Matthew Bruen, “The Lost Place: The Valley of the Minisink”

 

The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply. —Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History

 

I.

This is a story about a place, one that was destroyed by a deeply sad amalgam of power, greed, incompetence, and indifference. This is a story about a place that’s remains are haunted by ghosts; shades of crumbling structures, of the dead, of peaceable life in the American nation – all these dwell within it.

This is also the story of a place once called region, before condemnation and suicide allowed the forest to creep back into the cropfields and those with no sense of the tragedy of the past rendered it their natural plaything. That is this place, where the western plateau and the eastern mountains are married together by the shallow yet wide river the native peoples called Lenapehanna, a river so basic to their existence they named it after themselves. This is a story of that river and this place, and of how the attempted mastery of the water precipitated a great and still unknown tragedy.

This is the story of what some call the Tocks Island Dam Controversy. But as one of the last keepers of this lost place, as one whose very life has sprung from its soil, I know that there’s more to its story than this name suggests. And I wish to tell you of it, so that you might know what happens when a place dies.

 

II.

When seeking a lost place, it is best to start at a graveyard. There’s something about the removal of the dead from the soil that disgusts us, so that even after destruction and ruin rain down, graveyards have a way of remaining untouched until the last. And within, on the stones, are attempts to record the facts of human life and death. Names and dates – places, too. These marks are the last vestiges of real lives, of those who breathed, loved, suffered, and, perhaps, near the end, hated. Collected and contemplated together, these communities of the dead reveal the very fabric of life in a lost place. So let’s start this story there, in a graveyard outside of what used to be a town, where the adjacent Flat Brook offers a constant, babbling dirge to those who lie nearby.

These names begin the story: Rosenkrans, Van Campen, Losey, VanHorn, Van Gordon. The Dutch were the first European settlers of what became known as the Minisink, arriving in the seventeenth century from the land of the Hudson. It was to there that they were culturally and economically tied, not to the Quaker city that would later emerge one hundred miles downstream. These were frontiersmen, farmer-folk who moved into the fertile valley between the plateau and the mountain when the wolf and the mountain lion and the Lenape still lived there.

Big, tall chestnut trees filled their woods, with canopies so thick sunbeams rarely reached the forest floor. Along the rivers and ravines, the hemlock loomed just as high, while birch, aspen, hickory and poplar grew in the spaces in between. Below, the multicolored wildflowers of spring – miterwort, wild orchid, starflower, violet, anemone, and hepatica – chased the sunlight as the chestnut leaves grew, slowly giving way to the nightshades and baneberries of summer. When fall arrived, so too did blazing goldenrod and erratic, haunting witch hazel. These were primeval woods, not yet New Jersey or Pennsylvania: forest, only.

And they were dangerous woods. The Hollanders withstood poison-choked underbrush and the accompanying stings, bites, and scratches of the land they cleared. Wielding giant axes and saws as long as two people, they broke bones and ripped their muscles felling the chestnut and the hemlock, so that they could build houses with lowly sloping Dutch roofs. In the fields that had once been forests, they removed the glacial legacy from the ground, building forlorn rock walls that still divide the land today. And always, always, the wide and shallow river we now call the Delaware, threatened.

This is an ancient river, as old as North America itself. When it first flowed, during those millions of years when no humans lived, it fell to the north. And then, not that long ago, when the human ancestor was first learning the art of speech, it was claimed by a southern river, the two were fused, and together they birthed one of the most marvelous natural wonders in the world: the Delaware Water Gap. All that water, it turns out, was so powerful it cut the Appalachian mountain chain in half. And, as has been the case for millennia, when that water leaves its banks, sheer hell ensues.

The Van Campens and the other families from Holland knew this. The river helped them survive, provided them with fertile floodplain cropfields, with fish and power and transportation, but it was always a danger. So, like the Lenape before them, they were quietly deferential to the shallow yet wide river. Not everyone who came after was. That is a key to this story.

But we must leave these people of the sloped roofs, to whom my great-great-great-great-great grandmother belonged, and remove to the graveyard by the Flat Brook.

