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what eminent domain looks like

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Welcome to Bishop Falls, New York, in summertime 1905. You may have seen it on the postcards. It’s an iconic, multi-tiered waterfall reminding some of a miniature Niagara. There’s a bustling mill taking a slice of the frothy waters to churn out flour to help feed citizens. Nearby in swimming holes are bathing tourists escaping New York City’s summer heat, and rooming in local boarding houses.

And just downstream is a covered bridge and a scenic rocky gorge through which the Esopus Creek rushes, meandering on through a valley that is soon to be submerged.

More than a century later, the cliffs that once hosted Bishop Falls are dark, caked in sediment, and more than 100 feet underwater.

The Esopus was dammed in 1913 for the Ashokan Reservoir to supply water to a growing metropolis downstate. Bishop Falls and surrounding hamlets, most in the town of Olive, were forced out of existence or forced to relocate through eminent domain. 

In all, about 2,300 people were relocated, more than 500 buildings moved or demolished, 11 miles of railroad track rerouted, and 32 cemeteries moved to make way for the Ashokan Reservoir, about 10 miles west of Kingston in Ulster County.

“The generational trauma is still kind of reverberating,” said Kate McGloughlin, an artist, resident of Olive, and a descendant of many of the displaced residents, including the Bishops and Boices who ran the mill complex at Bishop Falls.

‘Ugly’ battle for compensation

Thousands of people were relocated and hundreds of buildings moved or torn down to make way for the Ashokan Reservoir, about 10 miles west of Kingston in Ulster County. This photo, taken in 1907 at the Olive Bridge Dam, shows coffer-dam and piers under construction for supporting the 8-foot pipes to carry the flow of water in Esopus creek.

Thousands of people were relocated and hundreds of buildings moved or torn down to make way for the Ashokan Reservoir, about 10 miles west of Kingston in Ulster County. This photo, taken in 1907 at the Olive Bridge Dam, shows coffer-dam and piers under construction for supporting the 8-foot pipes to carry the flow of water in Esopus creek.

Smith Collection/Gado via Getty Images

The reservoir allowed New York City to continue growing in population in the early 1900s. Today about 40 percent of the city’s drinking water flows from it and through the Catksill Aqueduct, according to New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

Now, as the DEP prepares to embark on a billion-dollar Ashokan Century Program to upgrade the reservoir’s 100-year-old infrastructure, the old, inter-generational wounds remain largely unhealed.

According to Frank Almquist, author of the book “Building the Ashokan Reservoir,” there are local residents who will avoid driving along the reservoir out of resentment for what they say New York City did to their forebears.

“It didn’t have to be quite as ugly as it was,” said McGloughlin, who said her family was largely underpaid for their 14 properties to make way for the reservoir. She explored that trauma through her 2018 multimedia exhibit “Requiem for Ashokan.”

“It’s bad enough to rip up the landscape and displace people but to disrespect them so much and pay them so little,” she said. “Some people got a chunk of money even though it was below market value, but most people didn’t. Most people got really hosed on this. And the qualitative thing that nobody can quantify is this trauma, this displacement, this weirdness that happens. Basically they tore the heart out of our community.”


Related: Proposed hydroelectic plant near Ashokan Reservoir shifts location after stiff opposition


Dr. April M. Beisaw, an archeologist and Vassar College professor, has for the past decade been studying the anthropological impacts of New York City’s quest for water. She and Almquist said they believe residents at the time were not fairly compensated overall.

“I’ve encountered people over the years who say that,” said Adam Bosch, director of public affairs for the DEP’s bureau of water supply. “And that may be the truth — that in some cases the city underpaid.”

But the opposite is true, too, he said. “There are people I’ve met over the years who have said their families were paid fairly. There are people I’ve met who say their families couldn’t believe how much money they got for their property. So, there are different feelings about the takings from a hundred years ago.”

Forcing the Catskills to bend to the needs of the city

“The generational trauma is still kind of reverberating,” said Kate McGloughlin, an artist, resident of Olive, and a descendant of many of the displaced residents. She created a body of work, “Requiem for Ashokan,” that explores the loss of these communities.

Kate McGloughlin

According to David Stradling, a history professor at the University of Cincinnati and author of the book “Making Mountains: New York City and the Catskills,” the truth on that matter swings heavily based on perspective.

Stradling’s research for his book, which included in-depth reviews of the state-ordered commission’s hearings on land takings, showed that by the end of 1932, when most cases had been settled, “The commission had heard 755 cases, with a total of over $10 million in claims. They had awarded a little more than $1.4 million to claimants.”

Stradling said the hearings were trial-like, during which both New York City officials and…



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2021-10-14 11:51:45

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