A Legacy of Hurt:
Eminent Domain at Tocks Island
“Why fight a losing battle?” commented Joseph H. Cook, Jr., chief of the Corps of Engineers real estate division in Philadelphia. “We wish we never heard of the damn thing.”
“We uprooted a lot of people … it’s a hell of a thing to have to move. There’s no way to lessen the blow. But we were told to build a dam. To do that you have to clear the land first.”
— Delaware County Daily Times, July 18, 1977.
Eminent domain is the power of government to take private property when needed to serve a broader public purpose. Exercised with fairness and sensitivity, it is a legitimate tool that allows for roads and other public facilities to be built, and society to prosper. But what if it is not exercised fairly and with sensitivity, or if the underlying reason for its use is not valid?This exercise of eminent domain was sanctioned in 1962, when Congress authorized the building of a dam near Tocks Island, several miles above the Delaware Water Gap, as a remedy to the massive flooding that had occurred in the fall of 1955. The project envisioned not only the building of a dam, but the creation of a 37-mile-long lake above it, flooding land on both the New Jersey and Pennsylvania sides. A battle against the project raged for over a decade, but by 1977 it was clear that the dam was not going to be built. The lead role assigned to the Corps of Engineers by Congress to acquire the land and build the dam was reassigned to the National Park Service to administer a national recreation area on the acquired lands. By then, fearing that if Congress formally killed the project, that could affect the Corps’ ability to pursue other such efforts, the Corps’ initial zeal was replaced with a posture no longer supporting the project. While the public policy battle raged, an estimated 15,000 people were displaced from the area, with 72,000 acres of properties being taken, either by accepting initial Corps purchase offers, or by enduring the rigors of fighting eminent domain hearings. But these were not simple real-estate transactions. Lives and personal fortunes were shattered. To be sure, in such a large undertaking, not all were affected in the same way. Some actually benefited. Looking back, there was a steady stream of allegations of improper actions regarding the entire project, each of which might merit a detailed review, but for current purposes included:
- curious irregular boundaries established for the project, which benefitted some and hurt others1
- last minute acquisitions of properties by “connected” parties, such as an island in the river which was purchased, stripped of its top soil, and then sold to the Corps at an alleged inflated cost2
- erratic patterns of which properties were selected for acquisition first, and how individuals were treated3
- a general breakdown of law and order as the population diminished, with traditional patterns of governance disrupted and not replaced with adequate law enforcement4
- allegations of stealing of personal properties by both government actors and squatters who had been moved into the area5
The Voices of Those Who Were ThereSandy Hull, a leader in the Delaware Valley Conservation Association (DVCA) that fought the project, was later to recall that as the Corps’ acquisition efforts moved ahead, her old neighborhood shrank as others sold out and their homes were bulldozed. Services such as police protection and road maintenance withered. In 1979, lamenting the difficulty of ordinary people going to distant courts to plead their case, she told a reporter: “The law of eminent domain gives ‘em a license to steal.”13 She moved to a nearby town outside the project, and today when she drives through the National Recreation Area, she is confronted with painful memories. Yet she remains committed to encouraging today’s National Park Service to respect and restore the rich history of the area that the project had damaged. Mina Hamilton’s family home on the fertile Pahaquarry Flat was acquired by the Corps in 1970. The rest of her family, wearied of the stress, had left. She continued residing there until she was forced to leave in 1987. While still there, it deeply troubled her to see the adjoining land that her family had farmed being leased out to other farmers by the Corps. A Harvard-educated and skilled communicator, she became an articulate and effective opponent of the dam project, and led the Delaware Valley conservation’s efforts for some years, serving as an outspoken president of the DVCA who brought well-researched facts to the public forum. She recalled: “I hated it when those homes were bulldozed, the crunching sound they made was like hearing your mother moan. It’s like having your teeth drilled but the thing that’s being drilled is your heart.”14 Her documentation and publicizing of the land acquisition policies of the Corps, as well as the disastrous environmental mess the proposed lake would have created, helped frame the public debate, and she went on to be an effective environmental crusader on other fronts. The farmhouse she had grown up in was eventually torn down, and the land now lies overgrown and untended. To this day, she (along with some others) is convinced that the checkerboard pattern of land acquisitions by the Corps was an intentional plan to thwart any efforts to halt or reverse the project. She has explained the great challenge to ordinary people responding to an eminent domain order, and their difficulty in obtaining legal representation conversant with such matters, as well as enduring the cost and inconvenience of the drawn-out process. Henry Tucker: “It’s sort of a sad affair, but what can you do?” said Henry Tucker, 80. He had a home off the main road above Shawnee. “My wife and I figured to spend the rest of our days there. The hills were so pretty and you could see the deer. But they plowed the house down. They chased me back into town…and the squatters shot off all the deer.”15 Others took it even harder. There were at least two reported suicides by people forced off their land. Isaac Dunlap, a 78-year-old man who lived in a house he had built in the project zone, was deeply frustrated by what he felt was unfair and inconsistent treatment compared with other properties when his property was condemned. Despondent, he told his family that life wasn’t worth living anymore, then went out in the woods and shot himself in the head.15a Clyde Fish had been born in Pahaquarry and attended the one-room Calno School on the Old Mine Road. In May 1974, he was 82 and his wife Frances was 80. 