the walker or peddler a three-quarter mile circuit through an unusual, reaccessioned environment: a combination of quiet greenspace, sunken forest and crater lake, along with a few remaining concrete structures from its original 1892 functions. It was decommissioned in the early 1960s, so it has had a life of its own for more than half a century. And, too, it supports the livelihoods of various small mammals, large numbers of wetland bird species and the yearly migration of thousands of toads for mating season (this has generated quite an annual springtime event, with volunteers blocking off streets to cars so that the hordes of brown American toads and greenish Pickerel frogs can make it to their appointed rounds).

Not only is this unique site a layered jumble of natural and manmade, knitted together in a stunning repurposing with a life of its own, a history and a future (we hope), but it also has that unmistakable and inexplicable heady feeling of placeness – a kind of accidental placeness that has power derived from a mix of human-built and natural that was never meant to be in concert. Often it is the other way around: humans come in and add something to a natural environment and create an intentional placeness. But here, at the city’s geographical pinnacle, despite the site’s original engineered purpose, one feels so detached from civilization and so connected to nature. Yet, there is such an integration of the two that it becomes a single whole: nature and culture, inseparable. Arslocii.


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