Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Saving America's First Frontier: the Minisink Country

Emptying the upper Delaware Valley of its inhabitants and landmarks half a century ago touched nearly everyone of my generation in Sussex and Warren Counties. We all knew someone, some friend or relation, who was driven from their land. Then, as quickly as the old families were pushed out, the Federal government began leasing their former homes to squatters, many of whom were hippies in search of a return to nature and simpler life ways.

The best memories!

How happily I remember swinging out over the river on a rope hanging from a tree on the riverbank at Harry’s Farm, just above the northern boundary of Worthington State Park. In the last summer of his life, I took my grandfather Wright to see archaeologists dig in the abandoned field there. According to my earliest memory, there was a semicircle of small cabins on this farm, which the owner rented out to hunters and fisherman. I particularly remember the fine stand of blackcap bushes growing along the river lane, at the edge of that field, which we harvested in early July to have Grandma make her famous blackcap pies.

Going with the current, you could swim across to Tocks Island, where there was a cornfield. Later, I remember a hippie commune—which I think was called Cloud Nine—occupying the old farmhouse and barn. They used to share food with us, whenever my friend Bill Glover and I would stay at his father’s camper, parked near the Copper Mine Inn. I also remember going over to Delaware Water Gap to a fabulous health food store in Hauser’s old storehouse, downhill from the wisteria-wrapped Moosehead Inn, where we enjoyed the best granola I ever had and tasty vegetarian pizza! Then one day, when we came to the old river farm to swim, everything was gone—the Feds had bulldozed all the buildings into their cellar holes. Today, you can’t even find the old dirt lanes down to the river, though by canoe I think I’ve spotted the old tree that held the rope swing.

The cry of eagles!

Outdoor recreationists and lovers of nature will recognize the sentiments of state geologist C. Clarkson Vermeule, even though he wrote admiringly of the upper Delaware River as long ago as 1888, saying, “This quiet and beautiful Minisink Valley, with its wealth of romantic aboriginal traditions and associations and its tragic colonial history, has long enjoyed a well-merited reputation as a charming, restful summer retreat for those who admire simple nature, and as a paradise for the sportsman and angler. On the southeast rise the long, forested slopes of Kittatinny mountain, with its continuous level crest, and bold front raised as a final bulwark against the busy, bustling world beyond, and giving to the valley its air of remoteness and seclusion.”

Paddling downstream in the warmth of July, silent hills and discarded boulders embosom its mercurial waters. For twenty–five miles between Port Jervis and Walpack Bend, the Delaware River occupies a flat-bottomed, gravel-filled trough about two miles wide. The erosional history of the stream is evident in four levels of terraces on its flanks. According to Vermeule’s observation and report, “On these terraces, and particularly on the lowest, which is composed of finer material than the others, were the level and easily cultivated Indian plantations and later the farms of the pioneers, which gave, early in the eighteenth century, a wide reputation for fertility to the Minisink country.” At Walpack Bend, the Delaware River turns sharply east, taking advantage of an offset in Walpack Ridge. Dropping into a parallel valley, occupied northeastward by Flatbrook, it again flows southwest toward the Delaware Water Gap. For much of this distance, the river hugs the base of Kittatinny Mountain. The gravel terraces are broadest upon the west bank, whereas the Pahaquarry Flats on the east side are quite narrow and disappear altogether at Worthington State Park.

Connections to the land

With all its many charms and dangers, the river runs belongs to everyone. But for those of us who connect to the Old Settlers, there is sadness and longing in every turn of the Mine Road. My great-grandfather, John Edward Brink, was born in Walpack Center in 1878, one of eleven children born to Jonas Brink and Sarah E. Snook. “Ed,” as he was called, learned to be a wheelwright and cooper in the smithy at Millbrook. His oldest brother, William Brink, married Emma Hill and lived in a farmhouse, still standing, on the Old Mine Road atop Van Campen Glen, which, in my childhood, was called either Brink Glen or Laurel Glen. My grandmother, Gertrude Brink Wright, spent summers there as a child. We used to go up and swim in the Big Pothole or Teacup in the falls of the ravine, where you could read initials carved in the rock wall, some dating back to the nineteenth century. Coming from Newton, we regarded the aloof and beautiful Minisink Country as “Over-the-Mountain.” We traveled there either by Culvers Gap or south on Route #94 to Millbrook Gap, turning at Marksboro.

Free flowing

The river still runs free, a legacy of generations of raftsmen who daringly navigated its treacherous rifts. Daniel Skinner conceived the idea of binding together a number of large pine logs and floating the first timber raft down the Delaware River to Philadelphia in 1764, where he sold the timber for masts. Nearly a century and a half later, William Skinner, of Callicoon, Daniel’s direct descendant, was to be the last steersman capable of navigating lumber rafts down river—all the other steersmen either being too old to undertake the work or dead. These raftsmen rode either the Jefferson or rafting flood, caused by spring rains and thaws in April and May, or the so-called Pumpkin freshets in September and October.