40 years earlier, they had built a modest home in Walpack, which the Corps condemned. When he could not afford the rent they demanded, they had to move away and place their remaining effects on auction. Their barn was being taken apart board by board as the auction ensued. “We don’t want to leave, but we have no choice,” Clyde commented. Most of their long-time friends refused to even attend the auction.16 Annie Oftedal was a retired long distance telephone operator, having moved with her husband to a remote area near Crater Lake 21 years earlier, building a modest retirement cottage with the idea of spending the rest of their days there. Her husband died. Other small homes had eventually been built near hers, but they were purchased and demolished.17 The area would not even been flooded if the dam had been built. She claimed that when the government bought her home in 1969, she was promised she could stay there for the rest of her life in return for accepting a low sale price.18 In the face of inquiries made on her behalf even at the Congressional level, the Corps asserted that for technical reasons she could not obtain life tenancy, and classified her as an “adverse tenant.” They had offered her a new location which lacked a well and septic system. “We showed her everything in the area,” the Corps’ Joseph Cook, by then on assignment to the Park Service to complete the acquisition program, said. “The replacement doesn’t have to be at the top of a mountain, and this lady wants to live on top of a mountain.” When the government bought another woman’s house and relocated her to a trailer in another town, he was also quoted as saying: “Some trailers are better than some houses.” With municipal services breaking down and uncertainty as to responsibilities, maintenance on the road to Annie’s house deteriorated to a point where access was difficult if not fully blocked. While the Corps and the Park Service quibbled over who owned the access road and would maintain it, she was cut off from food and propane to heat the house dwindled in dead of winter.18A Sidney Marshall and Jane Egbert, who lived on the ridge nearby, had to take her to the store, and at times bring in food and supplies on a sled. Annie eventually died in the home in 1986, alone. By then, there were no neighbors at all. Her body was not discovered for several months.
The Army Engineers did all the acquisition for both the dam and park. It was arbitrary, capricious, nasty and downright vindictive. It was done in a piecemeal checkerboard fashion calculated to cause maximum disruption. To the army this was a conquest and all’s fair in love and war.
The lobbyists had told the Congress the area was a wilderness; nothing of value here. The army’s valuation, by their own admission, was based on a “three day windshield survey.” $12,000 was the typical price offered for someone’s home. Offer you a third of market value and grudgingly up it 2 grand in many increments.
The process groaned on with glacial slowness. Mortgages were red-lined. You couldn’t sell to anyone else; couldn’t borrow to fix or keep the place up. How many of our own Crater Lake neighbors, for their own health, simply abandoned their places to the vandals and received next to nothing?
It’s known as “condemnation blight.”
The years of this torture dragged on and on. Five years, ten years, fifteen.
They could have stopped at any time and had a beautiful park with still enough residents left to care for it and instruct the populace (and the Park Service) of its history and value. It wasn’t until 1976 that the balance tipped; that we realized there could be no going back on the National Wreck Area. But we continued to fight for more just ways to do this: scenic easements, public input, any kind of co-operation.
No, no, and no. They wanted it ALL.
— Email from Sidney Marshall to the author, November 1, 2020
One day, upon returning home from a shopping trip, he and several friends were confronted by armed Park Rangers and troopers. They and their car were searched without warrant as the authorities, suspecting him of illegal activities, demanded to know where the guns were being stored. As they left empty-handed, one ranger placing his gun up to Marshall’s face, and as he vividly remembers to this day, said “We ought to shoot you right here and now. Your type don’t deserve to exist.”20
During the 15 years of his stay on the mountain after serving in our armed forces, he had devoted himself to documenting the folly of the dam and the travesties of the authorities. He attended hearings, including one in which he and Jane Egbert hauled in a coffin to emphasize what should happen to the project. He had assisted the Conservation Association and had worked on the Minisink Bull, a resistance publication, eventually becoming its editor and publisher. He lurked in the woods with camera in hand, found access to the lane to his home padlocked, and was forced to pay a fine for leaving his camping gear near his house “on Federal land.” In 1977, he surreptitiously took a series of amateur videos of the ongoing destruction of buildings, which he assembled into this presentation, which he recently shared. See here for further issues regarding the breakdown of law and order there.
