Six large reservoirs span the Catskills region of New York. To create them, more than 20 villages in the region were destroyed from 1907 to 1967. The 60-year demolition in service of the watershed that now serves New York City sowed seeds of distrust and resentment between rural New Yorkers and the city that remain relevant to this day.
In surrounding towns, memories remain. Around the reservoirs, small signs mark the spots closest to where villages that once stood: Ashokan, Olive, Gilboa, Brodhead Bridge. In one reservoir, the foundation of a building is just visible when the water is low. And there’s an oft-circulated rumor that when the conditions are just right, you can see a church spire in the middle of a reservoir. It’s just that, a rumor, because records show the towns were razed. But its persistence demonstrates a powerful collective memory of what no longer exists, and an ongoing tension between the agricultural communities surrounding the watershed and the city it serves, some 150 miles away.
It was the town markers that first motivated Anna Lehr Mueser, a doctoral candidate history and sociology of science, to study the aftermath of the construction of the reservoirs and what was lost along the way.
“There is sort of intriguing gap between what's remembered and what is sort of empirically knowable about the past,” Mueser says. “I am really curious to understand how people relate to the past in a place that is so profoundly transformed by the environmental-technical system of the water supply.”
Collective memory is important to Mueser’s project. She explains that collective memory a collection of recollections, impressions, and narratives about the past that individuals and communities can use to frame their understandings of their shared past. Though aspects of collective memory may not always be factually true, they nonetheless hold deep meaning.
Mueser, who received research funding from the Water Center, relies on archival records and interviews to learn about the experience of living in and near the villages destroyed to build the reservoirs. The COVID pandemic has been a setback for her work, as many of the archives are still closed and people are only recently comfortable meeting for an interview. When she does get to meet with people, mostly farmers and their families, face-to-face, she says it’s a fantastic experience.
“It's a window into their lives: They invite me into their homes and tell me sometimes really difficult, sad things, such as nearly losing a farm. It's intense and it's amazing to engage with people,” she says.
Her research shows that over the course of the early 20th century, there was a sense of hopelessness and inevitability for people who lived in the shadow of the ever-expanding watershed. “There was talk like, ‘what happened to those people over in Ashokan? What about up in Gilboa?’ People report that relatives died of heartbreak after losing their homes,” Mueser says.
Overall, the collective memory in the towns surrounding the watershed is that people in the villages were not treated fairly. There are reports of people waiting in limbo for over a decade while court battles were fought about where reservoirs would be built. Assessors would come to homes to determine the payout an owner should get for their home, only to deduct value because the soon-to-be-destroyed structure had chipping paint
It’s important to talk to people with deep roots in the region because many existing histories of the reservoirs don’t focus much on them at all. Instead, histories tend to applaud the city’s technological achievement and what was gained by outsourcing its water infrastructure. The New York Public Library, for example, was built on land that had previously been a city reservoir. City residents got clean water and a new library, but people near the watershed lost land for a water system they mostly didn’t even draw from.
Mueser’s work shows that these feelings of resentment are not confined to the period between 1907 and 1967. Her interviews have given her insight into a '90s-era protest about water quality. The water that comes from the Catskills watershed is unfiltered, saving New York City millions of dollars. In order to protect the water and prevent the need for filtering, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection announced new regulations, including some about the distance between cows and the watercourses. In communities of dairy farmers, these regulations were particularly onerous.
Collective memory strikes again: “There's a gentleman who everyone talks about him, but he passed away so I'm not able to interview him,” Mueser says. “He drew up a map of his farm and marked it out—none of his farm would usable with the new regulations.”
Another memory: One farmer showed Mueser a relic from the protest-era that encapsulates people’s feelings: a t-shirt with a cow wearing a diaper and the words “Carrying a load for New York City.”
Mueser says, “There was a strong feeling among a lot of the farmers that New York City was basically trying to end agriculture in the region.”
But, Mueser says, the protests worked: “Some pretty phenomenal programs came out of that moment. Essentially, New York City has invested millions and millions of dollars in the region in economic and agricultural development to prevent the water becoming dirty enough that it would need to be filtered.”
The '90s protest and the investments that came from it show that no matter how technological advances shape our environments, people will continue to live and work and remember in those environments.
“New York City's watershed is not the only place that lives with profound generations upon generations of life inside a technologically transformed and managed environment,” says Mueser. “Trying to understand how people make sense of their lives in these contexts can give us some really important information about how we're going to keep negotiating life on the broadest scale on this rapidly technologically transformed planet. I hope that in the future, that negotiation can be done more equitably, more justly.”