When I moved to Blairstown with my husband and two children from Bergen County several years ago, I didn't know much about the area's history, and I had certainly never heard of Tocks Island. It was a lucky tip from a stranger that led me to the images and stories, both beautiful and heartbreaking, that would comprise what I consider some of my most important work.
I am a nature photographer, and took a booth to show my pictures at last year's Fourth of July celebration in Footbridge Park, in Blairstown. Various people stopped by to chat, and one man, Joe Walmach, recognized some local landmarks in my photos. He asked if I had ever explored the Old Mine Road along the Delaware River and went on to describe the many abandoned buildings and farms that were casualties of the Tocks Island Dam Project in the 1960s, a proposal to create a huge reservoir roughly forty miles long and a mile wide.
The project was never completed, but three to five thousand dwellings were demolished in preparation for the dam. Some fifteen thousand people were displaced when the Army Corps of Engineers "purchased" or seized their property through the exercise of eminent domain, many of whom represented 300 years and thirteen generations of history and culture in the Upper Delaware Valley. A serene region of farms, hamlets and villages along a free flowing river was systematically dismantled as part of a plan that was eventually shelved. In 1978, instead of selling back the remaining 83 homes to original owners, the properties transferred to the National Park Service.
Fascinated, I immediately began my research and discovered images in the Library of Congress archives that showed what many of the buildings and properties in this part of the Delaware River Valley looked like when they were condemned. Using tools unimaginable back then, like Google Earth and my GPS, I searched for buildings and complied a list of areas to check out. Had the government waited until their core samples were completed—tests that eventually showed that the geology at the Delaware Water Gap would not hold a dam—these families would still be here.
I spent two months hiking into forest and fields, overgrown with chest-high weeds and thorns, in search of some of the locations I had read about. I found hidden treasures like the Calno Cemetary, which contains the graves of many of the original residents who built these homes and established towns in the now-defunct Township of Pahaquarry. My favorite location was the former residence of Jean Zipser, the very creative and popular former Mayor of Pahaquarry and founder of The Pahaquarry Foundation, Inc., who died in a tragic car accident in 2006. For many, Jean embodied the soul and spirit of the Valley. She was also a champion for making the best of a bad situation.
After being a Park Service tenant for 27 years in a house her family once owned, Jean was able to negotiate a partnership between the Pahaquarry Foundation and the Park Service to rehabilitate a 190-year-old house her grandmother, Julia Orthwine, bought in 1926, and from which her descendants were evicted by that same Park Service in 1991. In a 2002 issue of the National Park Service Cultural Resources Magazine (pdf), Zipser wrote, "While preservation of the mid-Delaware River Valley as a national park and the Delaware River as part of the Wild and Scenic River System is laudable, I abhor what has happened to my community, Pahaquarry Township, which was forced out of existence. I have struggled to turn my bitterness and anger into something positive. Preserving the wonderful, historic houses is a way for me to assuage my grief. It combines my deep feelings for family heritage and regional history with my civic mindedness."
In the summer of 1999, the National Park Service committed funds and manpower to replace beams and repair porches. The foundation started investigating grants to finance the work. "All the bitterness of the past receded," Jean wrote. "This does not mean that everything goes smoothly. However, the foundation and the National Park Service have discovered that we can be willing partners in this dance. We can save Julia's home (the B.B. Van Campen farm) and give this extended community a valuable resource."
The Pahaquarry Association for History and the Arts follows Jean's vision for a cultural center at the B.B. Van Campen/Julia Orthwine homestead, although the home has remained vacant since her death. Besides the main house, the property contains a huge barn and a number of outbuildings, still threatened by the advance of weeds and vines.
The UACNJ facilities in Jenny Jump State Forest, near Hope in Warren County, are 1,100 feet above sea level, one of the few dark sky locations left in the state.
A canal boat captain and her daughters navigate the Bread Lock in June, 1863.
Restored c.1754 stone ironmaster's home associated with c.1741 Oxford Furnace.is open first and second Sundays, 1-4pm, for tours through Colonial and Victorian rooms with costumed docents. There are special events throughout the year as well as programs for schools. Sunday concerts on the manor lawn are a favorite during the summer.
Warren County's Montana Mountain, Merrill Creek Reservoir, and the Pohatcong Valley is equally rewarding for students of history and devotees of the outdoors.