Again, let’s look to the names on the stones. Placed on nearly half, and on many of the surrounding ravines, towns, and streets, are these: Cole, Bell, Fuller, Tillman, Garris, Layton. These were the English, some of whom were descendants of those who saw God in the flutter of every leaf, who believed that He resided in their very own hearts. Others were branches from peasant-stock, those who had fled the landed gentry of their ancestral homeland. Proscribed from the deer-filled forests and trout-strewn streams of England and forced to work land that was not their own, these peasants migrated, as humans have done since before we were even human, in search of full bellies.

Puritan and peasant descendants alike, the Anglo-Saxons came to the land between the plateau and the mountains seeking a place to farm maize and wheat, where the bounty of the river was theirs to capture and the game of the forest was theirs to shoot. In this place, they lived alongside the Dutch, the Lenape, and even a few Huguenots, intermarrying when this was still unheard of, a bold breaking of tradition that ultimately gave me, and thousands of others, life.

These lovers of tea (for even the North American English loved tea, even the kind made from hemlock needles) built stone homes with river clay as mortar, more to block cold air than to bind rock, and introduced livestock to the region. Soon, they erased the wolf and mountain lion from the forest, defending their life-giving sheep and pigs and cows with bullets. Several decades later, when they had stopped calling themselves Europeans but weren’t yet Americans, they took up arms against the human natives, drawing blood and prompting a terrifying conflict that ended, as so many of this story’s threads do, in the displacement of peoples.

But before this war, as one century came to an end and another began, the children of Hollanders and Englishmen (and a few brownskin Lenape, we mustn’t forget) built the Minisink’s first villages. Full of one and a half story cottages with big pane windows that let in the light of the sun, settlements began sprouting up along river bends, near islands, and, closer to the water gap, alongside the creek that bears the maiden name of my great-great-great-great-great grandmother. There, they built churches with even bigger windows, so that the words of their Bibles could be illumined by the sunshine, and they built inns to house those who had begun to travel to their growing region, and, as the old began to perish and the young sought places to remember them, they built graveyards on the edges of their villages, like the one by the Flat Brook.

These multiethnic descendants of the first white settlers raised corn and wheat, while others grew apples to turn into that most American of drinks: hard cider (and, of course, the ensuing applejack). Still others sent thousands of felled trees down the shallow river to new cities hungry for resources, or tanned the hides of dead cattle in stews of hemlock bark and water. All of this – and more. It was a new region, a new place: the Valley of the Minisink.

 

III.

All that water, so important to life; and yet, so deadly. In 1955 the water left its banks, as it had in 1942 and in 1903 and in 1867 and in the time of the Lenape and in the era of the Amerind and in the millions of years before humans. The result of two back-to-back tropical systems, this latest great flood killed over one hundred people, including thirty children who had come to pray to God in the thick woods, alongside a clear, beautiful creek that turned into anything but. Amid drowned children and a billion dollars of damage, cries rang out: we must do something about all that water!

What happened next is an American tragedy.

I begin by relating an experience told to me by a friend, someone whose life was profoundly shaped by the events that are to be detailed in the lines to come. In the mid-1960s, when my friend was but five years of age, men dressed in suits and ties (fashion not often seen in the Minisink) parked a government-issued vehicle in the driveway of my friend’s family’s farm. Like several of my own ancestors, this family was made up of tenant farmers, those who worked someone else’s land in exchange for a place to live and a cut of the harvest profits. Knowing why the men were there and what news they had come to deliver before they even opened their mouths, my friend’s mother and father didn’t bother to invite them inside, or even onto the porch. Instead, they stood, in the dirt driveway that overlooked the shallow yet wide river, and talked. They talked quietly so that the children in the house couldn’t hear, but of course the children heard and one even rushed out, running to the arms of his mother with a face full of tears. It’s the kind of thing, my friend told me, that you never forget as long as you live.

