Women of the Delaware
Thoughts on Women’s History Month 2021
By Jim Alexander
March was Women’s History Month. On the fourth day of that month, an elderly woman died in a nursing home in Nazareth, PA, her granddaughter at her side. Outside the region, her passing was little noticed. There is nothing unusual about death, but this woman’s life certainly was out-of-the-ordinary, and much of her work profoundly affected the Delaware Valley.
Nancy Michael Shukaitis grew up on a piece of land near the Delaware River, not far from the Water Gap. The land had been in the family since the 1700s. A high-school graduate, she had devoted her early years to raising four children. She loved the land, the heritage, the simple way of life, and the sound of the river.
Her life was forever changed by a massive flood on the Delaware in 1955, which led to a plan by the Federal government to build a flood-control dam on the river at a nearby place called Tocks Island. It would have flooded her home and created a 37-mile lake a mile wide, disrupting the lives of thousands of residents and changing the region’s quiet way of life forever. She knew she had to act, but the question was how.
Starting with barely a handful of fellow residents, she quickly had to come to grips with forces they had never paid attention to in their normal lives: how government worked, the functioning of Federal and State bureaucracies, how the law and courts worked, how to collect and document facts and mobilize action, how to communicate with the press and affect public opinion, how to organized the efforts of a small number of scattered residents into an organized effort. With little funding at hand, and uncertain as to the result, she had two tools to take on the challenge: information and the drive to express it. She gathered other local residents on both sides of the river to form the Delaware Valley Conservation Association in 1965, serving as its first president and lead spokesperson.
The Association slowly gathered local support in opposition to the dam, turning public opinion in the four affected counties against it. In 1967, she ran for and was elected to be the first woman county commissioner of Monroe County, serving four terms, eight years as chair of the board.
Her efforts to halt the dam were initially dismissed, with obstacles placed before her. Driving to Philadelphia from her rural home to meet with Federal officials, she became terrified of the urban traffic, so she parked her car at a restaurant and caught a bus into center city. In 1965, she attended a Congressional hearing in Washington, DC, where she was outnumbered by advocates of the dam and the park. She demanded that local hearings be held to permit local affected residents to testify, but officials said they just didn’t do that — residents would have to travel to Washington to testify before Congress. Such was her persistence, however, that six weeks later, they ended up doing just that, at a well-intended local hearing where residents could express the facts and their feelings. Her testimony at state and federal hearings were often not given full credence, yet the facts she presented drew increasing support. She remained the spirit behind the defense of the region’s history and environment for many years, even after stepping down as the DVCA president to devote her energies to county government.
In 1975, she led an effort by the four affected counties to document the rich history that was threatened with flooding and obliteration. The result was The Minisink, A chronicle of one of America’s first and last frontiers. In nearly 200 pages of early photos and documents, it recorded an overlooked but rich heritage of people, geography and life. In 2007, she followed this up with a 400-page Lasting Legacies of the Lower Minisink, an amazing compendium of photos and sketches of early properties in the area, together with extensive discussions of the people who had lived there over the centuries.
Interestingly, it was other women who succeeded her in the leadership. One was Joan Matheson, a housewife and writer whose family had lived in the valley since 1746. When she became aware of a series of nuclear plants being planned by utilities in the region which would have been dependent on the water supply created by the dam, her efforts to publicize their economic motivation were largely ignored, until several years later a newspaper unveiled the story.
When they repeatedly pointed out that the underlying structure in the area consisted of unstable glacial materials, and that catastrophic failure of the dam was likely, even citing earlier geological reports, the Corps of Engineers, charged with implementing the project, disagreed.
Matheson founded and for several years published The Minisink Bull, a local newsletter that chronicled the battle against the dam, and related actions by the Corps of Engineers and the National Park Service. The “underground paper,” later published by Sidney Marshall, diaried the struggle, the complaints, and the investigative revelations from the perspective of those impacted .
The next DVCA president was Mina Hamilton Haefele, an accomplished writer and advocate, who with her husband assembled tours to show reporters and politicians the historic but overlooked buildings that would be lost under water. Especially energetic and outspoken, she was instrumental in presenting testimony in Trenton which showed a topographic map disclosing the extensive “mudflats” that would have been created for miles of the proposed lake’s shoreline, creating an unsightly and toxic impact; with this undermining the claimed recreational and environmental benefits of the dam, many regarded this map as one of the major drivers of New Jersey dropping any remaining support for the dam.
Additional work by her led to public disclosure of the uneven and unfair land acquisition policies of the Corps of Engineers, with Congress subsequently enacting uniform standards where condemnation was authorized. She was also successful in attracting the attention and support of other nascent environmental groups such as The Friends of the Earth and the Sierra Club.
She was eventually forced out of her home near the river when the government refused to renew the lease on the farm which her family had nurtured and loved for decades. Decades later, appearing in a documentary video “Ghost Waters,” she recounted the horror of the dam proposal. Returning to visit her abandoned home, she remarked on the understandable anger that had motivated the efforts of the local people, but concluded that now, in light of broader history, it was love that should prevail.
Sandy Hull was another affected person who was involved in the effort. She also appeared in the video, and recently noted that Mina was “the person who gave me a voice in all this. Encouraging and committed, she gave me the courage to speak out.” Edith Hull, her mother-in-law, had served as secretary for the DVCA, and was a grounding force, solid in her commitment. Indeed, it was this sharing and encouraging among the impacted but under-resourced residents that was a core of the response. Sandy Hull later recalled that the fight took a toll on the lives of many local residents, and “took a huge chunk of my life,” adding: “I have to say, it’s sad and painful. As one drives along the River, the devastation that would have been caused by the dam is unfathomable. The human toll, remembering the homes destroyed….most people have no clue what happened here.”
Mina Hamilton Haefele, in front of family’s historic farmhouse by the river in 1977.
Construction of the dam was halted too late to save a way of life.
Another supporter was Jean Zipser, the bright young occupant of the oldest home in Warren County, who created publications, held events, and aided the effort. She served as the last mayor of the town of Pahaquarry, due to be under water, presiding over the death of its municipal existence. Some years later, she was to die on an icy road within the area, which by then had been taken on by the National Park Service as the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.
To be sure, there were many men involved in the effort, which finally thwarted the dam’s construction. One was Sidney Marshall, a young Air Force veteran of native Indian descent, who was also forced from his home by eminent domain. He assembled and circulated information, helped behind the scenes, took photos, made signs, and chronicled the debacle. He drew the map of the mudflats that was so successful in showing the environmental harm that would result from the dam’s construction.
One other early opponent of the dam was Ruth Jones, proprietor of a river-based enterprise that provided camping, swimming and canoeing opportunities, just below the water gap. That area, although not to be flooded, was included in the project boundaries, and she was the first owner to be ordered to sell her property under eminent domain. It was believed that the Corps wanted to make an example of her because she had expressed opposition to the project. When a US Marshal appeared at her door to serve eviction papers, her young daughter started crying, and she immediately shoved the papers back, told him where to put them, and slammed the door. She was an active participant in several opposition organizations, and to this day, is a forceful advocate for maintaining the river in pristine condition.
It was remarkable for a small group of people in a sparsely populated area, led in large part by these women, to have been able to stand up to the forces of a strong government and powerful economic interests. As Mina Hamilton was to write years later: “… it is totally magnificent that there on the shining Delaware is not an unnecessary destructive dam, but beautiful, wild and forever-protected land.”
Nancy Shukaitis was 96 years old. Just an ordinary person but an outstanding woman, who with the support of other courageous women, left an enduring legacy of the strength of the human spirit against massive power. Something infinitely stronger than any dam.