Finally, thoroughly exasperated by the continuing harassment and lack of payment for his family’s home while legal issues remained unresolved, Marshall and Egbert piled their belongings in a car and trailer, and left for the wilds of Maine. Unable to fit all of their possessions in the trailer, they planned to return in several weeks for the rest, and even left permission for a neighbor to remove the remaining possessions if the Park Service attempted to take possession sooner. The Park Service then moved quickly without notice and bulldozed the house and its contents, alleging that there were explosives on the property, which he vehemently denied. The Sussex Spectator on November 8, 1978 characterized the action as: “Park Service’s ‘explosive’ claim fizzles into a question mark,” but by then Marshall’s belongings were gone.
The Effect of Time
As the ever-present Joe Cook from the Corps said in an interview in 1976, “We’ve been up there too long. We should have built the thing (the dam) a long time ago, uprooted them all quickly, moved them all out and forgot about the anguish and everything.”21 While such thoughts are simplistic and insensitive, they do point to an underlying impact for which government, no matter how defined politically or bureaucratically, bears responsibility.
In considering the impact of eminent domain, the prolonged period of time during which it was being threatened or exercised inflicted great pain, above and beyond the loss of their homes. Certainly, the action by the Corps was not just performing one blow and it was over. From the Congressional authorization in 1962 for the next fifteen years, and some would argue for even longer, uncertainties raged, as organizations and forces jockeyed to assert their will, and while patterns of life hung in the balance.
Even the location of the dam changed. Originally envisioned for around Walpack Bend, it was shifted to Tocks Island, then to a location slightly downstream, as the Corps tried repeatedly to find a spot that would support the weight of the dam without collapsing. During this period, acquisitions continued, but on what came to be regarded as either a nonsensical pattern or an intentional effort to demoralize remaining residents.
Demoralization also hit those who were still allowed to rent their properties that the Corps had bought. In late 1972, Viola Blasi, who had lived with her husband Frank on a historic farm along the Old Mine Road for 32 years, commented that: “They put us out of business in 1969. We had 1,500 chickens. They told us not to get anymore because they were ready to build, but I don’t see any dam yet.”22
In 1969, Frank had told a Congressional hearing that they had been coerced to sell their 11 acres for a total of $8,000, even though a real estate person they had hired said it was worth $2,500 an acre. “At first they offered us a total of $6,700…. They said we would never get $2,500 an acre. They said they would take us to condemnation…. The Government men threaten and bully…. People are licked by this power — financially, psychologically and spiritually. We’ve watched them give out, one by one, not because they were willing but because they couldn’t take it any longer.”23
At the same time, the Corps was grappling with changing national priorities, uncertain funding, and growing resistance from a local populace that was more determined and energetic to fight back than had been expected, bolstered somewhat by the emergence of the national environmental movement. As policy makers at the Congressional and state levels tried to adjust to all this, political and economic forces collided and untidily tried to seek resolution, with the local residents in the middle.
Over this period, as acquisitions proceeded, long-established patterns of life and local government were undermined. As squatters and others moved into the once-quiet area, bringing new patterns of life, the locals were confronted at a time when even law enforcement was undermined. Indeed, the area for several hundred years had seen minimal need for formal law enforcement, but now felt threatened even by arriving Federal officials, who to this day some claim threatened their lives and illegally took personal property.
One might even ask “was anybody really in charge of the whole thing or was it a series of unleashed good, bad, and indifferent forces assailing an innocent populace!” Sorting all this out at this point is not feasible, but the extended period of policy instability and helplessness were telling and lie at the root of current attitudes of many who once lived a quiet way of life with roots dating back centuries.
The Longer View
“People here tend to take their grief inwardly rather than to parade it in protest organizations,” Marc Haefele, who was forced out, said, climbing into a Jeep with a “Pox on Tocks” sticker on the back. “Many of the older people who have been uprooted have simply died.”23
Sandy Hull concurred, later recalling that “once the government bought the people’s homes and moved them out, the next thing you knew you were reading their obituaries in the newspaper…. What happened here should never happen any other place in the world.”
So most of the people are long gone. Not that many people remember the story, or what the Tocks Island Dam was supposed to be.
The story of the unbuilt dam, and the now wonderful but underfunded national recreation area, is long and complex. There is past hurt, past baggage, and new needs. It can be viewed from many perspectives. Was the ineptitude of planning and the chaos of implementation the fault of any one actor? Or perhaps was this perfect storm with so many innocent victims a result of the weaknesses of governmental processes at the highest levels in the face of both well-meaning and self-serving interests? An inability of the governmental structures to recognize and adapt to changing realities?
