A Catskill Catalog: Feb. 17, 2010

In 1921, along the East Branch of the Delaware River, rumors began to circulate: the City of New York was coming, and it meant to take the valley for its water supply.

Fifteen years earlier, the Ashokan Dam had flooded the valley of the Esopus, forcing over 2,000 people from their homes. Ten thousand acres had been inundated, the villages of Ashton, Olive City, Brown’s Station, and Brodhead’s Bridge destroyed, and eight other villages relocated to higher ground: Boiceville, Glenford, Olive Branch, Olive Bridge, Olive, Shokan, West Hurley, and West Shokan.

Up in Gilboa, work on the new Schoharie Reservoir had begun in 1920, preceded by the fire-razing destruction of that village. Folks in the upper East Branch valley knew that the threat of an imminent takeover was real. They’d seen the city do it before.

New York City was growing mightily in the first decades of the 20th Century and needed to find and develop sources of clean water to make that growth sustainable. The first step was collecting the Catskill waters of the Esopus and Schoharie creeks, water that, left undiverted, would flow into the Hudson and Mohawk rivers. But even when these projects were completed, leaders of the burgeoning city knew they would need more.

The waters of the Delaware looked mighty attractive. Left to nature’s flow, all that Delaware River water just ends up in Philadelphia and Trenton. Makes sense, city fathers reasoned, to use our own. Except, the people who lived and worked along the East Branch thought the valley belonged to them. Since the 1780s, farmers had made the fertile valley bloom, and families had built a life along the river. River lands provided prosperity from Roxbury to Halcottsville to Margaretville to Arena to Union Grove to Shavertown to Pepacton to Downsville to Corbett to Shinhopple to Harvard to Hancock.

Rumors or no, people continued to live and work. Farms and houses were bought and sold. But always there was that suspicion: how long will it last? How long before the city comes and takes the valley away?

The answer came in 1938. After 17 years of rumor, the city made it official. Delaware waters would be impounded with a dam built at Downsville. The new reservoir would flood the valley of the East Branch nearly to Margaretville, taking four villages: Pepacton, Shavertown, Union Grove, and Arena. Properties would be taken by eminent domain. The city needed the water.
War intervened. World War II put all non-military projects on hold. Construction on the dam didn’t begin until 10 years after the initial announcement, the first shovel cutting into the earth November 11, 1948.

For the people of the four villages it was the beginning of the end. Pepacton, located four miles upstream from the dam site, was the first to be razed. The little hamlet had had a proud history, having been both a gathering spot for native peoples, and the site of a Revolutionary War raid led by Mohawk chief Joseph Brandt. More recently, Pepacton was a well-known destination for spring shad fishing. Now it was gone.

Back in 1781, John and Jacob Shaver had settled where the Tremperskill empties into the East Branch. That settlement had grown into a substantial village, Shavertown. About a mile upriver was Union Grove, located where the Barkaboom stream meets the East Branch. Its oldest house had been built in 1790.

Arena stood at the junction of the Millbrook and the East Branch. Called Lumberville when founded in 1874, Arena had been an important take-off point for lumbermen rafting timber downriver to Philadelphia.

Photographs of these villages show stores and homes, bridges and roads, farms and churches, boarding houses and businesses, Cox’s Mill in Shavertown, and Union Grove Mills in that town. A Veterans’ Honor Roll honored Shavertown’s war dead. By spring 1954, it was all gone.
In 2007, students at Andes Central School made a 38-minute video called “Shavertown: A Reservoir of Memories.” Directed by educators Wendy Redden and Colleen Heavey, high school students, including Cheyenne Tait, Brittany McAdams, and Carrianne Fairbairn, interviewed 15 Shavertown residents who were forced to leave their homes. Community member Jack Ballo assisted the kids.

Gary Atkin spoke animatedly about his youth in Shavertown, his family’s store and the spontaneous community gatherings that occurred there. Barbara Condon was touching, recounting how, for years, the “beautiful ride around the reservoir” was, for her, too painful to be pretty.
I checked a copy out of my local public library. It was great, quality way beyond what you’d expect for a high school production, combining talk-to-the-camera interviews of former Shavertown residents, with Ken Burns style camera movement over old photographs.

The end came on April 30, 1954, when Union Grove Postmaster, Agnes Miller, whom I was later privileged to know, took in the American flag for the last time, removed the post office sign from next to the door, and stamped and signed last day postmarks from Union Grove, N.Y.
Agnes moved to Margaretville. The waters rose.
© William Birns
The Atkins House in ShavertownThe Atkins House in Shavertown