Fifty years ago, thousands of residents were forced from their homes on the Pennsylvania-Jersey border to make way for a massive dam. But then squatters reclaimed their rotting homesteads and nature slowly took back the land—and the Minisink Valley took on a mysterious life of its own.
On a cold yet sunny November morning, Gregory Miller and his son Michael travel to the land where their family’s farm once stood. Both are big men, in size and in spirit. Like many people from America’s Appalachian Mountain region, they are reserved and fiercely independent. During this trip, they carry with them the quiet fury of righteous indignation.
Greg hasn’t been back to the farmstead in several years, but chose to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his forced removal from this place by bringing his thirty-year-old son here for the first time. It’s a solemn occasion, with long periods of silent recollection punctuated by the piercing shotgun blasts of nearby pheasant hunters.
“Those rocks over there, near the edge of the dirt road,” Greg says, “they’re all that remains of the farmstead. That’s it. Just the foundation of the barn and the hole where the silo used to be. I haven’t ever been able to find exactly where the house was.” He speaks with a thick Pennsylvanian accent. A heavyset man with a deep voice, Greg drives a red truck and when he laughs, his voice cascades, sometimes erupting into mirthful cackles. His son, Mike, is a gentle, taciturn man. He wears glasses and sports a pale complexion. His voice is soft and smooth, never rising above a few decibels.
Mike nods to his father’s question, and then points to where the blazing orange hats of the hunters flicker between the trees and shrubs of the forest. “Is that where the crop fields were?” he asks. Greg thinks for a moment before offering an affirmation: “Yeah. Right over there. From about where we’re standing to a quarter mile down the road, and back a ways to the river. I can’t hardly think of a better place to hunt than an overgrown cornfield. My dad used to kill a deer there every winter, and we’d eat it all season long. One time, he shot a doe, not knowing she had a fawn. He brought that little deer home and she became our pet. But one day, she just vanished. I guess that’s how it goes.” With that hanging in the air, father and son once again fall into a long silence.
Like thousands of other people who lived in the Valley of the Minisink, the Millers were caught up in a little known American tragedy, one that is sometimes called the Tocks Island Dam controversy. In the mid-1950s, a series of tropical storms precipitated catastrophic flooding in northeastern Pennsylvania and northwestern New Jersey, killing over one hundred people and causing millions of dollars of damage. The federal government decided that the Delaware River, which forms the boundary between the two states in that region, was the problem and that a dam would alleviate flood concerns. Congress passed bills in 1962 and 1965 that tasked the Army Corps of Engineers with the construction of what would have been the largest dam project in America’s east. Through the implementation of eminent domain and condemnation, the federal government evicted people like the Millers and their neighbors until nearly no one remained. In total, nearly 15,000 people were displaced from their homes.
Mike asks his father if their family had any other options. “They eminent domained that shit,” Greg responds. “The lake was coming. That’s what everyone heard. We had no choice. They made us leave.”
But the dam was never built.
Today, the former Minisink is the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (DWGNRA), a 70,000–acre tract of land that receives nearly five million visitors a year. The decision to turn the land into a park, however, was a last resort. The government faced problems from the beginning. While most of the residents did what they were told, some chose to fight, although only a handful managed to stay. Greg Miller recalls a woman who fought tooth and nail to stop the dam from being built. “Her parents had a big farm down on River Road. She fought that fuckin’ shit for years and years and years.”
One of the people who resisted was Nancy Shukaitis, who is now ninety years old. “When the dam was first proposed, the people either didn’t understand or didn’t know what to do,” she says. “I recognized it as serious and I wanted to do something to stop it.”
Shukaitis still exudes passion and displays a brilliant mind. She never tires of telling her story. “I was one of the only ones to travel to Washington, D.C. to testify in front of Congress. I went three or four times. By the end of the whole thing, they knew me so well they called me by my first name,” she laughs. “I told them that the land had too much worth to be flooded and that the river was not a toy.”
