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Spectacular photos show the saga of flooding the Catskills and building the dams to bring water to New York City

Ian Harvey

New York City has one of the largest water-delivery systems in the world. It needs to be, for it must serve more than 8 million people a day. Much of the fresh water New York City uses comes from the Catskill Mountains, specifically an area in Ulster County that is about 73 miles north of the city.

This didn’t just happen. There is an engrossing story behind the bringing of water to the largest city in North America–water that is some of the best quality in the country. The story may not equal Chinatown, but it has some twists and turns.

After it became clear a new source was needed, New York City began using the Catskills for its water early in the 20th century.  As state-owned Forest Preserve land,  the Catskills lands could not be sold under the state constitution.

An amendment allowed up to 3 percent of the total Forest Preserve land to be vacated and flooded, and that created the reservoirs to supply water for the city.

A decorative granite facade is applied to the downstream face of the Kensico Dam. Aug. 12, 1915. Author New York Public Library

A decorative granite facade is applied to the downstream face of the Kensico Dam. Aug. 12, 1915. Author New York Public Library

 

A fork in the Yonkers pressure tunnel. Nov. 21, 1913 Author New York Public Library

A fork in the Yonkers pressure tunnel. Nov. 21, 1913 Author New York Public Library

 

A section of the Rondout pressure tunnel with finished concrete lining in place. Author New York Public Library

A section of the Rondout pressure tunnel with finished concrete lining in place. Author New York Public Library

 

A train crosses the Glenford dike next to the east basin of the Ashokan Reservoir. June 25, 1916 Author New York Public Library

A train crosses the Glenford dike next to the east basin of the Ashokan Reservoir. June 25, 1916 Author New York Public Library

 

An earthen embankment is placed and compacted with a steamroller on the upstream face of the Olive Bridge Dam. Aug. 9, 1910 Author New York Public Library

An earthen embankment is placed and compacted with a steamroller on the upstream face of the Olive Bridge Dam. Aug. 9, 1910 Author New York Public Library

 

Ashokan Reservoir workers in camp. Jan. 20, 1910 Author New York Public Library

Ashokan Reservoir workers in camp. Jan. 20, 1910 Author New York Public Library

 

Drills bore into the bed of the Hudson River at Storm King Mountain, where the Catskill Aqueduct crosses from the west side of the river to the east, 1,100 feet underground. Author New York Public Library

Drills bore into the bed of the Hudson River at Storm King Mountain, where the Catskill Aqueduct crosses from the west side of the river to the east, 1,100 feet underground. Author New York Public Library

 

Earth is dumped into the reservoir on the upstream face of the Olive Bridge Dam. April 27,1914 Author New York Public Library

Earth is dumped into the reservoir on the upstream face of the Olive Bridge Dam. April 27,1914 Author New York Public Library

 

Earth is dumped to form an embankment against the west dike of the Ashokan Reservoir. Oct. 11,1910 Author New York Public Library

Earth is dumped to form an embankment against the west dike of the Ashokan Reservoir. Oct. 11,1910 Author New York Public Library

 

Esopus creek at the Olive Bridge dam site, showing coffer-dams and two lines of 8-foot steel pipes for carrying the flow of the creek. Aug. 8, 1907 Author New York Public Library

Esopus creek at the Olive Bridge dam site, showing coffer-dams and two lines of 8-foot steel pipes for carrying the flow of the creek. Aug. 8, 1907 Author New York Public Library

 

Inside the completed Kensico screen chamber. Jan. 29, 1914 Author New York Public Library

Inside the completed Kensico screen chamber. Jan. 29, 1914 Author New York Public Library

 

Piers are built in the bed of Esopus Creek to support pipes to carry the flow of water. May 30, 1907 Author New York Public Library

Piers are built in the bed of Esopus Creek to support pipes to carry the flow of water. May 30, 1907 Author New York Public Library

 

Pressure valves inside the Catskill Aqueduct.Author New York Public Library

Pressure valves inside the Catskill Aqueduct.Author New York Public Library

 

The Ashokan Reservoir’s upper gate-chamber from the East Inlet channel, with aqueducts for drawing water from the reservoir. June 15, 1911 Author New York Public Library

The Ashokan Reservoir’s upper gate-chamber from the East Inlet channel, with aqueducts for drawing water from the reservoir. June 15, 1911 Author New York Public Library

 

The Ashokan Reservoir’s waste weir and spillway leading to Esopus creek. Dec. 13, 1916 Author New York Public Library

The Ashokan Reservoir’s waste weir and spillway leading to Esopus creek. Dec. 13, 1916 Author New York Public Library

 

The Ashokan Reservoir’s waste weir and spillway. Aug. 5, 1914 Author New York Public Library

The Ashokan Reservoir’s waste weir and spillway. Aug. 5, 1914 Author New York Public Library

 

The chosen site for the Olive Bridge Dam in Esopus Creek. c 1906 Author New York Public Library

The chosen site for the Olive Bridge Dam in Esopus Creek. c 1906 Author New York Public Library

The concrete core-wall of the Ashokan Reservoir’s middle dike. Dec. 8, 1910 Author New York Public Library

The concrete core-wall of the Ashokan Reservoir’s middle dike. Dec. 8, 1910 Author New York Public Library

 

The downstream face of the Kensico Dam. Oct. 29, 1914Author New York Public Library

The downstream face of the Kensico Dam. Oct. 29, 1914Author New York Public Library

 

The downstream face of the Olive Bridge Dam under construction. June 21, 1910 Author New York Public Library

The downstream face of the Olive Bridge Dam under construction. June 21, 1910 Author New York Public Library

 

The downstream face of the Olive Bridge dam. Sept. 7, 1911 Author New York Public Library

