New exhibit on the drowned towns of the Ashokan

Above: A video from the Daily Freeman about a new exhibit in the Ulster County Clerk's Office, telling the stories of people who had their property seized over a century ago to build the Ashokan Reservoir.

The Freeman reports today that a new exhibit at the Ulster County Clerk's Office is paying tribute to the people whose homes, farms and businesses now lie at the bottom of the Ashokan Reservoir. The exhibit includes property records, transcripts from legal proceedings, and photographs.

The transcripts paint a vivid picture of life in the Catskill Mountains a century ago:

One of those transcripts deals with the case of Arvesta Barton who discusses making $150 annually from washing and sewing businesses on her property. She testifies that business slowed down when people started moving away.

Another property owner, Emma Cudney had a ginseng plantation in Shokan and was a weaver. There are more than 100 pages of testimony for Cudney who sought $32,000 for loss and damages from her property being seized. Ultimately, she was paid $5,500 for the ginseng plantation and $3,000 for her weaving business and property.

Kudos to the nameless Freeman scribe who came up with the genius headline on this one: "Reservoir Logs."

A must-see for anyone interested in the history of the Ashokan is the 2002 documentary "Deep Water," by Tobe Carey, Robbie Dupree, and Artie Traum. From a 2008 article in Hudson Valley Magazine about the film:

The film tells the story of Harlow McClain, a local man who hired on with the city to help with the demolition effort, and ended up having to burn down his own house. The filmmakers interviewed a granddaughter from the Lennox family, who recalled that “even the ashes were removed... Tree roots were grubbed or blasted out. My mother showed more resentment than my [grandparents]... but I’m sure they were heartbroken, losing a 12-room home and their store and all. My mother had fond memories of that area as a child... and never really got over... the hurt of losing the land, home, friends.”

The article also features historian Bob Steuding's historical account of the Ashokan, The Last of the Handmade Dams: The Story of the Ashokan Reservoir.

The Ashokan story is a familiar one throughout the Catskills. In some places, the memories are still fresh: The flooding of villages in Delaware County to make way for the Pepacton and Cannonsville Reservoirs occurred in the middle of last century. There are still people living in the region who remember the uprooting of villages like Arena, Union Grove and Cannonsville.

A good resource for historical accounts of the reservoirs in Delaware County is the Delaware County NY Genealogy and History website. Here's a newspaper clipping from 1962, describing the history of a Cannonsville church that was scheduled to be razed along with the rest of the town:

Canfield Boyd, who lived on Johnny Brook at that time, had spent many months cutting down trees and preparing lumber for a new home which was greatly needed by his family.

However, he decided that a church building was more necessary for the community than a new house, and he contributed all this lumber for that purpose.

A little more than one year later - on the 17th of June 1868 - a new church building 40 by 60 feet, of Colonial design, was dedicated. The value at completion was estimated at $5,000.00.

The Neversink and Rondout Reservoirs, in Sullivan County, also displaced Catskills villages within living memory. Here's a link to a history project that has published a CD of historical documents about the village of Neversink, which was moved make way for the eponymous reservoir.