Cities at the Bottom of New York’s Reservoirs

The Catskills Project began with a 12 mile, 8,300 acre strip of land, encompassing the villages of West Hurley, Glenford, Ashton, Olive Branch, Shokan, West Shokan, Boiceville, Brodhead’s Bridge, Olive City, Olive Bridge and Browns station. In its first sip, writes Sante, New York City seized “504 private homes, 35 stores, 10 churches, 10 schools, nine blacksmith shops, 7 sawmills, and a flour mill.” He also took the Ulster and Delaware Railroad and state forest reserves, thanks to the McClellan Act of 1905, named after George McClellan, then the conservative Democratic mayor of New York. As many have done over the years, Charles Coutant, a member of the Ulster County State Assembly, argued that the city could take its water from the Hudson (like Albany) and spend the money to filter it. He chastised neighboring counties for their support of New York: “If Ulster County is sacrificed”, he reminded them, “your turn may come next”.

A 1950 view of Croton Dam on the Hudson River, Croton, New York.

Frederic Lewis/Getty

But convictions were moving at a rapid pace in 1907, with land seized just before it flooded. Sante notes the condescending tone with which The New York Times covered the farmers’ claims, calling their claims for compensation – for rabbits, for a cow that ate dynamite – “rustically comical”. “But, of course,” Sante writes, “each conviction revealed a specific little narrative.” Sante recreates the world of “small traders, boarders, millers and blacksmiths and quarrymen, ministers and teachers” whose lives have been shattered by land confiscations. Their homes destroyed, they were relocated with their neighbors, an example of what social psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove, writing about the destructive urban neighborhood renewal of the 1950s in the Urban Health Journal, in 2001, defined as “root shock”, a traumatic stress reaction linked to the destruction of one’s emotional ecosystem, although in this case in the countryside. Health writes:

Their connection to the world beyond their own fences was, at best, everyday; few had telephones. The trip to Kingston, less than ten miles away, has been undertaken by most perhaps a few times a year. They spent very little money, consuming mostly things they grew themselves or bartered with a neighbor. But they were not isolated; dense family ties spread throughout the region, and neighbors had been the same for decades. They were bound, pledged and sealed in the land.

Sante sketches the life of a farmer named Charles Pierson: single at 52, whose farm was ideally located, whose family was nearby, who hired laborers from the region at harvest time. He disappears from the record once the town takes over his farm. “There are no reports of illnesses or deaths, emotional crises or suicides following the land seizures, and the term ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ has been coined for decades,” Sante writes. . “But such suffering must surely have been common. Each determination by the sentencing commission has actually dismantled a life – and at a reduced rate.

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