The Patterson Reservoir


In the mid nineteenth and early twentieth century, the growing City of New York, ever in need of water, seized and flooded many areas of Putnam and Westchester Counties to create the Croton Reservoir system. The City gave serious consideration to seizing a large portion of Patterson, including the area now known as the Patterson Hamlet, and flooding it to form another reservoir in the Croton system.

In the late 1800s New York City's growing population was increasing its demand for water, and the Croton reservoir system was straining to supply the demand. City officials and engineers developed a plan to build new reservoirs in the Catskills region of New York State, which would bring additional water into the City's water supply system. In 1908, the City's Aqueduct Commission announced a proposal to build a new storage reservoir in Patterson to hold the new water that would flow across the Hudson River from the new Catskills reservoirs.

The Patterson Reservoir Project

The Aqueduct Commission estimated that the project would take 4 years to complete. The reservoir was to have an earthen dam and hold 20,000,000,000 gallons of water with a depth of 15 to 18 feet. The reservoir would be 54 square miles in size, with a water surface area of 4000 acres. The dam was to be constructed exactly the same as the Ashokan dam in the Catskills, and would take two years to build. It was intended that the reservoir would serve as a holding area for water flowing to New York City from the reservoirs in the Catskills, and the Aqueduct Commission estimated the cost of the project to be $3,250,000.

Ultimate control of water projects was ambiguous under the New York City Charter. The Aqueduct Commission claimed control based on legislation dating back to 1883. The commissioner of the Department of Water Supply, Gas, and Electricity also claimed general control over most aspects of the City water supply system. And, the Board of Water Supply was already building the Ashokan dam and laying pipes to bring water across the Hudson River into the Croton watershed, along with new reservoirs and aqueducts to bring the water to its final destination in New York. In early 1908, a proposed charter revision, backed by Mayor McClelland and the New York City Corporation Counsel, would have clarified matters, but it failed to be enacted into law. The charter revision would have merged the Aqueduct Commission into the Department of Water Supply, Gas, and Electricity, and the combined agency would have the responsibility for planning a reservoir in Patterson. The Aqueduct Commission was confident in its continued existence and gave itself the authorization to plan the Patterson project.

The confusing and very political authority structure for the water supply system helped to slow progress on the Patterson reservoir. While the Aqueduct Commission was dispatching three teams of surveyors to Patterson to stake the bounds of the reservoir, water supply Commissioner O'Brien refused to approve the plans submitted by the Aqueduct Commission. The Aqueduct Commission countered that O'Brien's approval was merely clerical in nature and not otherwise relevant, and continued its survey work pending a court ruling clarifying which agency had the ultimate authority to approve the project. Even O'Brien admitted that the Commission probably was acting within its authority: "The commissioners are going ahead without our [his and the Mayor's] approval. They seem to have the law on their side. Perhaps they are right...They assume that it is their duty to develop to the utmost the Croton watershed." The Aqueduct Commission continued to create field maps of Patterson with the intention of actually beginning construction of the reservoir once the court ruled in its favor.

The cost estimate of the Aqueduct Commission was considered by many City officials to be very low and very conservative based on the cost of the land that would be seized, and the not so minor complication of twelve miles of New York Central Harlem Division tracks that would need to be removed and relocated. Neither the Aqueduct Commission's cost estimate nor project proposal mentioned the relocation of the tracks. City officials estimated the true cost of the project to be at least $5 million.

The Putnam County Courier announces the possible demise of Patterson on March 26, 1909.

In March, 1908, a bill was making its way through the New York State Legislature, which, if approved, would give the City of New York permission to seize a large portion of Patterson for the purpose of building a reservoir. The City sought to build a dam in the area known as DeForest Corners, and an auxiliary dam at the nearby ice pond. DeForest Corners straddles the Patterson/Southeast town line near the Green Chimneys School. The village of Patterson, now known as the hamlet area, and the Towners Station area of the Town, were to be destroyed in the process. The village would have been submerged to a depth of approximately 35 feet, and the flooded area would have extended north into Pawling in adjoining Dutchess County. The displacement of the populations was, of course, a great concern not only to the Town, but also to Putnam County.

In May, 1908, New York State Governor Hughes signed a bill authorizing the City of New York to condemn a large portion of Patterson for the purpose of flooding it and constructing a reservoir. The City moved quickly after receiving authorization, and in June 1908, New York City began work on its proposal to flood Patterson: City surveyors were sent to Patterson to stake the property lines of the proposed reservoir.

One year later, in March 1909, a political dispute broke out between the New York City Aqueduct Commission and the New York City Mayor McClellan. The Aqueduct Commission was the designer and builder of many of the City reservoirs, and the driving force behind the plan to seize and flood Patterson. The Mayor and City Corporation Counsel Pendleton felt that the Aqueduct Commission had outlived its usefulness, and that the work of planning future reservoirs should be the responsibility of the Board of the Water Supply Department. The Aqueduct Commission countered that the law gave it authorization to pursue another reservoir project. The Commission decided to defy the Mayor, the Corporation Counsel, and the Board of Water Supply, and continue with its plan to build a reservoir in Patterson.

Opposition to the Patterson reservoir project came quickly from within the Patterson community, but opposition was also developing outside of the Town. In July, 1909, a dozen New York City civics organizations joined a group calling itself "The Merchants Association" in a lawsuit targeting the New York City mayor, the New York City comptroller, and the Aqueduct Commission to block the project. Spokesman for the group was James H. Killough, who was identified as a produce dealer from Brooklyn, New York, according to the papers filed in the suit. Killough argued that the Aqueduct Commission invented a need for the reservoir to ensure the continued existence of the Commission and the jobs of Commission members. The suit claimed that the Patterson reservoir was not needed, and that the Croton reservoir system was already overdeveloped and at its safest capacity. Besides, the suit claimed, it would take years to actually complete the reservoir project, and improvements to the Catskill system would render the Patterson project obsolete before its completion. The Patterson reservoir would only add 7,000,000 gallons of water to the City water supply, according to the suit, which amounted to only 2% of the entire water supply system. This small amount of water was hardly worth the cost of construction, the suit added. Killough also argued that the Aqueduct Commission was proceeding illegally because it had not held a public hearing on the Patterson project. Aqueduct Commission president James F. Cowan countered that a public hearing was unnecessary, since one had been held in 1883 when overall control of the City's reservoir projects was given to the Commission. Cowan explained that legislation passed in 1883 gave the Commission blanket control over future reservoir projects. Cowan argued that the City was growing rapidly and needed new water sources, and that the Patterson reservoir would hold 20,000,000 gallons of much needed water.

By May, 1920, the court had appointed a referee to oversee the lawsuit. John J. Delany, the referee, was a former head of the New York City Corporation Counsel. In his report to the Supreme Court, Delany stated that the Patterson reservoir was a waste of public money. Delany cited testimony he had gathered that indicated that the Bronx and Manhattan already consumed 310,000,000 gallons of water, which was near the entire capacity of the entire Croton system, which was 383,000,000 gallons. Even if the Patterson reservoir added 20,000,000 gallons, Delany's report stated, that amount was very small and insignificant, and not worth the $3,500,000 construction cost.

New York City Mayor Gaynor finally settled the matter of the Aqueduct Commission by firing its board and abolishing the Commission.

Patterson survived.