His family was told they had to leave. The Army Corps of Engineers had arranged a settlement with the landowner: the house they lived in was to be razed, the land they farmed was to be inundated. They were told they had but days to pack and leave. If they didn’t, if they resisted, they were told they would be forcibly removed. They were told, crushingly so, that the land wasn’t even theirs to begin with. Their landlord would receive cash, and they, nothing. No assistance, no help finding a new home, nothing. They did not matter, to anyone, at all.

Their worst fears had turned into terrifying reality. Like everyone else who lived in the Minisink, they had listened to the rumors, watched the 1962 bill become law and the 1965 one expand upon it, all the while waiting, hoping, praying, that the men in the suits and ties wouldn’t come to their door. But they did. And this is what the family was told: the government was going to build a dam across the Delaware at Tocks Island, to create a 30-mile long lake. More than 70,000 acres – an entire region – was to be submerged. The reason: flood control…or recreational possibilities…or electric power…or water supply – the reasons constantly changed and it depended upon who you asked, anyway. Reasons be damned, they said, the lake was coming. My friend and his family had to leave. So they did, fleeing to the plateau to the west.

But here’s the thing. That land they used to farm? The land that was supposed to be flooded? It never was.

 

IV.

Almost two hundred years before the United States Congress doomed the Minisink, in the time when most North American colonists had stopped calling themselves British but legally still were, the (almost) white residents of the valley and the aborigines waged war on one another. The conflict was the direct result of the forced displacement of the Lenape from their ancestral homeland.

In what many consider one of the finest examples of British chicanery in the New World (or one of the earliest examples of American hustle, as a friend has pointed out), the sons of William Penn invented a claim to the territory surrounding the settlement of Wrightstown. Under pressure because they had already been illegally issuing tracts to settlers in the nearby Lehigh Valley, the Penns’ agents told the Lenape leader that they rightfully owned as much land as could be travelled on foot, over the course of thirty-six hours, from the aforementioned town. So, in order to avoid open war with an opponent he knew was far more powerful, the leader agreed, thinking that the distance traveled in the specified direction (the west) wouldn’t affect his people at all. He was very wrong.

The Penns hired three of the fastest and best-trained runners they could find. One of them ran two and a half marathons. 65 miles! When the cartographers finished their “calculations” the Penns claimed 1.2 million acres, including the land of the Minsi, the Lenape subgroup who lived between the western plateau and the eastern mountains. As is often the case in American history, what the white elite wanted, the white elite got.

They called on their native enforcers to make it so. Into the Minisink came the Six Nations of the Iroquois, the rulers and supposed protectorate of the Lenape people. Presented with an opportunity to expand their influence and political position, the former trading partner of the Minsi burned and murdered and pillaged their old friends (this statement is not meant to condemn the Iroquois, for all participants in this story have blood on their hands). Thousands and thousands of years of settlement and deeply planted roots meant nothing. The Lenape were told to leave. And so they did, for a while.

But they returned, and when they did, they did so violently. Over a ten year period, various Indian groups, including the displaced and furious Minsi, raided the white settlements of the Minisink. They used the tactics of what became known as guerrilla warfare: erratic strikes, sabotage, arson, and ambush. Wielding firearms and flaming arrows, the natives succeeded in ousting most of the descendants of the Hollanders and Anglo-Saxons from the region. If one word could be used to describe the atmosphere of this time, it would be terror.

By 1756, only five or so (almost) white families remained in the Pennsylvania portion of the region (including ancestors of my friend’s family, who took shelter in Dupuy’s fort, and steadfastly refused to leave as the Indians bombarded them). And while the war didn’t reach their New Jerseyean counterparts on the other side of the river, many of those folks retreated to the more protected areas to the east of the mountains. Almost no one, Indian and white alike, remained.

If one word could be used to describe the story of the Minisink, it would be displacement.

 

V.

In the first half of the twentieth century, public works projects like the Tocks Island Dam were completed with little to no resistance. Environmentalism had yet to emerge as a dominant force in American politics, and the small rural communities threatened by these projects lacked the resources and the know-how to repel them. In particular, the Tennessee Valley Authority erected dam after dam in the South with relative impunity, displacing thousands and inundating countless acreage. As is often the case with these kinds of things, many of the local and state politicians involved in the TVA decisions lusted for the lakefront property that such inundation offered, hoping it would bring more wealth to their areas (and their own wallets, of course). This financial possibility was not lost on the people that initially supported the dam on the shallow river in the Valley of the Minisink.