In May 1913, William guided a raft, measuring 250 feet long and 54 feet wide, down the river from Equinunk, in Wayne County, Pennsylvania, to Bordentown. This large raft, made up of spile lumber worth $1,000, was probably the last of its kind and Skinner’s voyage therefore marked the end of an era. Thereafter, railroads would ship what little lumber remained to be cut. To partake of the historic occasion, half a dozen citizens of Equinunk accompanied Skinner on the first leg of his journey; many onlookers gathered at different points along the banks to cheer the raftsmen and guests as they floated downstream. To add to the excitement, the raft struck a swift current above Flatbrookville and got completely turned around, casting some of the party into the river waters.

Rafting kept the river free flowing and undammed. Now the rising industrial cities within reach of its basin eyed the headwaters of the Delaware River for a potable water supply. Philadelphia proposed a reservoir impounded by a dam at Walpack Bend, but acceded to the Army Corps of Engineers in April 1946, when they instead recommended a dam site at Tocks Island.

Preliminary surveys, completed in 1956 encouraged construction of a flood-control dam near Tocks Island. Lieutenant Colonel John C. Lee, Jr., of the Army Corps of Engineers, testified before the Delaware River Study Commission, suggesting a dam at this location, if the site proved practical, was preferable, since a dam at Walpack Bend would not provide “dependable” flood control. He emphasized that a dam at Tocks Island was judged suitable purely from an engineering standpoint without any conclusions on its economic feasibility. Previous studies, however, some dating as early as 1942, had declared the site unsuitable for supporting such a dam.

The vision was truly astounding and in keeping with the great public works projects of the Great Depression that harnessed the flow of great rivers in the West and Northwest. A Tocks Island dam would have created a huge reservoir covering 14,100 acres with a total storage of 214 billion gallons, while a Walpack Bend dam would have created a reservoir covering 9,500 acres and have a capacity of 121 billion gallons. A study of the comparative costs of the two dams was scheduled for completion in January 1957. Local opposition was loud from the start, but construction of the Tocks Island Dam was authorized in 1965.

Under an agreement with the state of New Jersey, Pennsylvania was authorized to construct a dam at Walpack Bend within the next 50 years. By paying 30% of the cost of construction, New Jersey reserved the right to 30% of the water from the proposed reservoir. The right for a Sussex County water supply was also included in the agreement. Several power companies expressed their interest in buying hydro-electrical power generated by the flow of the river over any such dam. In 1967, opposition to the development of Sunfish Pond as a reservoir for generating hydroelectric power broadened into a fight against the whole dam project.

The Army Corps of Engineers began forcing residents from their homes through use of condemnation. After more than half a century of heartbreak and destruction—nearly the whole of my lifetime to date—you wouldn’t think there would be much left to lose or to save, but there is. What survives is all the more precious for having withstood the storm of time and neglect.

Residents Get A Voice

Congress established the Citizen Advisory Commission on October 31, 1988, to advise the Secretary of the Interior on matters pertaining to the management and operation of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, as well as on other matters affecting its surrounding communities, re-chartering this Federal citizens advisory committee in 1998 for an additional decade. The Secretary of the Interior appoints the eleven-member committee, which consists of two members nominated by the Governor of New Jersey, two members nominated by the Governor of Pennsylvania, two members nominated by the Superintendent of Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, and five County members, nominated by the county administrations of Sussex and Warren Counties in NJ and Pike, Monroe, and Northampton Counties in PA.

When re-authorization expired in October 2008, Representatives Scott Garret (R-NJ) and Christopher Carney (D-PA) introduced a bipartisan bill (H.R. 3476) to reauthorize the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area Citizens Advisory Commission through 2018, saying “Communication is the key to addressing and resolving citizen concerns, and it is clear that residents and park users value the opportunity to respond to park decisions, as well as propose alternative ideas.” Garret’s bill passed the House on Representatives on October 13, 2009.

Demolitions Threatened

On October 29, 2009, Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) announced that the Senate has approved the final version of the FY 2010 Interior and Environment Appropriations Act, which includes $15 million for projects in New Jersey to preserve open space in national wildlife refuges, protect forests, renovate infrastructure and help local communities provide clean water. The legislation also provides federal funds to develop a management plan for the Great Falls National Historic Park. The Appropriations Act also funds several historic preservation projects in NJ, including $200,000 for the preservation of the Mansion at Georgian Court University, a centerpiece of seven historic buildings on the campus, and $150,000 for the restoration of the South Orange Village Hall. Of most concern, however, the act appropriates $2.2 million to demolish and remove hazardous structures throughout the Delaware Water Gap Recreation Area. This legislation, already approved in the House of Representatives, was sent to the White House for the President’s signature.

The National Park Service is in the process of compiling a list of structures that they plan to remove. Citizens are naturally wary, since a number of historically significant structures have been benignly neglected since the Tocks Island project was initiated and may be designated as "hazardous."

Please stand up and be counted

We must save what remains of America’s First Frontier, the magnificent Minisink Country. Save our heritage from further destruction. Contact your Federal representatives today!

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