She fought on even after her family lost its 100-acre farm to eminent domain. “That didn’t matter to me,” she emphatically states. “I wanted to stop the dam. I wanted to stop all that silt…It would have been an environmental catastrophe.” Eventually, others began to take notice and joined her local resistance movement. “At the last hearing, there were so many people in the room they couldn’t fit them all in. But the Congressmen were patient. They listened to all of us,” she explains.
Shukaitis’s local movement managed to attract national attention. People from the South who had lost their homes to the Tennessee Valley Authority testified about their own suffering and pain. Scientists explained the ecological problems that damming causes. The Washington Post called on the government to “preserve the area, not to maul it.” The Philadelphia Inquirer argued that “reckless construction of a deeply dubious project could be a disaster to us all.” But it was The New York Times that most vociferously protested, stating that “the sensible course would be to abandon once and for all the misguided dam project and to concentrate on developing with care and sensitivity a recreational area in the priceless natural setting that already exists.”
Amid all of that pressure, and the growing expense of the Vietnam War, the government ultimately decided to halt the project. It sat on the books until 2002, when the Tocks Island Dam project was officially squashed for good.
What remains today is a region that is both destroyed, and yet unexpectedly alive.
Tourists snap photos of beautiful waterfalls, while rotting homesteads stand like silent sentinels in the backgrounds of their shots. Some former towns decay back into the earth, while others are alive with active renovation.
It is a place like no other, and this is a story about how what once was exists alongside what is.
* * *
In the former Valley of the Minisink, there’s a veritable cornucopia of ghost towns: Bevans, Layton, Walpack, Flatbrookville, Shapnack, Millbrook, Dingmans, Pahaquarry…the list goes on and on. These decaying settlements serve as ubiquitous reminders of the region’s former vibrancy and life, but not all of them are as dead as they might initially appear.
Consider Millbrook. In the late nineteenth century, a man named Abraham Garris built a gristmill on the Van Campens Brook right where the Columbia-Walpack turnpike crossed the stream. The area began to grow, and by the turn of the century, residents of the settlement had christened it Millbrook. But as the twentieth century moved forward, the construction of nearby automobile highways and railroads reduced Millbrook’s importance, and its isolation started to take a toll on its population. By the time the Tocks controversy occurred, hardly anyone lived there anymore. It was already a ghost town.
Then a strange thing happened. The federal government began to relocate historical buildings from elsewhere in the Minisink to Millbrook, knowing that the proposed lake wouldn’t reach that far up the mountain. What had once been a thriving settlement, then a ghost town, saw a sudden increase in building and renovation. It had been reborn.
If you were to drive through Millbrook on a cold and dreary December weekday, you could be forgiven for thinking it was entirely dead. Indeed, it is still an isolated outpost, located in New Jersey, but hours from the urban and suburban sprawl typically associated with that state. No one lives there. Several of the buildings are in disrepair. Its graveyard is in a state of disaster: sunken graves, scattered headstones, and overgrowth deny the dead a calm place of repose.
Come to Millbrook on a summer weekend, however, and you will see something altogether different. People dressed in the fashion of the 1800s meander through the village’s paths, darting in and out of its buildings. Others make barrels and horseshoes and flour the traditional way, all while tourists take photographs of the proceedings, or try their own hands at these forgotten arts.
“I come here for the quiet and for the closeness to the past,” says Wayne Gove, a tall, graying old man. It is late summer and he wears jeans and a flannel shirt, covered in wood shavings. He is adding a galvanized iron chime hoop to the top of a barrel. “Can you think of a better place to do something like this? I can’t.”
Millbrook has now become a place of living history, where the past is enacted for the benefit of the present. But as beautiful as this town’s afterlife is, for those who once lived here, the fact that it is constituted by buildings that were acquired by spurious means, evacuated of their rightful owners, and removed from their original locations casts a pall onto even the cheeriest of summer celebrations.