The locals knew it. They knew. Ask anyone who remembers (there are fewer and fewer but they’re still around), and they’ll tell you: the politicians wanted lakefront property, that’s what it was all about, flood control was but a ruse. As one woman told me, in a bar in the town of Milford, “those bastards, all they wanted was more and more money. They kicked us off of our land, saying they needed to control the flooding we all knew didn’t need controlling. By the 1970s, the Army Corps of Engineers was talking about the need for additional recreation possibilities. Recreation? They took away my family’s farm that had been in our family for almost two centuries, so rich people from New York City could sail fucking boats? Fuck them. Fuck. Them.” Like my friend would say, it’s the kind of thing you remember for the rest of your life, whether you’re the teller or the listener.

Some locals held out, hoping the project would fail. But the government was tenacious. The laws had been passed. Who were they to object to the will of the American people? Some pointed out that senators from Oregon had no place deciding the fate of a region 3,000 miles away. But that didn’t stop the men in the suits and ties from going house to house, farm to farm, to deliver the same painful news. And although they were “only doing their jobs,” as someone involved told me, they still had blood on their hands.

Most agree that at least one suicide was tied to the Tocks evictions. Many think a second person took his life because of it, and others believe that the stress and grief of displacement claimed the lives of several more. I ask you: can you imagine the pain of being forced off your family’s land, only to watch the federal government rent out the house your great-great grandfather built when the project hit delays? Can you?

I know I can. And it is unsurprising to me that a situation like this would end in death.

 

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Even after they were displaced, after they bore the insult of watching their ancestral homes be occupied by others, and after more blood was spilled in the land between the plateau and the mountain, the inhabitants of the Minisink still resisted. In a remarkable display of human resilience, they fought the federal government of the United States of America, in order to preserve their valley. As the same woman told me that day in Milford, “It didn’t matter that we couldn’t live there anymore. It didn’t. We still fought them tooth and nail. They told me once that they were going to dig up the cemeteries, and rebury all those people somewhere else. I remember thinking, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me. Thinking of them moving my father and mother…I wanted to throw up. I would have done anything to stop that dam from being built.”

Others made appeals to the undiscovered history that would be lost. Forts from the French and Indian War, artifacts from the Lenape and their woodland ancestors, two of the best Paleo-Indian sites in all of America, all of these faced annihilation, they said. Still others made an argument based on beauty. As one literary production from the era declared, the region is “too beautiful to Inundate.” Whether this was the river itself, the streams and creeks surrounding it, the eagle in the sky or the deer in the woods, the Minisink’s exceptional beauty should matter, they argued. Others highlighted the dangers of government overreach, and broadcast their points of view in editorials, on news programs, and in the courts.

Soon, powerful media outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post came out against the project. This rise in visibility, in turn, encouraged environmentalists from across the world to speak up, pleading for the preservation of the natural landscape. They hadn’t been able to stop the dams from coming to the American South and West, but maybe, just maybe, they could stop this one. For them, the possibility of turning the Minisink into a wilderness utopia was nothing short of a dream, one worth fighting for, ardently. By this point, the political left and right had emerged as allies, and joined the moderates that had always opposed the dam, lending significant legitimacy to the anti-Tocks campaign. It wasn’t long before those at the top joined the popular movement, and put an end to the project for good.

But while all of this resistance was building momentum, the locals faced another problem: what to do about the self-proclaimed “river people,” the colony of hippies who had moved into the empty houses of the Minisink following the wave of evictions. They, too, are part of this story.

 

VI.

Some came from California, but the majority of the river people were from New York City. With the dam project facing delay, the Army Corps of Engineers sought to fill the vacant houses from which they had forced out the rightful occupants. In order to do so, they advertised in The Village Voice, the alternative weekly favored by the city’s bohemian crowd. So, like the Dutch had done several centuries before them, hundreds of hippies headed from the former New Amsterdam to the valley between the plateau and the mountains.

