The Breakdown of Law, Order and Social Fabric During the Tocks Island Project

Home Demolition
The destruction of homes was accompanied by a breakdown in the established order.

How it was before …

“It seems that the only problem I have with this job is to find a place to move or build.”

As John Uporsky settled into his job in 1969 as the new Police Chief in the town of Delaware Water Gap, PA, he did not envision much of a challenge. At the time of his appointment a resident of Pahaquarry, a few miles north of the Water Gap on the New Jersey side, his sole experience was having served as a part-time constable in Pahaquarry.1

Four years earlier, his predecessor in Delaware Water Gap had told a reporter that while he was the only officer for the town, he could call on two nearby towns if he needed help. The chief of another nearby town noted that he didn’t use a radio when on patrol because there was nobody available to staff a base station. He too was the only officer, patrolling a 140-mile square area, and said “I’m on call 24 hours a day, 12 months a year.2 Not many police in the region, because not much happened.

As the Corps of Engineers started acquiring properties in the area above the Water Gap, however, those northern towns were soon to confront an unprecedented breakdown of the centuries-old patterns of rural law and order. MORE BROADLY, THE INSTITUTIONS OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT AND SERVICES STARTED COLLAPSING. Until then, order in the area tended to be the continuity of respect and self-reliance rather than a formal police presence. Being rural and sparsely populated, things tended to sort themselves out, depending on the particular location. Police “protection” was essentially reactive, relying on thin State Police patrols and part time local officers, while other municipal services were provided on a person-to-person basis by part time officials who knew their neighbors.

One observer noted that in some locations, especially in the mountainous areas, residents traditionally “settled things their own way.”3

Calno School

Pahaquarry’s old Calno School/Town Hall, now boarded up.

How it changed …

As the Corps bought up properties, affected towns lost ratables and population, and it became unclear who was really responsible and able to assure protection of property and provision of basic services. The Corps quickly gained the local reputation as having stolen the homes and land, and they had more resources and authority available to demolish than to protect, although as it turned out, they never even had sufficient appropriations to make all the purchases in a fair and timely manner. They were not trusted by the remaining residents, and were even accused of helping themselves to personal belongings in condemned homes.

The pattern of condemnation by the Army Corps did little to engender respect. It reportedly demanded that some sellers vacate their properties immediately, even though it was years before the land was scheduled to be flooded for the project. In some cases, the corps resorted to buying part of a farmer’s land — leaving the farmer with a field to work but no farmhouse, or a farmhouse without a field. At least two landowners committed suicide.4

Suicide Headline

As responsibility transitioned over to the National Park Service, it inherited, and in the minds of some locals deserved, the same reputation.

Ranger in Demolished Home
Ranger in demolished house after dark, from video made by Sidney Marshall.

Bev Conover, former publisher of the Sussex Spectator, recalls:

“Via the police scanner, we would hear such things as ‘Hey, Jethro, I just saw a nice piano in so and so’s house that sure would look nice in your living room.’” And “Yup, [a prominent National Park Service Official at the time] threatened me in front of my mom. She and I had just exited the “restored” school at Millbrook Village [where valuables from condemned properties were allegedly stored, but which had just burned], when I saw him coming up the path, wearing his Park Service name badge.

Since he had never seen me, I couldn’t resist walking up to him, sticking out my hand and introducing myself. Wheeeeee …. he lost it. Can’t remember his exact words but he ended them with the threat to kill me. My mom had a horrified look and as we walked away, she said, ‘That man just threatened to kill you.’ I said, ‘Yup.’”5

People suspected that salvaged valuables were actually transferred to the Pennsylvania side for surreptitious sale for personal gain, and not lost in the fire.

Hippie squatters.
Hippie squatters.

The squatters who moved into the area, some at the invitation to lease from the Park Service, and some on their own without benefit of legal niceties, were widely regarded as not respecting property rights.

Mina Hamilton, who lived on a farm along the Old Mine Road near the river, recalls:

But, for certain, there had to have been plenty of folk who were not squatters.  Folks who knew a good refrigerator, a good bathtub, a good whatever that was there for the taking.  And certainly, most of those long-haired hippies knew diddly-squat about how to fence some plumbing.  

However, did I have a squatter steal stuff from me? Yes, as a matter of fact. Once I got a tipoff, I leapt into my jeep, drove down to the Gap, across the Delaware River bridge, up to that guy’s place. Luckily, the tip was the same afternoon of the theft.

It was about a 40-minute drive and I was fuming for every second of it. Livid, I roared into his driveway, jumped out of the jeep, and, although quite astounded by the adrenaline pumping through my system, demanded:

“OK, Charlie, where is it?”  (It was one of the insults of the act that I actually knew the guy slightly.) And then – “now please RIGHT NOW load that stove back into my jeep.” Which he did. And I gunned out of that driveway….

Did I report him to the police? NO.

Here’s the question: 

Was the theft of the land by the US Army Corps of Engineers worse or better than that of an old wood-burning stove by a so-called squatter?

Was the planned destruction of 30 miles of the largest, last pristine free-flowing river in the Northeast a greater or lesser atrocity?

