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Floods and family: Yorktowner writes about Croton Dam
Story and photos by Kathy Daley

Twice in their long history, Christopher Tompkins' ancestors lost their Yorktown farms to floodwaters from the Croton Dam. So you might expect the family's perspective on the huge masonry structure -- built to supply water for New York City -- to be somewhere along the line of "that damn dam."

But the alternative connection to the waterway is that Tompkins' grandfather, John Tompkins, wound up serving as the superintendent of the Croton Dam for 42 years, retiring in 1971.

And Christopher, who is 33 years old, grew up on stories of the dam, trips into its tunnels with his grandfather, and rowboat excursions with his father and brothers on the Croton Reservoir.

"The reservoir was a huge part of my childhood," Tompkins said.

Now a teacher and a history buff, Tompkins has written The Croton Dams and Aqueduct (Arcadia Publishing, $18.95). The 128-page paperback of rare photographs chronicles the construction of the original earthen dam from 1837 to 1842, and the building of the New Croton Dam from 1892 until 1906.

The dam, with its magnificent spillway, is on Route 129, reachable from either Croton or Yorktown.

Tompkins lives in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania (near Hagerstown, Maryland) with his wife and daughter. He is a teacher and director of admissions at Mercersburg Academy, a co-ed college preparatory school where actor Jimmy Stewart was once a student. Tompkins' undergraduate degree in government and history is from Colby College in Maine and his Master of Social Science is from Syracuse University.

But he still considers himself a Yorktowner. "When I grew up, everyone else couldn't wait to leave," he said. "I couldn't imagine leaving." In his adult years, and especially in the past six to seven years, "I have moved around a lot," says Tompkins, "but I could do that because I have a clear sense of roots. For me, this has always been home."

Tompkins' forebears comprised one of several founding families in Yorktown, a group that includes the Strangs, the Lee and Purdy families and the Hyatts.

Beginning in the 1750s, the Tompkins carved out farms for themselves in an area of Yorktown called Huntersville, where the Croton River met Hunter's Brook. But in the early 1800s, a growing New York City began to look to "upstate" rivers for water supplies. The Croton River, a tributary of the Hudson River, was conceived as the answer.

"The City had looked at the Bronx River and the Hutchinson River, but the Croton River had the flow they needed," Tompkins points out.

Toward the end of construction of the first Croton Dam, a massive January storm dumped a foot and a half of snow on the area, which was followed by heavy rain. At close to midnight, a 40-foot-high section of the dam gave way all at once, killing several people and ruining farms.

"There were stories of people surviving by climbing in tree tops, and of people being washed away while they were sleeping in their bedrooms," Tompkins said.

His family survived but their farms did not, and they resettled farther along the Croton River.

The Croton Dam was rebuilt and began to supply New York City with water (one City reservoir that accepted Croton River water was situated where the New York City Public Library is now, at 42nd Street).

But in the 1870s, City officials could foresee another water crisis.

Once again, they turned to the Croton Watershed.

"By 1875, surveys for a new and larger aqueduct and dam were started,"

Tompkins writes. "What was planned rivaled all previous masonry structures: a dam rising 214 feet above the valley floor - some 136 feet higher than anything else in the United States and 50 feet higher than the largest in France."

The New Croton Dam, constructed by hundreds of immigrants, including

Italian, Irish and African Americans, forced the removal of many farming families, including the Tompkins. Their lush valley with its farms and orchards is now under the waters of the Croton Reservoir.

Losing their homes and livelihoods forced the farmers to look elsewhere for work. For many, says Tompkins, "the dam was actually a catalyst to better times - the farms were gone, but it forced them to be successful." Farmers were compensated for their losses, he said.

Tompkins' relatives shifted their homes to the shores of the reservoir or elsewhere in the Croton Heights section of Yorktown, and worked for the railroad, or became merchants, lawyers and politicians. Still others, like his grandfather, worked for New York City at the dam and aqueduct.

New York City, he said, "took very good care of my family. My grandfather had a house, a great pension."

As superintendent, John Tompkins was in charge of everything at the dam, from maintaining the structure, to handling trespassers, to upkeep of the Croton Gorge Park, which was created below the dam.

Tompkins' book is made up primarily of photos that Tompkins' grandfather saved in the 1950s when the city was throwing out boxes of archives. "He kept the photos and passed them onto my dad and to me."

New York City stopped using the Croton system in 1965, when it opened the Catskill Aqueduct and the Delaware Aqueduct. But increased demand on City water has, since the 1980s, turned the City's attention back to the Croton Reservoir and to pressuring the watershed towns to ensure clean water by protecting the environment and limiting development.

From the handwritten notations on the black-and-white pictures by dam engineers and from his own research, Tompkins is able to provide the reader with fascinating glimpses into the years of dam construction.

There are shots of workers lowering stones and moving them into place, and photos of men posing nonchalantly by a massive rock slide that took place on the excavation site in 1897. There are later pictures of workers repairing cracks in the dam, and shots of dam tunnels, which, Tompkins says, were used in more recent times by squatters.

The book also reproduces some artwork about the dam, such as a 1896 cover of the magazine Scientific American, which depicts workers at the dam excavation, overhead pulleys and carts, and a rail car moving up from the pit by means of a cable. Another print shows the aqueduct bridge, called the High Bridge, over the Harlem River. That structure still stands near Yankee Stadium and is listed with the National Register of Historic Places.

Tompkins worked on the book for 13 months, interviewing his own relatives and taking down their stories. One vignette handed down from his great-grandfather, who was a train engineer on the dam project, is the memory of Italian engineers stopping the rock-hauling train as it approached a precipice so that the Catholic workers could make the sign of the cross.

Tompkins said he read anything he could find on the dam. He researched local resident Mary D'Alvia's book on the subject, and he was able to buy (off of E-Bay) an 1840s volume on the old Croton Dam written in Polish, German and English.

Tompkins pointed out that his own book is less of an exhaustive study of the dam than a photographic narrative. "This is the first thing done on the photographic record of the dam," he noted.

Tompkins said he has been intrigued since childhood by the history of the Croton River, of Yorktown and the lives of his own forebears. His mother, Marie (Milano) Tompkins, was involved with the Yorktown Museum, and Sylvia Thorne, a legendary figure with the museum, was a close family friend and mentor. "I remember being at the museum when it was over the firehouse and I was seven or eight years old."

At 11, he joined an apprenticeship summer program at Van Cortlandt Manor House in Croton, learning about 18th-century life.

Tompkins was delighted to appear at the Manor House last month for a book signing, and another at the Yorktown Museum.

"It was funny -- one of my Yorktown High School teachers sent his wife in to buy a book from me," Tompkins reflected.

He had come full circle, his book linking history, family and his town.

Tompkins is scheduled for book signings in February at Barnes & Noble in the Cortlandt Town Center and Walden Books in the Jefferson Valley Mall.

Source: North County News, January 3 - 9, 2001

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