Chapter XIX

Mount Ashokan And The Reservoir

From "The Catskills" (1918)
By T. Morris Longstreth

Arising at dawn in midsummer has one insuperable disadvantage. The ordinary breakfast hour seems like noon, and noon like doomsday finally arrived. As for the interval from doomsday till dusk-there is nothing calculated to give such a fair idea of eternity in advance. When I had finally awakened to the fact that Brute was there and had been there for two hours, had guessed the situation and prepared a meal, we sat down with an all-devouring passion to pick up the threads of the past and a little food. The latter he called dinner and I breakfast, the hour being the confusing one of ten by the zodiac, eleven by the government, and others slightly different by our two watches.

When June chooses to smile, it is the most charming smile of the round year. The sky was clear to the very flying-off place, and the Reservoir shone, a revelation of completed beauty to Brute, who had seen it in the making.

"It's funny that lake was overlooked by the Almighty," he said devoutly.

The remark crystallized what I had been thinking. The lake was so beautiful, fitted so well into border -- land of mountain and plain, that it did not look raw and new. To tell the geologic truth, it had been on the original plan of the globe. The surveyors found evidences of a pre-glacial lake. All they did was to put it back. This they did supremely well by damming the Esopus where the ice-sheet had worn down the embankment and let the water out.

The story of the gigantic work is unfortunately submerged in the other stories of our incredible young century. It has been fascinatingly told by Dr. Edward Hagaman Hall in a work entitled "The Catskill Aqueduct," which he modestly calls a pamphlet, but which is a novelette for interest. He tells how drought came to New York; how the supply of water, even when rationed out, fell until there was enough for but four more days; and how the great city, on its islands and fringes of the continent, was in a panic.

Far-seeing men clearly set forth the facts, and convinced by calculation that almost before a comprehensive system of water-supply could be worked out the city would be in perpetual danger of water-famine. Since all the local sources were taxed, the attention was directed to the Catskills and Adirondacks -- the two great park-lands of the Empire State.

Dr. Hall's well-pruned tale of the feats of engineering, the feats of finance, of social organization, elevate statistics to their proper level of interest. While the building of the Aqueduct was given less nation-wide attention than the contemporary Canal at Panama, the labors were just as Herculean, the problems as staggering. To create a tunnel capable of delivering a half billion gallons of mountain water every day, to drive it through the solid rock of Manhattan, to conduct it beneath the Hudson at a level of 1,114 feet below the sea, to have it avoid subterranean eaves, and, at one stroke to contrive a lake to mother it which should be pure, capacious, and as beautiful as poetry -- surely this was a task to test the efficiency of a democracy.

The site of the Reservoir contained some seven villages, a railroad, and many cemeteries. But the corpses weren't allowed to stand between six million thirsty souls and their thirst. So the villages of West Shokan, Boiceville, Brodhead, Olive Bridge, Brown Station, Glenford, Ashton, and West Hurley gave up their dead as well as their identity. Their lands were purified and submerged to the extent of over eight thousand acres, averaging a depth of fifty feet. This was enough water to drown out Manhattan Island to the depth of thirty feet, or, in other words, a hundred and thirty-two billion gallons.

Naturally, the dwellers between Ashokan and the sea have an interest in the way this flood is held in leash. There are five and a half miles of dams and dikes. The first line of defense is a line of boulders embedded in concrete and a hundred and ninety feet thick at the base, two hundred and forty feet high, and a thousand long. The entire dam is a mile long.

The second line, of nearly five miles, is a dike whose heart is of concrete, its flesh of earth pressed almost to the consistency of granite. This runs along the south. To the east are other dikes. On the west and north the Catskills form a wall rising abruptly from the plain of three thousand feet.

Around this lake the State has built a road of great beauty. The construction and the setting are beautiful beyond the first visit to comprehend. Already its magnificence is known, and soon will be justly famous. When the trees that are planted have grown, and when the edges of the lake will have taken to themselves a wildness consonant to the mountain setting, then the forty mile circle will have become a part of every motorist's itinerary.

The Kingston people and the inhabitants of the by-lying villages must feel themselves translated, after so long staring across a waterless plain. With mountain-ranges, vistas of ravines, pine-covered points, waters sacred to the sun and forever free from spoliation, the white rites of the "veiled women" in the beautiful aeration plant, the simple and straightforward architecture of spillway and dividing weir, and ever the ribbon of road against the hills, -- nothing more is needed to minister to the eye.

There is much more than the eye can ever perceive implied in the accomplishment of this work. It spells the highest sort of triumph-popular cooperation with the genius of science. It forecasts a wise middle life for our century, which is so rampant in its adolescence.

It is this triumph of civic enterprise that offsets the failure of brotherhood abroad, in a measure. New York's great parks and roads and citizen activities mean more than the things themselves. It is something to have insured New York City's water supply. It is something far greater to have employed thousands of men and handled millions of public money without political scandal and without a strike. Thanks to model conditions of housing, sanitation, food, and recreation, the army of workmen preserved an unprecedented morale. The morrow, we are told, belongs to the masses in their own right, and not as a gift from the few. New York State has shown the short cut to this morrow by using the faithful labor of the many, under the direction of the few, for the good of all.

The scheme for New York's water-supply cannot stop with the Ashokan. At Gilboa they are utilizing the Schoharie water, which will flow beneath the mountains and into the Esopus at Shandaken. The other Catskill water-sheds, the Rondout and Catskill, with their three hundred square miles, will probably be added to the five hundred and sixty-five of the Esopus and Schoharie. And then the Adirondacks!

Eventually the Catskills will be an immense pleasure park, as much of the Adirondack forest is now, set aside for the health, wealth, and happiness of the entire East. This does not mean that ancient settlers will be disinherited, nor that the timber, the game, the berries, and the fish cannot be used. It means that the great encircling populations will have a place, large as luxury and rich as nature, to recuperate in, where vandalism shall not intrude, and where such things as constitute the commonwealth may be enjoyed by all. May the Empire State continue to exercise her prerogatives as wisely as she has begun!

We had sat for a while looking at the white lake stretched below us before Brute asked:

"How many High Points is this we've been up?

"About five."

"Well, I suggest that we do a little mountainnaming ourselves. This grand-stand mountain is a kind of reserved seat for the Reservoir show, and I call it plumb foolish to mix it up with all the other High Points and High Peaks. What shall we christen it?"

"It is the lake's mountain," I suggested. "But we can't smash champagne or liberate a dove."

"There's the bug dope. We might christen it with citronella."

But something better offered. Picking up the coffee-pot, Brute stood in a reverential attitude by the "topmost rock," on which he poured what remained of breakfast, saying:

"With these grounds I dub thee Mount Ashokan."

And so I hope the Lord High Surveyor may put it down.


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