Most certainly, the past is past, and the reality today involves new complexities of increasing pressures from urban areas, difficult and time-consuming governmental rules and procedures, and woefully inadequate funding for today’s committed National Park Service stewards. We now have to look forward.
In doing so, we need to be mindful that, in an unintended way, Cook’s words “We wish we never heard of the damn thing” could have been uttered by thousands of others whose treatment many would justifiably label as unconscionable.
Indeed, they had a greater right to speak those words.
This draws on accumulated sources developed during and after the writing of the author’s initial article Life and Death on the Old Mine Road. Publication of that, and a followup video, resulted in a number of people contacting the author with additional information, typically individuals who had been directly impacted by the Tocks Island project. Above all traditional sources, the diligence and courage of Sidney Marshall in documenting these events when they happened, and sharing his meticulous files decades later, merits recognition and respect.
A number of the clippings he provided led to others, all written by reporter Richard Harpster, whose insight into real human beings has been an inspiration for this current research. Below we list some of the specific sources relied upon for this article.
- The matter of the project’s specific boundaries was discussed in various venues. One source is the resistance publication Minisink Bull, whose issues are available here. Also see summary of concerns at The Pennsylvania State University, The Graduate School Department of Geography: TOCKS ISLAND DAM, THE DELAWARE RIVER AND THE END OF THE BIG-DAM ERA, Gina Bloodworth, 2005. The irregularity of properties included and excluded in the project for acquisition may be evaluated by reviewing detailed maps of the area.
- New York Times, May 2, 1974 “Fast and Peculiar Profits Charged in Tocks Project.” Walter H. Waggoner. Also, New York Times, June 1966 “Proposed US Park for Jersey is Giving Planners a Headache” Walter H. Waggoner shows the rampant speculation of property acquisitions and sales at the time, with, in some cases, concomitant “get rich” implications.
- Various publications and newspaper reports, voiced by the Delaware Valley Conservation Association and others as well as in Congressional testimony. A number of DVCA and related citizen publications of the time are available here.
- New York Times, June 10, 1979 “Minisink: Dream or Nightmare?” Shayna Panzer.
- Email communications, various dates, from Sidney Marshall and Mina Hamilton, both of whom lived in the area. during the years of Corps acquisition, and were so impacted. Also reported in various other publications.
- Daily Record. Morristown. “Property Taken for Tocks Island Project” Richard Harpster. Dec 7, 1981.
- Richard C. Albert, Damming the Delaware (University Park: Penn State University Press, 1987).
- A Brief History of Sunfish Pond by Juan Melli January 6, 2020.
- The History and Demise of the Tocks Island Dam Project: Environmental war or the War in Vietnam, Kathleen Duca-Sandberg, Seton Hall University, Spring 2011.
- Email communications to the author from former participants in organized camp programs, visitors to sites near the Delaware and in the mountains.
- Richard Fritzky, A Pox on Tocks, retrieved from here.
- See Land Acquisition Procedure for Tocks Island Dam and Reservoir… US Army Engineer District, July 1, 1967. Also: TOCKS ISLAND DAM, THE DELAWARE RIVER AND THE END OF THE BIG-DAM ERA, A Thesis in Geography. Gina Bloodworth, Pennsylvania State University Graduate School of Geography. August 2005.
- Panzer Ibid.
- Delaware County Daily Times, July 18, 1977. “Woman vows fight to save ‘paradise.’” Her position then regarding the strategy of the Corps’ land acquisition pattern was reinforced to the author in an email on July 26, 2021.
15a.The Wayne Independent, Honesdale PA September 17, 1992. “The Tocks Island Dam Project is dead.” Also see Sussex Spectator, September 20,1978, “Family says gov’t responsible for Tocks area man’s suicide.”
- Free Press, Phillipsburg, NJ, May 1, 1974
- Panzer, Ibid.
- The Sussex Spectator, Newton, NJ, November 2, 1977.
18A. The Sussex Spectator, February 1, 1978. “Park service refuses to aid widow snowbound in DWGNRA.”
- This URL.
- Fritzky, and as reaffirmed to the author by Marshall in July 2021, and confirmed by email from another person present, August 10, 2021.
- Pocono Record, July 1, 1976, by Chris Roberts, AP Writer.
- New York Times, “New Jersey,” David Janson, Ibid.
- Public Works Appropriations for 1970, Hearings, Government Printing Office, 1969.
- See his obituary.