* * *
Outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen are the most frequent visitors to the lost region. They are hunters and trackers and anglers alike. Near Greg Miller’s former homestead, a piebald group of bird-hunters gather at the front of a truck. “We’re here for pheasant and quail,” boasts one of them. “We got three this morning and we’re fixing to go back out right now.” They fan out into the crop fields, moving methodically through lands that were once cleared by Dutch and English settlers. When a bird takes to the wing, they raise their shotguns and fire ahead of it, anticipating where it will be in the split second after the pull of the trigger and the flight of the shell. As the bird falls, they command their pointers or their setters to retrieve and finish it off. Later, they will enjoy stuffed quail or roasted pheasant over the dinner table and talk of the majestic beauty of the land that could have been underwater.
Therein lies another paradoxical characteristic of the former Minisink. While thousands of the displaced suffered because of the Tocks Dam debacle, nature itself benefitted just as dramatically.
* * *
At the back of a house near Walpack, one of the region’s other abandoned towns, trees and shrubs grow in through windows, while moss and mold thrive inside. Nature reclaims. No door stands in the way of the occasional traveler or lover of the uncanny to prevent him or her from ambling into the derelict house. Nailed neatly on the wall next to the access point at the rear of the house are signs: “THIS BUILDING is under the protection of the United States Government; destruction, injury, or theft is punishable by fine of up to $500 or imprisonment for 6 months or both.” Signed, “UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, NATIONAL PARK SERVICE.” Above it is a notice warning the occasional visitor not to “excavate, remove, disturb, deface, or destroy any historic or prehistoric building, structure, ruin, site, or in-place exhibit,” with the possibility of arrest and criminal penalties up to $10,000. Seemingly untouched by time, these signs appear freshly nailed to the wall, in contrast to their sordid surroundings.
Inside is a cesspool of rambling disorder, strewn with soggy food cartons, empty beer cans and decomposing cardboard boxes. Cupboard doors are flung open. Written on the inside face of one of them is the Jim Morrison quote: “TheRe ARE THiNgs KnOwN AND thiNGs UnknowN, AND iN BetweeN ARE tHe DOORS…”
Wending from one room to the next, picking through the junk along the way, even the wariest visitor is beset at each step with the possibility of making an unannounced, precipitous descent into another unknown quarter of the house. Openings of enormous girth sink like telescopes through the floor, into an unlit basement. Every now and then, perfidious holes peep out from under the noxious clutter that cover the floor.
Upstairs, the afternoon light glows at a horizontal, rectangular window, illuminating the eddying dust around it. A grayer solitude hangs in the funereal air of the second floor. An empty paint can balances on the ledge. The soft crunch of footsteps echo against the lime- and dust-coated floor boards. Past the graffitied walls inscribed with symbols and coded messages is an entrance to a bedroom. Inside rest the remnants of former lives that once resided in this ruined place.
These were not the original occupants.
After the residents of the Minisink were forcibly evicted from their homes and the dam project faced substantial delays in the early 1970s, the state decided to lease out the empty houses.
“The Army Corps of Engineers bought all of these farms and everything up, and they had all that land,” explains Greg Miller, “and after awhile, the Tocks Island project got stalled. They had all this land and they didn’t know what to do with it.” So the state placed ads in newspapers in and around New York City. As Richard C. Albert notes in his book Damming the Delaware: The Rise and Fall of the Tocks Island Dam, one of these publications was The Village Voice. Greg recalls that, “Somewhere, the hippies seen that in the paper — that the government had all that property, and they just came up here and moved in, and squatted. Uh-huh. It was crazy.”
“That’s what left such a bad taste in people’s mouths,” he adds. “They told us we couldn’t stay here, we gotta get out. And then you move out, and next thing they’re leasing the damn thing to somebody else! They coulda leased it to us.”
