Drowned Lands of the Wallkill

Including the “Beaver and Muskrat War”

As recorded in History of Sussex and Warren Co., NJ

By James P. Snell, 1881

Transcribed by Joe Bartolotta

February 2004



The valley of the Wallkill from Hamburg, Sussex County N. J., to Denton, Orange Co., N. Y., is unlike that of any other stream in the state. The Wallkill River rises in Sussex County and has a somewhat rapid flow until it reaches Hamburg. Then for twenty miles the bed of the stream is a succession a limestone reefs from five to ten feet high.

The Wallkill is one of the crookedest streams in the State, and its fall from Hamburg to Denton is only eleven feet. For twelve miles west of Denton the valley of the Wallkill is four miles wide and on level with the river. The northern extremity of the Pochunk Mountain protrudes into the valley there and divides the low-lying country into two strips. The portion on the eastern base of the mountain is six miles long and about a mile wide. It is drained by the Pochunk and Wawayanda Creeks. The western strip is eight miles long and nearly two wide, and coursed by the Wallkill. Pochunk Creek enters the Wallkill from the southwest, Rutgers Creek flows into it from the northwest, and Quaker Creek enters the river from the east, between Denton and Hamburg. The beds of these tributaries are of the same jagged character as that of the main stream, but their fall is heavier and their currents rapid. They enter the Wallkill at abrupt angles, and their waters are forced both up and down the river, the current of the latter being insufficient to carry them off. Besides the obstruction to the flow of the Wallkill caused by its irregular bed and almost imperceptible fall, a high wall of granite boulders and drift stretches across the valley at Denton and forms an impregnable dam. This deposit must have been carried here on glaciers from the Shawangunk Mountains, twenty-five miles distant, in the ages of which only geology furnishes any record. Of insufficient force to cut t passage through this rocky impediment, -as the Delaware River did through the opposing wall of the Kittatinny Mountain at the Water Gap,-the accumulated waters of the Wallkill were forced back over the low country bordering its course and that of its tributaries, the surplus water pouring over the crest of the wall and continuing then in uninterrupted flow to the Hudson at Kingston. Thirty thousand acres of land in Orange County and ten thousand in Sussex were thus converted into an impenetrable marsh covered with rank vegetation. In time of freshets the entire valley from Denton to Hamburg became a lake from eight to twenty feet deep. The following outline of the immediate country, will explain, it being understood that the shaded lines indicate the condition of the Drowned Lands prior to the construction of the canal:


"The country surrounding this great swamp was settled at a very early day. The settlers called the submersed tract 'The Drowned Lands of the Wallkill.' The tract was all taken up in the course of a few years. During the dry season the islands were reached without great difficulty, and the wild grass that grew on the marshy meadows afforded excellent pasturage for cattle. Owners of drowned land derived considerable revenue by letting out pasturage to the cows of neighboring farmers. Through the summer season thousands of cows were turned upon the waste acres. Sudden freshets frequently came and the water rose so rapidly that many cattle were annually lost before the herdsmen, in boats, could drive them to the uplands. The cows that reached the island were kept there until the water had subsided. The main duty of the farmers' boys in the early days was to watch the cattle feeding among the treacherous Meadows of the Drowned Lands.

"As early as 1804 the Drowned lands proprietors in Orange County, believing that by altering the course of the Wallkill River, and removing certain of the obstructions in its bed, the lands would be drained to a great extent and large portions of them made tillable, began the laying of plans to accomplish the work. In 1807 they secured the passage of an act of the Legislature authorizing the raising of money ‘to drain the Drowned Lands of the Wallkill.’ The expenses of the work were to be defrayed by assessing the owners of the lands. A board of commissioners was named in the act to apportion assessments. From that year up to 1826 forty thousand dollars had been expended by the proprietors in efforts to drain the lands, but with little success. Ditches were dug along the bed of the stream. About the only result of the work was the starting of eels down the stream in unusual quantities. The fall of 1817 was remarkable for the numbers of eels that came down the ditches. Eel-weirs were plenty, but there was hardly a night that season in which every one was not filled to overflowing with eels, some of which weighed eight pounds apiece. One weir in Hampton milldam captured over two thousand in one night. George Phillips salted down twenty barrels. He bought the first four-wheeled wagon ever seen in this region for the express purpose of peddling eels in the surrounding country. The wagon was the wonder of western Orange County, and made a sale for thousands of eels. The Wallkill yielded abundantly of eels until 1826, when a law prohibited the placing of weirs in the stream.

