A Catskill Catalog: February 29, 2012

In late summer, 1938, the New York Tribune sent a reporter to the upper Delaware Valley. Tribune readers, generally affluent and educated, might be curious about the historic agricultural valley that was soon to disappear to provide water for the City of New York.

Barrett McGurn was a 23-year-old reporter when he got the assignment. Mr. McGurn went on to a distinguished career. After 35 years in the newspaper business, he was appointed the first-ever public information officer of the United States Supreme Court, appointed in 1973 by Chief Justice Warren Burger, and serving in that role for nine years.

In 1938, young Barrett McGurn rode the railroad up and down the valley, from Downsville to Margaretville, visiting farms, homes, and stores, talking to the people in Pepacton, Shavertown, Union Grove, and Arena. The headline over his story, published Sunday, Sept. 4, said it all: “That New York May Have Water: Four Catskill Mountain Villages to Vanish So Twenty Mile Reservoir Might Rise.”

If Tribune readers wanted quaint, they got quaint. The valley to be flooded was presented as something of a relic, a hold-over from our pre-modern past, the kind of place imagined in the movies where eloping couples wake a sleeping justice-of-the-peace who can’t get his coat on straight or his spectacles to stay in place on his nose, while his bustling wife, in her nightgown, cuts wedges of apple pie in the kitchen for wedding cake.

“Four drowsy little Revolutionary War villages in the upper New York valley of the Delaware River, in the western foothills of the Catskill Mountains, isolated little communities which still use covered wooden bridges to cross the Delaware, and kerosene lamps, for the most part, to light their homes, are sleeping a troubled sleep these days. The villages have been doomed by New York City’s projected twenty-mile reservoir.”

McGurn visited Charles Williams, an 11th-generation descendent of Roger Williams, the founder of colonial Rhode Island, and America’s founding voice for religious tolerance and diversity of religious belief and practice. Mr. Williams’ farm was the site of the proposed dam, which would stretch across his buckwheat field.

Charles Williams was 61. His father and grandfather had built his 14-room house, 75 years earlier. He was loathe to give it up, as he was loathe to give up his 110 acres of prime river-bottom land, land so easy to till and maintain that Charles Williams farmed alone, with no hired man. “There ain’t every place you can buy you can handle yourself,” he told reporter McGurn.

Not everyone was unhappy. William Hood noted that milk was selling at $1.25 a hundredweight, not enough to cover the cost of feed. Twenty-two-year-old Darwin Van Keuren put it bluntly. “The farmers are not doing so well here. I guess they’re glad to get out.”
Mrs. Joseph Atkins, postmaster of Shavertown, didn’t agree with that sentiment or the economic reasoning behind it. “It’s such a lovely place. If you don’t pay your rent in Shavertown, for instance, you stay right on. No one kicks you out.”

The Revolutionary War and colonial heritage of the valley was a major theme of Barrett McGurn’s writing. The little hamlet of Pepacton had been the 1777 headquarters of Joseph Brant, Iroquois chief and Loyalist-warrior for the British, as he raided the New York frontier.
When built, the 200-foot-high dam would flood the grounds where the Nation of the Iroquois confederacy had parlayed. Two hundred and fifty buildings, “many of them more than a century old,” were to be destroyed.

Imagine the uproar today.
One thousand people were to be displaced: 250 from Shavertown, 175 from Arena, 100 from Union Grove, 70 from Pepacton, the rest from the valley’s many farms and rural outposts. Many would be displaced from land their families had occupied since our nation’s founding.
“Revolutionary War and colonial ancestry is no mark of distinction in the valley, but rather a commonplace trait, like love of the land or membership in the grange.” This was a place where people tended to stay. Newcomers mostly married in. In 1938, 75 Shavers lived in Shavertown, descendents of 1781 pioneers John and Jacob Shaver.

Pepacton, Shavertown, Union Grove, and Arena would die a slow death. World War II intervened. Construction of the dam was delayed. Its completion in 1954 was fully 16 years after Barrett McGurn’s visit to the valley.

Some saw opportunity in the new reality the region faced. Town fathers in Walton arranged the construction of a new road to the East Branch, hoping to draw some of the displaced farmers to resettle on the West Branch. Business leaders in Margaretville prepared for an economic infusion while the dam was being constructed.
Either way, history happened.
billbirns@gmail.com