Members of the city’s counterculture movement flocked to the abandoned region, seeing it as a chance to achieve a communal utopia. Here the hippies — or “flower children,” “river people,” or “cloud farmers,” as they came to be known — squatted and confined themselves in their contumacy and love of free will, abjuring the comforts of modern life. They took over the empty houses, tripped on magic mushrooms, and grew cannabis in the towns’ cemeteries. Albert writes, “The historic Zion Lutheran Church, located on a hill overlooking the valley, was renamed the ‘Church of Ecology,’ and marijuana grew in its cemetery.” Also “scattered among the houses were tent camps, Indian teepees, homemade structures, and a variety of innovative homes, including one geodesic dome built on a raft in the Delaware River.” At first, the Army Corps of Engineers tried to chase the hippies out, but they were overrun. Many of the dwellings in which they squatted were thus demolished and no longer exist, “because if they hadn’t, the hippies would’ve moved right back in!” Greg laughs. “Things were different in the sixties, buddy.”
Eventually, most of the hippies left. A few, however, stayed behind and eventually assimilated into the region. Wayne “Wayney” Mitchell was “one of the original squatters,” and a cherished friend of Greg Miller’s. Wayne chose to stay. “He liked this area,” says Greg as he remembers his late friend with fondness. The two met when they both worked at the nearby Shawnee Inn resort, and became lifelong friends, until Mitchell passed away in 2011.
But besides the few like Wayne who stayed, the rest fled the austere mountains and returned to their urban enclaves. However, squatting remains a problem in the Minisink.
In the upstairs bedroom of the decaying Walpack house an arresting array of clothing — tank-tops, dresses, blouses, candy-striped pants — hangs on a rack that stretches from one end of the room to the other. These clothes must not have been touched for at least twenty years. They hang like a jarring semblance of order amid a collapsed mess of more clothes, hangers, books, tote bags, old food cartons, and magazines. The drab walls, painted a shade of seafoam green, are tarnished and festooned with graffiti. The ceiling paint peels away, parts of the ceiling itself fall apart. Near the end of the room where the clothes hang, two tattered mattresses lie flopped on the floor, one pivoted on top of the other.
Whoever was last to live in this house didn’t even take their clothes with them before leaving. They now hang here as phantoms of their former owner, waiting to be discovered and again left undisturbed by the next visitor.
In another smaller room, even more chthonian in appearance, a grimy child-sized mattress lays on the floor. A stale, crumpled sheet printed with floral patterns rests on it. Did the squatters have a baby here, without any electricity and clean running water? Or did they bring a child with them when they moved in? In one corner, rubble, dust, and large broken chunks of the compounded wall have collapsed in an ugly pile. The wall appears to have been kicked in by someone, or wrecked by force of some sort. Meanwhile, the peeling walls bear vigorous marks of the previous apocalypse that invaded this place, visibly scrawled on and faded with long eld. On one wall is the number of the beast: “666.” Inscribed on the opposite wall are the unironical words in fern green:
Everything else remains mysterious. It’s tempting to decode these scribbles, however illegible they may appear, with the hope of finding meaning in them, but none is to be derived from the inscrutable marks and bubbled fonts that adorn the rude walls. What remains, however, is a disturbing but beautiful exhibit of human experience in what once was a living, vibrant region.
* * *
Not far from the slatternly house is a barn that also fell victim to the Tocks Island debacle. It remains frozen in time, filled with straw and hay from a harvest that never made it to market. Unlike the house, the barn is well ventilated, spacious and far less gray. Daylight streams in through chinks in the walls. Here and there the wood bears signs of lapsing back into its woodland original. Although the walls consist of wooden planks, the barn, due to the strength of the rock foundation on which it is built, has long resisted the encroachments of decay. Despite being similarly decrepit in its present state, it appears to be holding up much better than the house.