“In April, 1826, the Legislature again came to the aid of the Drowned Lands owners by authorizing the construction of a canal to be dug from the river at Horse Island around the great obstruction at Denton, and to enter the river again below New Hampshire -a distance of three miles. The water of the Wallkill that round its way over the rocky dam at Denton had a fall of twenty-four feet in about two miles. This afforded a valuable water-power, the right to which was vested in Gabriel N. Phillips. Several mills and factories had been called into existence near New Hampton by the water-power which had been utilized by the construction of a dam at the above place. This dam was a great obstruction to the drainage by ditches in 1807. The farmers agreed with Phillips to pay him a certain sum if he would lower the dam. He lowered it as desired. The farmers failed to fulfill their part of the contract. Phillips raised his dam to its original height. This was one of the main causes of the failure of the plan of river-bed ditching.

"The canal project of 1826 alarmed Phillips. He claimed that a canal would necessarily divert the water from its natural channel, and greatly injure the water-power, if not destroy it. Two hostile parties therefore arouse. Those interested in the factories fought the canal scheme, and the Drowned Lands proprietors were determined that it should succeed.

“According   to the act of 1807 a board of five drowned-land commissioners was to   be elected every year at the court-house in Goshen. The ownership of ten acres of drowned land entitled the owner to one vote. On every twenty acres, up to four hundred, a proprietor could deposit one vote, and one vote for every fifty acres above four hundred. At the election of 1829 the issue was ‘canal or no canal.’ To tickets were in the field. Gen. George D. Wickham was a prominent candidate on the canal ticket; John I. McGregor led the forces of the anti-canallers. On the 15th of June, 1829, the election was held. A beaver hat was used for a ballot-box. John I. McGregor claimed the right to cast twenty-six votes on proxies he held from other proprietors. He also demanded that the inspector receive from him eighty-two votes on a tract of three thousand five hundred acres, which belonged to an uncle of his in England who had just died. He claimed, besides, the right to vote on two thousand acres of this tract, under an alleged agreement with the dead uncle to work the two thousand acres for twenty years. These votes were all challenged by the supporters of the canal ticket. The inspectors of election refused to receive them. A stormy scene followed. John I. McGregor seized the hat containing the votes that had been cast, and declared that no vote should be counted unless those he offered were counted too. Every one entitled to vote had voted, with the exception of two persons. They demanded their right to a voice in the election. The assessors announced that they would hold a new election. McGregor's adherents attempted to prevent this, but failed. Another hat was borrowed, and the voting was commenced over again among the voters who remained in the room. When the polls closed McGregor returned the hat he had captured, and demanded that it be accepted as the legal ballot-box. The assessors refused to accept it. The tickets in the stolen hat were counted unofficially. The canal men had a majority. The new election also gave them the victory, but the anti-canal men claimed it. The certificate of election was given to the commissioners. They at once gave out a portion of the canal work on contract. They assessed the Drowned Lands owners to the amount of twenty-six thousand dollars to meet expenses. Some of the proprietors who were opposed to the canal refused to pay. Suits were about to be begin, but John I. McGregor, G. N. Phillips, and others filed a bill to restrain the commissioners from proceeding with the work. The complainants alleged that the commissioners had not been legally elected, and were wrongfully attempting to drain the Drowned Lands by a canal, when the work could be best done in the bed of the Wallkill. The matter came before Chancellor Walworth. He decided in favor of the commissioners. The canal was commenced. Gen. Wickham owned all the land through which it was to paw. He was also a large owner of drowned lands. The canal was dug under his superintendence; it was completed in 1835. Gen. Wickham asked no pay for the land taken by the canal; he relied on its success so to increase the value of his drowned Lands that he would be than repaid for the damage done to his meadows by its construction.

“To protect the water-power at New Hampton, the act of 1826 provided for the construction of a floodgate-dam in the canal, which was to be closed whenever it was necessary to flood Phillips' Pond, at New Hampton. The canal gradually undermined its banks and washed them away until from a ditch twelve feet wide and eight deep it became a river in places seven hundred feet wide. Hundreds of acres of the best land in Orange County were thus carried away by succeeding freshets. The canal, increased in size, depth, and fall, took all the water from the river between the inlet and outlet of the ditch. More than ten thousand acres of swamp were converted into the most productive land in the county. As the canal deepened and widened the drainage of the swamp enlarged in extent. Where, a few years before, the farmers could get about only in boats, solid roads were made possible. Fragrant meadows took the place of almost unfathomable mire. The increase in the value of the property thus drained is today put down at over two millions of dollars. The draining cost the landowners sixty thousand dollars.