The downstream face of the Olive Bridge dam. Sept. 7, 1911 Author New York Public Library

 

The east pylon of the Kensico Reservoir, with its fountain and cascade basin. Sept. 20, 1917 Author New York Public Library

The east pylon of the Kensico Reservoir, with its fountain and cascade basin. Sept. 20, 1917 Author New York Public Library

 

Excavation for the foundation of the Kensico Dam in progress. July 30, 1912 Author New York Public Library

Excavation for the foundation of the Kensico Dam in progress. July 30, 1912 Author New York Public Library

 

Excavation of the Bonticou Tunnel in progress. June 9, 1911 Author New York Public Library

Excavation of the Bonticou Tunnel in progress. June 9, 1911 Author New York Public Library

 

The excavation of the old Kensico Dam in preparation for the construction of a replacement. Oct 13, 1911 Author New York Public Library

The excavation of the old Kensico Dam in preparation for the construction of a replacement. Oct 13, 1911 Author New York Public Library

The New York State legislature created the New York City Board of Water Supply in 1905, which arranged for the acquisition of lands suitable for building of dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts in the Catskill Mountains. The board began construction on the Ashokan Reservoir in 1907 and finished in 1915. Over 500 homes, shops, churches, and schools of the 12 resident communities in the area due to be flooded by the waters of Esopus Creek were abandoned or moved, along with a logging operation, a section of railroad line, and thousands of acres of farmland.

The residents challenged, to no avail, the eminent-domain rule that allowed the state to confiscate the land; it was 1940 before the last case was settled. When the dam was completed and ready to be put into use, giant steam whistles blew for one hour, signaling anyone still in the valley to evacuate.

The first concrete block is placed on the downstream face of the Olive Bridge dam. Oct. 18, 1908 Author New York Public Library

The first concrete block is placed on the downstream face of the Olive Bridge dam. Oct. 18, 1908 Author New York Public Library

 

The Garrison Tunnel in the process of timbering and bench mucking. June 27, 1911 Author New York Public Library

The Garrison Tunnel in the process of timbering and bench mucking. June 27, 1911 Author New York Public Library

 

The inlet and gatehouse between two basins of the Ashokan Reservoir, with two arches of the Ashokan Bridge in progress. Oct. 26, 1914 Author New York Public Library

The inlet and gatehouse between two basins of the Ashokan Reservoir, with two arches of the Ashokan Bridge in progress. Oct. 26, 1914 Author New York Public Library

 

The Kensico Bypass Aqueduct. Nov. 22, 1910 Author New York Public Library

The Kensico Bypass Aqueduct. Nov. 22, 1910 Author New York Public Library

 

The upstream stream face of the masonry portion of Olive Bridge dam with a temporary opening for the flow of Esopus creek. Nov. 19, 1909 Author New York Public Library

The upstream stream face of the masonry portion of Olive Bridge dam with a temporary opening for the flow of Esopus creek. Nov. 19, 1909 Author New York Public Library

Several of the communities were reconstructed nearby.  West Shokan, Olivebridge, Ashokan, and Shokan still stand along the banks of the reservoir. Over 12 miles of the Ulster and Delaware Railroad was moved, and 32 cemeteries were relocated. Historical markers along Routes 28 and 28A commemorate the former towns of Boiceville, Olive City, and West Hurly. During low-water levels, parts of the tops of the abandoned buildings can be seen peeking out of the water.

The Olive Bridge dam was constructed mainly by local laborers using Rosendale cement, the world’s strongest at the time. The men lived in labor camps, and fights would often break out, so a police force was established to keep the peace. After completion of the reservoir, the force transformed into the New York City Department of Environmental Protection Police (NYCDEP).

The village of Shokan, which lies within the territory claimed for the west basin of the Ashokan Reservoir. Dec. 5,1906 Author New York Public Library

The village of Shokan, which lies within the territory claimed for the west basin of the Ashokan Reservoir. Dec. 5,1906 Author New York Public Library

Traveling derricks place concrete blocks on the downstream face of the Kensico Dam. Oct 30, 193 Author New York Public Library

Traveling derricks place concrete blocks on the downstream face of the Kensico Dam. Oct 30, 193 Author New York Public Library

The reservoir was built as two basins separated by a concrete dividing weir used to control the water flow. At full capacity, it holds 122.9 billion gallons of water. Recreational activities on the Ashokan Reservoir are restricted to fishing only with a boat without a motor; no gasoline-powered craft are allowed to make sure there is no pollution, and fishing licences are strictly controlled. Evergreen trees planted when the dam was built control erosion along the banks.

Work in progress on the cut-off trench under the masonry portion of the Olive Bridge Dam. Sept. 11, 1908 Author New York Public Library

Work in progress on the cut-off trench under the masonry portion of the Olive Bridge Dam. Sept. 11, 1908 Author New York Public Library

Another reservoir in the Catskills is 27 miles north of the Ashokan. The Schoharie Reservoir’s water flows into the Ashokan through the Shandaken Tunnel and Esopus Creek. The watershed area is just over 300 square miles in Greene County. With a shoreline of 14.8 miles and a length of 4 miles, it is a popular fishing spot.  The state encourages fishing by annually stocking approximately 1,500 to 2,000 brown trout about eight inches in length and 20,000 walleye one to two inches in length  As with the Ashokan, no gasoline motors are permitted.

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Water from the Schoharie Reservoir moves to New York City through the Shandaken Tunnel and into Esopus Creek.  From the Esopus, it flows into the Ashokan Reservoir and enters the Catskill Aqueduct to Kensico Reservoir, and then on to New York City.  There, gravity supplies the power to push the water through, rather than the pumps most cities use.

Writer: Donnapa Patterson