Evenly diffused across the drab white walls are spray-painted iterations of Poseidon’s trident, in alternating colors of red and black. The finishing is coming off the walls, revealing the weather-stained stone, spotted gray and green, beneath the paint and plaster. Power cords run parallel to the supporting beams attached to the ceiling, which is held up by thick round poles covered in rust. Spray-painted onto the uneven surface of a mossy, exposed-stone wall are the now-familiar words that can be traced to the abandoned house nearby. They appear here in the same font, but in dark crimson and embellished with a number: “710.”
Rather than 4/20, that celebrated day of the calendar year for potheads, these folks were hash-heads, and more interested in 7/10 — a relatively recent usage; the earliest known use of the term is 2011, indicating there were squatters here much more recently than the 1970s.
Vandals continue to visit the barn, and they, too, leave their mark behind for the next visitor. There this structure stands, along with approximately thirty other decaying barns spaced out throughout the former region, until the natural world will reclaim them too.
* * *
Another strange juxtaposition awaits in the village of Bevans, not far from the abandoned barn and house near Walpack. At a wild five-point intersection, on one side of the road is a squalid greenhouse. In place of the carefully cultivated plants and flowers that one might expect, here are untamed plants, most of them wilting and brown, growing out of the rugged soil of the wild earth. As in the house, nature is creeping in to reclaim this forsaken property. Some of the glass panels of the greenhouse have completely fallen out, leaving just a square frame in the roof of the building. Many of the panels that are still in place are broken, allowing the outside air to penetrate.
Across the road from the greenhouse, an eye-catching store offers a stark reality of the afterlife of the Minisink. The store is run by the Peters Valley School of Craft, a nonprofit organization and artists’ residency that’s currently in its fortieth year of operation. How is there a business here, and one that has survived after all these years? And who are its patrons?
The Peters Valley School of Craft continues to enjoy success in an otherwise deteriorating region, where former homes and barns — and greenhouses — have been left behind and are rotting into oblivion. The craft school’s migration to the area was catalyzed by the start of the Tocks Island project and the ultimate formation of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. “We started in the park right after they had kicked everybody out,” offers Kevin Bond, a resident artist and photographer at Peters Valley who also works at the craft store. After the government had displaced many of the region’s property owners and tenants in 1965, the National Park Service tried to make beneficial use of the evacuated homes, exploring various possible arrangements. The 1970 Peters Valley Craft Fair enjoyed great success and led to the formation of Peters Valley Craftsmen. While the homes and areas around it deteriorated, Peters Valley met with new life and optimism.
The school has been able to preserve its history of fine crafts education and continues to thrive, drawing artists and craftsmen from all over — the New York/New Jersey/Pennsylvania area, not surprisingly, but also from other states and international communities. In addition to the residencies offered, the organization also runs a gallery in this village and represents many artists. Spread out over 3,000 acres of the National Recreation Area, the Valley offers ample food for poetic reflection in the singular scenery of abandoned townships, which, owing to past mistakes committed by the state, otherwise lie out of the track of public conveyances.
* * *
All of this is what the former Minisink has become. The afterlives of this place are on full display in all of their paradoxical and chimerical beauty. For Greg Miller, at least, it is the preservation of the land that matters the most. “This,” he said with a wide sweep of his arm, “is where I’m from. This is my family. My life. They may have taken our homes from us, but they didn’t take its beauty. Look at it! It is so beautiful, so perfect. And now, at least we know it will remain that way forever. I could sit around and cry about what happened, but this place belongs to all of us Americans now. I can live with that.”
* * *
Rebecca Cheong is a writer and artist based in NYC. Her work has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, Hopes&Fears, The Brooklyn Quarterly, Complex, and Narratively. When not reading or writing, she can be found painting, crossing the Rubicon, or thinking about Herman Melville. Follow her on twitter and instagram.
Dr. Matthew Steven Bruen is an Assistant Professor of English at Young Harris College in Young Harris, Georgia. His work studies the intersections of literary practice and the human experience of place.