The Neversink Feeder

When the plans for the D&H Canal were first drawn up there was no provision for reservoirs to supply water to the canal’s Summit Level. This section starts at lock 51 and ends 17 mile north-east at lock 50 in Summitville and represents the highest area of the canal between Port Jervis and Kingston. There wasn’t even a major feeder stream included in the original design. Water would be supplied to the Summit Level by the numerous small streams that dot the landscape. A drought in 1825 whilst the canal was being built led the canal’s engineers to think better of their design. As a result, they included in their plans a feeder which would tap the Neversink River at the very southern end of the Summit Level at Cuddebackville. In the canal’s early days, this was to become a vital source of water.

Adjacent to lock 51, the Neversink Feeder brought water down from the Neversink River to the D&H Canal. For two decades, this feeder was the main source of water for the Summit Level. In fact, without the feeder there would not have been sufficient water for the canal to operate. This is an important point to remember: the Neversink feeder kept the canal open for nearly 20 years. Had there been no feeder there would have been no D&H Canal. Later, around 1844, the company began building a series of major reservoirs to supply additional water to the Summit Level. By 1856 almost all the reservoirs were done. These reservoirs (or “ponds” as they were called) were: Yankee, Lord’s (later called Wanaksink), Sheldrake, Wolf, Masten and Beaverdam. Other, smaller lakes were also included in the reservoir network.

Beaverdam Pond was especially interesting. Located at the present day Camp Turrell Boy Scout Camp on Oakland Valley Road on the Orange / Sullivan county line, this reservoir was upstream of the canal’s Neversink River feeder. Water from the pond was controlled at its dam. As water was needed, boards were removed at the dam’s spillway and flowed north through tributaries into the Neversink. The water would then flow downstream about six miles into the feeder. The trip from pond to feeder supposedly took less than four hours.

According to the United States Department of the Interior in 1885, the six major Summit Level reservoirs built by 1856 had a combined area of around 2,200 acres. At an estimated average depth of eight feet, the total amount of water stored would have been about five billion gallons. The feeder reservoirs were needed because the D&H had increased the dimensions of the canal starting in 1843 and ending in the early 1850’s to accommodate 130 ton coal boats and now required a greater volume of water in order to operate at full capacity. (The original coal boats carried 20 to 30 tons of coal.) This allowed the canal to raise its cargo capacity fivefold from about 200,000 tons annually to over one million tons. The result of this expansion was to more than double the volume of the locks. This required a greater amount of water and, thus, the need for the feeder reservoirs was born.

In 1870, the D&H Canal company cut its canal improvement budget to zero. Though two Summit section reservoirs, Mud Pond (today’s Treasure Lake) and McKees Pond (later called Lake Louise-Marie), were built in 1869 to safeguard the canal from droughts, this was one of the last significant improvements undertaken. Though the reservoirs had been intended to protect the canal from droughts, sometimes even they were not enough. A drought in 1895 was so severe that the reservoirs dried up and the canal had to be shut in August. In the 1870’s, thanks to its then president Thomas Dickson, the company spent considerably more on mining and buying coal and running its railroads than it did in operating its canal. Within 30 years the firm would divest itself from its canal altogether and become a railroad company.

On February 22, 1899, the D&H Canal’s board of directors adopted a resolution sanctioning the abandonment of the D&H Canal. Shortly thereafter, the canal was sold to S. D. Coykendall. Like the rest of the canal, the feeder had been subject to blowouts and breaks. Problems with the feeder didn’t stop when the canal was sold. In 1901 the feeder was, once again, a source of trouble. A lack of water entering the canal from the feeder was causing dismay in the neighborhood. Dr. Henry C. McBrair, a well to-do dentist from Middletown who owned property on the west bank of the Neversink River just above the Roebling aqueduct, was the owner of the feeder and had shut it down. This caused the water in the nearby canal to stagnate. (His son would later go on to become part of a five man consortium that purchased Wolf Lake and developed the land for sale to New York City vacationers.) Complaints reached all the way to the Governor’s office in Albany.

The feeder didn’t lie dormant for long. In 1903 a hydropower plant was built by the Neversink Light and Power Company just below the site of the former lock 51. Dr. McBrair founded the company and became its first president. This plant would supply 1,200 kilowatts of electric power to Monticello, Port Jervis and Middletown. In conjunction with the construction of the power plant and its reservoir, the feeder was rebuilt to accommodate a flow rate of 400 cubic feet per second. To prevent erosion of the feeder’s walls by the fast flowing stream of water, the feeder was lined with wood.

Construction of the power plant in 1903 gave rise to a significant chapter in early American film-making. Jeremiah J. Kennedy, one of the founders of the Biograph movie company, had worked on the power plant. When D. W. Griffith started looking for wild scenery where he could shoot some of his films, Kennedy told him about Cuddebackville and the Neversink River. Since the O&W Railroad had a station nearby, the location was a natural. Griffith spent a number of summers from 1909 to 1912 in Cuddebackville making movies. In fact, one of the earliest iris mechanisms used to produce the fade-in / fade-out effect between movie scenes was made, at Griffith’s request, by the local blacksmith who lived just below the remains of Roebling’s Neversink aqueduct on the eastern shore of the Neversink.

Storms had always been a problem for the feeder and canal. In fact, the canal company employed a full time watchman, who lived in a house next to the feeder, to keep an eye on it. Amongst other responsibilities, the watchman’s job was to close the guard gate during storms to make sure that too much water wasn’t entering the feeder and putting excessive pressure on its walls. After the power plant was opened, storms continued to cause problems. In fact, in October 1903, shortly after the plant was put into operation, a large flood on the Neversink breached the feeder. Finally, in 1948, a storm washed out the power plant reservoir and the plant was closed, never to re-open. 20 years later, in 1968, the feeder was included in the Cuddebackville D&H Canal National Historic Landmark designation.

In 1973 the process of acquiring the lands that would go to make up the 270+ acre D&H Canal Park began. Ownership of the feeder passed to Orange County a few years later. Storm-related problems continued to plague the feeder. In the years that Orange County has owned the feeder at least seven great storms have caused major washouts. Though battered and abused, the Neversink feeder, in a few spots, if filled with water again, might still allow us to experience what it must have been like to walk along it almost two centuries ago.

Copyright 2012 by Stephen Skye

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