These lovers of free love and an idolized nature saw in the Minisink an opportunity to finally realize a long-sought vision: a self-sustaining commune free from the trappings of postmodern life. So, while several did pay the federal government rent, more did not. A small army of squatters with violets and anemone in their hair had descended on the old river where the Paleo people, the Lenape, and the descendants of the Dutch and English had all once lived. In doing so, they became the latest (and the last, for now) wave of migrants this land has known.

There, they lived without electricity, hauling water from that vast river to their living quarters day after day after day. They drank homemade wine around huge bonfires, while some played instruments and others sang along, all of them trying to be free. During the warm days of spring and summer, they shed their clothes and bathed their naked bodies in the feather-like embrace of unadulterated nature. And, they did all of this with brains lit afire by substances that offered tantalizing glimpses at a world beyond reality.

So, in addition to tomatoes and squash, the river people grew marijuana and mushrooms in the cropfields that had once held chestnut trees, maize, and apple trees. Some of them even planted cannabis in the Minisink’s cemeteries, and it became a new adornment to the sandstone graves of the Hollanders and Anglo-Saxons.

And, as might be imagined, these flower children earned the ire of those who had been displaced. I, once again, offer you the words of the woman from Milford: “You’re asking about the hippies? The flower children or river people or whatever? Most of us hated them, yeah. It might not’ve been right, but we did. They were living in our houses! Growing pot in our graveyards! Squatting in our churches! That land was ours; it wasn’t theirs. Uh-uh. No way. And, for whatever reason, they were the ones who got to live on it. Yeah, I guess it pissed us all off, big time.”

There are stories of locals hurling abuses out of car windows, of nighttime raids when black-clad boys would make strange noises and bang on the houses with sticks, only to blend back into the deep and dark woods as the drunk river people staggered about, afraid. But the two groups never came to blows, and in a tribute to decency or progress or something, the Valley of the Minisink wasn’t stained, once again, by human blood.

Even after the Army Corps of Engineers threatened them with bulldozers and the cops cracked down on their illegal farming practices, many of the squatters remained in the vacant houses. But eventually, their vision of a commune based on open love and worship of the land began to vanish. Some couldn’t take the harsh living conditions (imagine living Amish-like but without the knowledge to do so), while others simply missed home. Still others longed for the promise of New York, preferring its human-authored beauty and ubiquitous motion to the quiet valley by the river. By the mid-1970s, almost all of them were gone.

But some of the river people chose to stay, for good. One such person was the best friend of my friend, the one whose family was told they had to leave their farm. And although I never met this man before he died, I’ve heard stories about him for years. He was one of the California hippies, a member of some of the original counterculture groups of the 1960s. Back before it was a fashionable thing for the wayward young to do, he had backpacked through Europe, combining day work with a little panhandling, moving from country to country, and meeting as many new people as he could. This was a man who also ate two or three or four mushrooms and then sunbathed nude on a scorching Pacific beach…for seven hours, with no sunscreen. He lived like this until one day, when he decided, on a whim, to travel across the American nation to the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border, so that he could live free and protest against the destruction of the environment. And unlike most of the friends he made there, he never left.

One summer, my friend and the hippie were partnered together on a grounds crew at a resort near Shawnee-on-Delaware, only two miles or so from Tocks Island. This was at a time after the river people had cleared out and the Minisink had been turned into a national park, when some people had begun to forget. My friend, who had once been evicted from a tract of land a few miles upriver, and the former squatter, who had once lived for free on the other side, worked the fertile floodplain ground of the resort. Together, they sent shovels and backhoe buckets into the earth, uncovering arrowheads and broken pieces of pottery and golf balls and other ghostly remnants of those who had come before. After work they’d stare at these totems and talk about the Indians or speculate about my friend’s ancestors. Then, they would share a bottle of whiskey and a joint or two and talk about their deep, deep love of the land between the western plateau and the eastern mountains.

It is easy to see why they became friends. Forces set in motion many thousands of years ago had made it so.

