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Friday, October 15, 2010

My Family History and the New York City Watershed

[This post was written as part of Blog Action Day 2010 with the theme being Water. GeneaBloggers has asked genealogy bloggers to discuss how water may have affected their ancestors.]

Shavertown, NY prior to destruction for the Pepacton Reservoir
I grew up in the Catskill Mountain region of New York, about 100 miles north of New York City. This is where various lines of my ancestors have lived since the late 1600s starting with the arrival of my 9th great-grandfather Hugo Freer in New Paltz.

While I don't know much about how water - its abundance as well as the lack of it - affected the generations since the late 17th century, I do know how water impacted my family in more recent generations.

Beginning around the turn of the 19th century, the Catskill mountains were seen as a resource for water for New York City as it experienced population growth. Natural reservoirs and man-made aqueducts seemed to quench the City's thirst up until the 1930s when plans were made for a series of reservoirs to be built.

Many of these projects were part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) here in the United States and not only served to build necessary infrastructure such as roads and dams, but also employed many of my family members during the Great Depression. However, in order for the reservoirs to be built, natural valleys were flooded meaning that families and entire towns were either moved or destroyed outright.

Shavertown, NY after destruction for the Pepacton Reservoir 
I grew up right next to the town of Neversink which had to be moved (ironically named, no?) along with the town of Bittersweet to make room for the Neversink Reservoir. I remember growing up and hearing stories from family about the houses that were moved and that when the reservoir was low you could actually see the church steeple and other buildings.  I'm not sure if this is true or just local legend, but every time we drove over the dam itself, I would look to see if I could see an abandoned building.

There were many "lost towns" in the Catskills that were abandoned due to the construction of the Pepacton, Ashokan, Neversink, Rondout and other reservoirs as part of the creation of the New York City Watershed.  Still today when you drive around these wonderful bodies of water you see signs letting you know where towns such as Olive Bridge, West Shokan, Shavertown and others.

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And yet while history was surely lost with the obliteration of these towns, something else has grown in its place. There are thousands of acres of land and water which are now preserved and not only provide water to New York City, but also provide recreation opportunities to the local residents. I grew up fishing at the Neversink and Rondout reservoirs. The scenery as you drive around these dams is amazing especially those rare times when the spillways have to be opened due to an abundance of rain.

Modern view of Pepacton Reservoir
Finally, the need to protect these areas and the water has settled into the hearts and minds of people who live near the reservoir system.  There are many restrictions on what can and can't be done with refuse, chemicals and land since it can impact the watershed.  What was seen as an imposition and disruption during its construction in the 1940s is now seen as a jewel and a resource to be preserved.

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You can read more about Neversink and the other Lost Towns over at Between The Lakes which has fascinating first-hand stories and photographs.

Photos: Shavertown, New York from the Delaware County, NY Genealogy and History Site.

© 2010, copyright Thomas MacEntee

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