Author Lucy Sante to discuss her book, "Nineteen Reservoirs" at Ruth Keeler Memorial Library

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Image courtesy of Lucy Sante

For the thirty years of her life that she spent living in New York City, writer Lucy Sante, like most of the millions of others who called the city home, didn’t give much thought to where her water came from. Whether she was cooking, drinking or bathing, if she needed water, she’d turn on a tap and out it would come. It wasn’t until the early 1990’s, when she began renting a house in the Catskills, that she came face to face with one of the city’s most vital sources of water.

“I bought a house near the Pepacton Reservoir,” Sante recalled. “There were still quite a lot of survivors from villagers who had been displaced.” The displacement Sante referred to was the practice of acquiring land and uprooting entire rural communities in order to create New York City’s extensive water system. The city took over the Croton River watershed in the mid-1800’s before expanding to the Catskills region as the city’s population grew in the early 1900’s. Thousands of people were forced from their homes, farms and businesses.

“I was haunted by the story,” Sante said.

It is this story – of how a city sought to sustain its populace while simultaneously uprooting or even extinguishing others - that Sante will delve into when she visits the Ruth Keeler Memorial Library in North Salem Sunday to discuss her book, “Nineteen Reservoirs.” The topic is particularly relevant to North Salem, a town situated within the Croton Watershed, which supplies 10% of the City’s daily needs according to the Watershed Agricultural Council.

To write “Nineteen Reservoirs,” Sante relied on historical documents, including books and newspaper archives, to reconstruct the reservoir system’s development. “Going through these papers on a day to day basis was really extraordinary,” she said. “There were all kinds of surprises. For example, there was a vast work camp where they constructed the Ashokan Reservoir. Outside the gates was a row of taverns, gambling dens and brothels.” Shortly after the reservoir opened in 1915, Sante said it all disappeared. “Every last inch of it just vanished.”

Image courtesy of Lucy Sante

The way that the city treated–and exploited–its rural neighbors is a theme that Sante explores in great detail throughout her book. “The continued cavalier attitude hasn’t changed that much,” she said. “New York City has treated its rural neighbors badly for 200 years. They were lousy to the people in Westchester and Putnam counties in the mid-19th century,” she said, referring to the development of the Croton Watershed, the east-of-Hudson area that includes 13 reservoirs.

Still, Sante recognizes the complexities within the larger story. “You can condemn the city for its methods but not for its reservoirs because it was absolutely necessary. Eight million people at any given time depended on them. At the same time, it broke the hearts of thousands and thousands of people upstate.”

Attendees at Sante’s talk will have the opportunity to hear her read excerpts from “Nineteen Reservoirs” and to ask questions following the reading. They’ll also have the chance to gain some visual, local context; North Salem Town Historian Susie Thompson and members of the North Salem Historical Society worked together this week to assemble a visual display at the library showing the local impact of the reservoir system. Historical maps, drawings and documents detail the era of development of the Croton Watershed, helping to shed light on locals whose lives and livelihoods were affected.

Sante hopes that “Nineteen Reservoirs” will raise awareness about water. “Water is not like air; it’s not just something that comes into your life because the Great Spirit decreed it,” she said. “It has to be collected and sent, and it’s very likely it originates in a place far from where you’re living.”


Lucy Sante’s author talk is co-presented by the Ruth Keeler Memorial Library and the North Salem Historical Society. The talk will take place in-person at the library from 3:30 - 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, November 6. For more information, click here.

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