 

VII.

The Valley of the Minisink is dead, but the land where it once was is now part of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Millions of tourists travel there each year, but almost none of them know the story I have told you.

These residents of the east coast megalopolis drive their fifty miles on Interstate 80 to the water gap, retracing a route first forged hundreds of years ago. They park along the shallow yet wide river, pulling kayaks and canoes off their roofs, and seek adventure on the water that was almost dammed. They climb the mountain and walk that famous trail that would have been rerouted around a giant lake. They camp in the forests that would have been underwater, sitting around fires and partaking in the same revelries as the hippies who had once communed there. And, above all, these visitors close the gap between themselves and nonhuman nature in a land that has hosted human life for some twelve thousand years.

And despite everything that happened here, all the death and war and displacement and pain, I believe that there are far worse things the Minisink could have been turned into.

 

VIII.

But the Valley of the Minisink is dead and the afterlife I detailed in the previous paragraphs doesn’t make this stark fact any less true. For places are uniquely human constructs: they are how we explain our relationships with the environments in which we live. If there are no people, there are no places. So when the federal government did what it did, when it evicted those who had lived between the plateau and the mountains for generations, it destroyed the Minisink forever.

I sometimes wish that the lake had been built, so that there existed at least some tangible, visible reason for why everything that happened, happened. I am not the only one who feels this way. Some longtime residents of the Poconos, the region of the western plateau, think the lake would have drawn away some of those who moved to the area in the ’80s and ’90s, when Monroe and Pike were the two fastest growing counties in the state of Pennsylvania. The influx of folks from New York and eastern New Jersey, they reason, might have stopped at the lake; in this utopic fantasy, the Poconos would have remained a rustic backwater and not become the latest exurb of the looming city at the end of the highway. But, I try to tell them, the lake would have had the opposite effect: the cost of land would have risen even higher than it did at the end of the twentieth century, and many of them might have lost their homes because of higher taxes and an elevated cost of living.

But the lake wasn’t built, and people were displaced anyway. And we shouldn’t withhold judgment about the cause, either: the indifference and incompetence of the American government, and the power and greed of those who constitute it, bear full responsibility for this tragedy.

It has never apologized for what it did. Not for unfairly displacing people for a project it never completed, not for filling those people’s houses with others who had no claim to the land, not for the accompanying suicides, not for the decades of uncertainty and fear, not for anything. It never paid restitution or attempted to give back what it took or did anything to make the situation better for those who were affected. Instead, the elected officials and government employees of today throw up their hands at me and say, “at least there’s a park.” Like their counterparts back in the 1960s, they don’t care, at all. Well, as my new friend from Milford would say, they can fuck off.

And therein lies one of the great lessons of this story. Many in America today misunderstand the distrust that large swathes of the population maintain toward government. Some cheekily assume it’s because these folks don’t know any better, or that they are manipulated into this mindset because of some lunatic on cable news, or that they want to do illegal things outside of the gaze of authority. In some cases, these might prove true, but in the land that surrounds what used to be the Minisink, a lot of people don’t trust the government because that government did a very, very bad thing, and hurt lots of folks they knew. They are not crazy to fear that something like this will happen again. It very well could. Try explaining to them that it couldn’t. They’ll shut the door in your face.

When a place dies, especially in this completely preventable and stupid way, the effects are felt for generations. My cousin knows this from his experiences working for the aqueduct police, those who are charged with protecting the water supply of the City of New York. His primary area of coverage contains several large reservoirs located in the Catskill Mountains (if you were to follow the shallow yet wide river far enough upstream, you’d come to two of these). There, he encounters animosity from people who were told by their parents who were told by their parents about what his agency did around 1900, when it forced people out of their homes and burned down their churches because the big city needed drinking water. Over one hundred years later, he receives glares and silent threats. People have a way of remembering.

And those who used to live in the Minisink will tell their children about what happened, and those children will tell theirs, and so on, and so on. I hope that you, too, will remember this story of a place that once was, and tell it to as many people as you can. I hope we tell of it, forever.

 

 

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