“What brought wealth to the Drowned Lands farmers, however, sent disease and ruin to the mill people. To turn back the water to its original channel, George Phillips, who succeeded his father, G. N. Phillips, as owner of the water-right, constructed a dam across the canal. This had the desired effect, but it soon began to flood the reclaimed lands. Then the farmers mustered in force and destroyed the dam. It was rebuilt and again destroyed. The dam-builders were called the 'beavers; the dam destroyers were known as ' muskrats.' The muskrat and beaver war was carried on for years. Finally, Squire J. M. Talmage and Amos M. Ryerson purchased the Phillips property. In 1857 the drowned- land commissioners paid them five thousand dollars for the water-right. The canal thus became master of the situation. The Wallkill, from the head of the canal to New Hampton, was changed from a rapid stretch of stream, three miles in length, to a series of stagnant pools and beds of decaying vegetable matter. Denton and New Hampton, situated in the very midst of Orange County's fragrant meadows and mountain air, became seats of malaria. The mills and factories were closed.

“In 1869, G. D. Wickham, George C. Wheeler; and O. D. Wickham purchased the Phillips property of Ryerson and Talmage. They then purchased a strip of land on both sides of the canal, a short distance above its entrance into the Wallkill. There they constructed a high and substantial dam across the canal for the purpose of throwing the water back into the old channel of the river. Then the muskrat and beaver war was renewed. A hundred farmers, on the 20th of August, 1869, marched upon the dam to destroy it. A large force of armed men guarded the dam. The farmers routed them and began the work of destruction. The 'beavers' then had recourse to the law; warrants were issued for the arrest of the farmers. A number of their leaders were arrested, but not before the offending dam had been demolished. The owner of the dam began to rebuild it; the farmers applied for an injunction. Judge Barnard granted it, and cited the owner of the dam to appear and show cause why the injunction should not be made perpetual. Pending a final hearing, high water came and carried away all vestige of the dam. In February, 1871, Judge Barnard decided that the dam could not be legally constructed. Since then no water has flowed in the Wallkill between Denton and New Hampton, and the canal has greatly increased in size. A prominent resident of Denton assures the writer that there have been at one time as high as one hundred cases of malarial fever in Denton and New Hampton and along the old bed of the Wallkill this season. Three cases in one house, he says, is a common occurrence, and he pointed out one house in Hampton where there had been seven persons prostrated with fever at the same time. 'This festering bed of the Wallkill causes it all,' our informant declares, ‘and property hereabout can hardly be sold at any price.’

The continued increase in malarias diseases and the depreciation of property along the Wallkill's old channel have alarmed those directly affected. Last year they had a survey made of the former bed of the stream. The engineer assured them that the obstructions could be so removed from the channel that the drainage of the Drowned Lands would be perfect, as it is by the canal. The cost of the work was estimated at twenty-five thousand dollars; this was more money than the people could raise. They applied for an appropriation of fifteen thousand dollars from the State. A legislative committee was appointed to look into the matter. Nothing was done beyond recommending that State Engineer Seymour be authorized to make a survey of the Wallkill to ascertain if the proposed improvement was practical. Engineer Seymour was authorized to make the survey; he began the work two weeks ago. The matter of an appropriation will be pressed again the coming winter, and the question will be a leading one in the politics of this Assembly district this fall. The drowned-land farmers will oppose the work until they are assured beyond all question that it will be fully as valuable to them as the canal. Even then they are not expected to give the measure any tangible support, as they have the canal, and the new work will confer no increased benefit upon them.

 The Drowned Lands of the Wallkill abound in curious things. Rising from the morass are numerous elevations of land resting on the limestone that underlies this whole marsh; they have been given the name of islands. Before any draining was done these islands were accessible only in boats during freshets. Pine Island, near the site of a flourishing village, and the terminus of the Pine Island branch of the Erie Railway, Big Island, Merritt's Island, and Walnut Island are the principle ones. These elevated tracts contain from forty to two hundred acres. Some of them are fertile and in a high state of cultivation; others are covered with forests of cedar and other evergreen trees. On the Southwestern border of the swamp, in the town of Warwick, two lofty and isolated mountains rear their summits. They are called Adam and Eve. Formerly they swarmed with rattlesnakes, but these the inhabitants have exterminated. Mount Eve abounds in caverns of great extent, one having been explored for nearly a mile. High up the side of this mountain there are boulders weighing hundreds of tons apparently so lightly lodged that a push might send them thundering, down into the swamp beneath. A singular characteristic of the marsh is the existence in it of large and remarkably cold springs. One of these, in the vicinity of the early home of the late Secretary Seward, near Florida, is seventy-five feet in diameter. The water is ice-cold, and unfathomable. The muck in the swamp is very deep in places. Cedar logs of immense size, and as sound as if fallen but yesterday, have been found near Warwick, thirty feet below the surface.”