Receding reservoir reveals lost world

Submerged towns testify to sacrifices communities made for water

May 26, 2002|By Lisa W. Foderaro | Lisa W. Foderaro,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

OLIVE, N.Y. -- It is the Catskills' own Atlantis: a dozen bucolic hamlets swallowed up almost a century ago in New York City's desperate desire for water. Hundreds of houses were dismantled or burned, 2,000 people were forced out and an even greater number of graves were moved so the land could be flooded.

In their place lies the Ashokan Reservoir, a luminous basin surrounded by the deep green folds of the Catskill Mountains, a watery monument to the lost world of the Esopus Valley.

While the drought this spring may be an annoyance to New York City and its suburbs, to the people in this quiet corner of Ulster County the drought has stirred something deeper.

The receding waters of the Ashokan have opened a window onto the area's turbulent past, revealing the stone building foundations and drinking wells, along with the odd horseshoe and shard of pottery. With the recent rains, the water levels have started to creep back to cover the remnants of lives turned upside down.

But this summer, New York City will finally commemorate the submerged towns and the sacrifices the valley residents made to quench the city's thirst.

At the turn of the 20th century, many residents felt unfairly compensated for their houses. It wasn't just their homes that had to be cleared from the land, but all the cornerstones of their society: churches, schools, shops, railroad stations and sawmills. One particularly unsettling gesture from the city was its offer to pay residents $15 to dig up the grave of a family member or friend and move the body.

"My mother was 10 or 11 when her family had to move," recalled Eleanor Arold, a painter in Kingston whose grandfather's 12-room house and general store were taken by eminent domain. "She was the one who was most bitter about the whole thing. The city just kind of came in and took over, and many of the prices were not fair."

Arold, 69, has a photograph showing her grandmother, Sarah Lennox, standing next to the house after the family had moved. "It's almost like she had gone back for a last look," she said.

Soon the city will acknowledge the pain caused when the Esopus Creek was dammed in 1913, creating a 13-square-mile reservoir. Thousands of workers removed every bush and tree from what would be the reservoir floor. Four hamlets were wiped out, while eight others moved, their buildings dragged by horses and oxen to higher land.

The New York City Department of Environmental Protection will erect a commemorative outdoor exhibition in Olive in July that traces the development of the reservoir, the second-largest in the city's system, whose 40 miles of shoreline encompass 123 billion gallons of water. Exhibitions are planned for the five other reservoirs west of the Hudson River as well.

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