Local history: The Ashokan Reservoir

Clockwise from left: construction of the dividing weir between the west basin, where most silt and clay settle to the bottom, and the lower east basin; the original aeration system consisted of hundreds of nozzles that sprayed water into the air to kill bacteria and remove odors. In 1982, a fountain replaced the original aerator; when the reservoir reaches full capacity, water runs over a spillway creating a spectacular waterfall. (Images courtesy of Blauweiss Collection)

New Amsterdam under the Dutch was already facing a water crisis. It was far from freshwater sources, and the water available from local wells was brackish and quickly polluted by less-than-ideal sanitary practices. 

By the 1790, the growth of industry in the young nation had contaminated the limited supply of drinking water with runoff from breweries, tanneries, and slaughterhouses. Waste from humans and livestock also attracted disease-spreading mosquitoes. The city needed a new source of water. 

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Aaron Burr, then a New York State assemblyman, was intrigued by the idea of seeking a clean-water source outside of the city. He argued for the venture to be handled by a private company, an aspect with which his fellow leaders disagreed. Through shady means, including persuading Alexander Hamilton to lobby on his behalf, he received authorization from the state. Burr‘s secret plan was to own the company and use the funds to establish a rival bank to Hamilton’s. He and a group of wealthy partners established the Manhattan Company in 1799 as both a waterworks and a bank, which became Manhattan Bank, later Chase Manhattan, and now JPMorgan Chase.

The water problem remained unsolved for decades under the company’s half-hearted endeavors. In 1832 more than 3500 people died from cholera, prompting the city to search for a new source of water for its 200,000 residents.

The Croton Reservoir & Aqueduct in Westchester was constructed from 1837 to 1842 to bring water from the Croton River 41 miles to the north. John Jervis, second chief engineer of the D&H Canal, was hired to oversee the project. He built the High Bridge to carry water over the Harlem River and designed it to resemble a Roman aqueduct. 

By the end of the century, with the addition of Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island, and part of Queens, the city’s population had grown to 3.5 million, and the Croton watershed was inadequate.

Construction began on the Ashokan Reservoir in 1907. Named for the native term for “place of fish,” the area was inhabited by farmers and descendants of early settlers who ventured west from the Hudson River. Declaring the area sparsely populated, New York City blatantly disregarded ownership rights, underestimated property values, and claimed the land for a new reservoir to be fed by damming the Esopus Creek. 

By the time the reservoir opened in 1915, roughly 2000 people had been forced from their homes, often with as little as ten days notice, leading to their lasting mistrust of city interlopers. Hundreds of houses, barns, mills, farms, churches, shops, schools, and trees were lost, and more than 2600 graves were moved to other cemeteries. A few hundred bodies were buried with only numbered markers referring to where they were relocated from. Wooden structures were either dismantled and sold for scrap, moved, or simply burned. Trees were cut and removed by stump pullers. Fifteen square miles were cleared to create the reservoir.

The completed dividing weir showing the two multilevel basins. (New York Public Library)

Eleven hamlets were flooded or relocated: Ashton, Boiceville, Brodhead’s Bridge, Brown’s Station, Glenford, Olive, Olive Bridge, Olive City, Shokan, West Hurley, and West Shokan. Drivers passing through today are often unaware of the forcible relocations a century ago.

A workforce of thousands was required for this massive engineering feat in an era before diesel-powered machinery. Italians were brought in large numbers specifically for their expertise in stonecutting and masonry. Many stayed and influenced the ethnic diversity of the area. They worked alongside fellow immigrants from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, and second-generation Irishmen whose parents had worked in the canal and bluestone industries. Some locals were also employed. 

A few hundred African Americans from the South were hired in particular for their skill in driving mule wagons. They also worked in a variety of other jobs.  One of the first female civil engineers contributed to the design of the reservoir’s infrastructure. According to Bob Steuding’s The Last of the Handmade Dams, 288 people were killed during construction of the entire reservoir system. A specific figure for the Ashokan portion is not known. 

Workers were housed in camps, some of which resembled small towns with their own hospitals, dining halls, stores, taverns, brothels, sewage systems, water, electricity, and fire and police departments. Whole families lived there, and workers’ children attended school together. Segregation in housing, however, was enforced, and ethnic groups lived in separate camps. 

The Ashokan Reservoir opened in 1915. At 8300 acres, it was the world’s largest at the time and the first of six to be built in the Catskills between 1907 and 1965. It can hold 122.9 billion gallons at full capacity. Impressively, all the water flows by gravity through more than 100 miles of underground piping to reach New York City. In sheer scale, ingenuity, and functionality, the achievement was considered on a par with the building of the Panama Canal, which opened just one year earlier.  

Today, more than a billion gallons of Catskills water reaches New York City per day. The water remains unfiltered but is tested daily. 

A lasting impact of the project on Uptown Kingston was the cessation of flooding from the Esopus Creek, which for centuries had plagued the city’s flat plains, such as Mutton Hollow and the swampland later paved to create Kingston Plaza.

In 2019, after heated debates between rail enthusiasts and recreational advocates, 11.5 miles of the old U&D line between West Hurley and Boiceville were converted into a rail-trail alongside the reservoir.

To see sample pages and information about supporting the 475-page book, The Story of Historic Kingston, featuring 950 images, that will be released in December 2021, please visit: HudsonValleyHistoryAndArt.com.

Check out more articles from this series.