Did you just arrive? Has it been a while?
Sit down and rest.
Think of this as a beginning, an explanation of who we are, what world you have landed in.
Welcome. We’re glad you’re here.
We are two main counties, Sullivan, NY and Wayne, PA (to go alphabetically), and our neighbors, Delaware and Orange in New York and Pike in Pennsylvania (to go geographically).
Ramsay Adams, founder and executive director of Catskill Mountainkeeper, talks about the northern part of our territory, the Catskills, but he could just as easily be describing Pennsylvania’s Poconos.
“I think that, to truly appreciate the Catskills, you have to understand the history. This place is steeped in history,” Adams said.
Let’s talk first about our geographical history, because that, he says, drives the culture.
The region spans the Delaware River and the Hudson River, he says; the Shawangunks, the Poconos, the Appalachians; New York as far north as the Schoharie Valley, south into Pennsylvania through Wayne County to the Lehigh Valley.
The Catskills are just a name for “part of the Appalachian Mountain range,” Adams says. The Appalachians are old mountains—480 million years old, among the oldest on Earth—“and they’re not being formed anymore.”
The Poconos (or as John McPhee puts it, “the so-called Pocono Mountains,” because they’re flat on top, like a mesa) share the Allegheny Plateau with the Catskills.
The mountains dictate what we can do, where we can build and where our roads go. There are the rivers: the Lackawanna and the Delaware. And there are those smaller ones: Dyberry Creek, the Willowemoc, the Beaverkill, along with innumerable little creeks and brooks. The water gives fish, it moved goods, it powered our mills and offered summertime swimming.
What grew on the land fed and funded us. Trees were turned into planks, furniture and chemicals. And then they were gone, cut down, used up, their existence a point in environmental time. The trees you see here, the beautiful forests? New growth. Relatively speaking, of course.
Adams talks about “the stunning beauty of the Hudson Valley. The painters who transformed the idea of nature—they defined what wilderness was,” and how we saw.
Maybe that’s not when we began to see ourselves as caretakers of our land, but that’s the point when it became possible on a large scale. Governments began to set aside land for conservation that wouldn’t be stripped of its trees and animals. The streams and lakes wouldn’t be fouled. (Granted, tourism and finances also drove the decision, as historian Diane Galusha reminded readers last year.)
People came here and left and the next generation came back, a tide of humanity rising and falling and rising again.
At first, says Wayne County history columnist Ann O’Hara, “the main reason people came here was the forest, the wonderful hemlock trees. That started before the revolution.”
There was Josiah Parks in the 18th century, who built rafts to carry hemlock logs down the Delaware to New Jersey and Philadelphia. His daughter was born in a cave in Equinunk sometime between 1776 and 1782.
There was O’Hara’s ancestor, who “made one trip a year... rafting down, and they rode or walked back.”
People were still rafting when the canals arrived. “Honesdale didn’t exist before the canals,” she said. The waterways carried coal from Scranton and logs from everywhere until they were replaced with railroads.
“We did play a part in the Industrial Revolution.” Transportation was needed, she said; people and goods travel, going from New York or New Jersey to points west, past us, sometimes stopping and staying. The trains carried food, steel, other goods and passengers both ways, opening the region to everyone and funneling people from here into city jobs.
Roads were built all along, of course. They connected communities. A sort of public-works Darwinism took hold. Some of those roads grew larger, absorbing smaller ones or plowing past the old on-ramps and leaving them and their villages in asphalt dust.
We took the land from indigenous tribes. We bought or were given land in thousands of acres, then resold it in small parcels. Governments took land from farmers and homeowners.
“You start to see the implication... in Grahamsville,” Adams said, “the dissolution of entire towns,” emptied of people and then filled with water. “People looked at the mountains and built tunnels to get water to New York City. New York City exists because of the Catskills.”
Land was taken for parks. Land was taken for roads, canals and railroads. Sometimes people were compensated. That compensation was not always enough.
Does that lie behind the strong anti-government streak here?
We grew or raised food and shipped it to the city: milk, cauliflower and apple products galore. We quarried bluestone and shipped it away for sidewalks.
We painted, wrote, made music and photographed. We built furniture and cutting boards and so many items that were sold elsewhere: an endless stream of creativity.
We cared for the sick—the tubercular and the dyspeptic and the stressed—and gave them all relief.
Looking at the present, Adams mused, “The folks who are investing in this part of the world... are building on what was already there.”
Taking time to learn all this means “you have a different understanding of where you are and your place in history,” he said. You are putting down roots now. Everyone has to start somewhere.
“That’s the beauty of this place. It speaks to people, the feeling of being connected to the land.”
Thanks to www.waynehistorypa.org for some of this information.
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