The Ruins of the Catskills

When we arrived at the Catskills, it felt as though we were not meant to be there. We parked the car on the side of a poorly maintained, narrow road and covertly ducked through a hole in a rusty fence. On the other side, the forest rose up before us. There was no semblance of a path and young saplings (there were very few older trees) grew up out of the soil at every imaginable angle. Lush moss covered the ground and toads croaked faintly in the distance.

The Catskills forest with a section of an old wall in the foreground.

After hiking for a while and getting lost at least once, we finally came across what we were looking for: an old, rusty washing machine. It was bright white, aside from the parts that had chipped, and looked to be a very old model due to it’s unusual cylindrical shape. In the midst of this complete wilderness, the sight of the machine was somewhat surreal. As we walked towards it, more artifacts became visible. Shards of plates and cups, glass jars, light bulbs, metal cans (some dating to the 1940’s, the same time as the washing machine) and even a perfume bottle lay among the fallen leaves. The remains of walls, an old road, and even a railway tunnel could be found just over the hill. We were in the midst of the remains of an entire community that had lived in the Catskills and worked in the nearby quarry. Our group set up a grid over the most artifact rich area we could find, near the old washing machine. We kept a detailed list and mapped each artifact. There were over fifty artifacts in only one grid unit, and although we did not excavate the site it seemed that many more lay just below the surface. Many domestic and industrial artifacts were found in the same area, which was unexpected. The significance of this overlap is unclear as of yet and will require more research to fully understand.

The Ashokan Reservoir

After we finished mapping, we moved on to the Ashokan Reservoir, the reason for our trip in the first place. The Reservoir sends fresh water to New York City through massive, underground tunnels. In order to protect their fresh water, NYC has been buying up more and more land around the Catskills for the past century. The artifacts we found in the Catskills are so important because they give us a window into what life used to be like and help us understand how NYC’s land purchases have affected and are continuing to effect residents of the Catskills. In buying the land, NYC is protecting it from pollution and deforestation, which could certainly be seen as a positive thing. However, with the construction of the reservoir and the continuing depopulation of the Catskills, people were driven off of their land and much of their cultural history was erased. Through archeology, we can learn how the reservoir is impacting the community of the Catskills today as well as other areas that are facing similar depopulation.

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Further Reading:

The Ashokan Reservoir


1 thought on “The Ruins of the Catskills

  1. Madison Mellon – Your point about similar depopulation is an interesting one; the Ashokan reservoir is far from being the only structure of its kind to displace people and bury towns. For instance, there is an entire website dedicated to historic photos of towns that now lay underneath the Merriman (Roundout) Reservoir, another Castkill water supply built in 1954. At the southern end of the Catskill park and straddling Ulster and Sullivan counties, the Roundout Reservoir is located about 5 miles northwest of Napanoch, NY. Just like the Ashokan reservoir, its neighbor to the north, small farming towns were forcibly abandoned (under eminent domain) and flooded. The remnants of three local villages – Lackawack, Montela and Eureka – lay under its water. (Check out the historic photos of the three towns here: Their story mirrors those of the Catskill residents your fieldwork was concerned with – if the study’s scope were expanded to incorporate these towns, how similar might they be? Would their social and historical contexts mirror those of the people displaced by the Ashokan reservoir? What role can archaeology play in applying historical lessons like these to modern towns in similar situations, and ameliorate the economic, cultural, and psychological effects of displacement?

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