Repeat question.  Which theft was worst?6

Theft and fear of it indeed became a common theme of the remaining residents. Residents recalled strangers riding up and down the Old Mine Road, looking for empty or abandoned houses to strip of anything of value.  It even affected the Park Superintendent, whose personal motorboat was stolen. Commenting on the theft problem, he complained that:

“I have 50,000 acres on both sides of the river to police with 35 men and only three bridges. It’s [theft of at spread-out properties] scattered around like chicken pox. I can’t protect it all.” He opined that “outsiders” and “neighbors” of the victims probably were the culprits.7

As early as 1971, Mayor Michael Mordkin of Pahaquarry had charged the Corps with negligence, having failed to respond to the Township’s request that empty buildings purchased by the Corps in the town be torn down to prevent abuses, characterizing them as “breeding nests for drug abuse, rape, possible murder, arson and health hazards.” He went on to charge that the Park Service had sent only one ranger to patrol 90 percent of the township, asking for more adequate patrol “before anything serious or tragic happens.”8

A recalled incident from the time suggested that some local residents were so angry at the Corps, that at times they tried to sabotage efforts, such as by cutting loose a contractor’s test-drilling barge on the river that had been left unattended. On the Pennsylvania side, a series of mysterious fires occurred in 1970 and 1971, one of which damaged $50,000 of drilling equipment, causing the Park Service to send in more Rangers from other states.9

When the next Mayor of Pahaquarry, Otto Nehland’s property was taken by the Corps, he was granted life tenancy rights, and actually became a Park Ranger, supporting the dam project. A number of remaining local residents resented his “collaboration” with the government, but he soon grew disillusioned with what he saw happening. He explained his change of heart as based on the Corps’ “needless destruction of homes and needless eviction of its residents,” saying that “what I want is for the U. S. Corps of Engineers to get out of here and take the park with them.” He was to spend years battling the project, charging the Corps with cruel treatment of elderly residents.10 He and other local officials battled over who would pay for the maintenance and plowing of roads, education, and services as the government took over. In some cases, as in the case of Annie Oftedal, it was believed that some roads were cut off just to encourage holdouts to leave.

Road Sign

Frank Dascoll, a resident of Walpack, regularly complained that the Corps left his township with no money to maintain roads, but did not assume responsibility.11

Essentially what happened was not simply a breakdown in traditional police protection, but a collapse of established social norms and governmental patterns; political scientists might say that the “social contract” between government and the governed had been broken, with little to replace it. Instead, those who remained as well as the Corps and the Park Service had to endure a state of uncertainty as larger questions were debated and often unresolved:

  • Should or could the building of the dam be blocked?
  • How could the local towns and residents organize and finance their opposition, and what were the appropriate legal and political methods to do so?
  • How should residents protect their personal interests in the face of the never-before-confronted eminent domain processes?
  • Was a park really needed if the dam was not going to be built?
  • When the dam’s construction was finally blocked, should the seized properties be returned to their original owners, and if so, on what terms?
  • Should the State of New Jersey take over its side of the river and create a massive State Park, connecting the contiguous Worthington State Forest and nearby Stokes Forest? Should towns with few residents left try to hang on, and what funding should the Federal government provide to support local services and schools?12
  • If the National Park Service, having inherited and administered the situation, were not adequately funded by Congress, who was to blame for the current problems?
  • How could the area respond in a coherent manner given the varying individual attitudes, as well as the major political and economic forces that were not all in alignment?

With the swirling of all these currents impacting a rural area whose roots and quiet evolution dated back to the nation’s earliest days, it is no wonder the amount of hurt and anger that arose. The pressures of massive government power simply overwhelmed the local social fabric.

Destruction to enjoyment

As previously indicated, that past cannot be changed, nor all the harms corrected. Rather, the goal now can only be to acknowledge what happened, learn from it, and proceed to the best future possible, in which the assured access to, and enjoyment of, the majestic beauty of the area may be an admittedly inadequate compensation for the unfairness that happened.


As with our other writings, this draws on a broad collection of documents and recollections, but specifically the following:

1 “Gap police chief happy in new job.” Pocono Record, January 22, 1969.

2 “Regional Police Ready for 1965,” Pocono Record, January 9, 1965.

3 Email to author from Sidney Marshall.

4 “Long arm of government changed the Poconos forever.” Dave Pierce, Pocono Record, August 12, 2001.

5 Comments from Bev Conover, a former area resident and editor of the Sussex Spectator, contained in a July 30, 2021 email forwarded from Sidney Marshall to author.

6 Email to author from Mina Hamilton, April 15, 2021.

7 “Minisink: Dream or Nightmare?” Shayna Panzer, New York Times, June 10, 1979.

8 “Pahaquarry mayor cites ‘negligence’ by U. S. Army Corps.” Free Press, May 19, 1971.

9  “Patrols increased in park,” Pocono Record, November 16, 1971.

10 “Pahaquarry mayor wants feds out and land given back,” New Jersey Gazette and Citizens’ Journal, June 10, 1977.

11 “Park service apologizes for stealing Walpack man’s sign,” Richard Harpster, Free Press, January 8, 1975.

12 “State park is favored over Tocks dam plan,” Lillie Gross, New Jersey Herald, undated clipping. Also see “Pahaquarry mayor wants feds out and land given back,” Ibid.


Scroll to Top