The Star, December 6, 2001

Huntersville: Westchester's Atlantis?

by Susan Chitwood

This is the first of a two-part series about Huntersville, the Yorktown community that almost disappeared with the building of the new Croton Dam in 1907.

Hurtling west on Route 129 toward the Taconic Parkway, it's the rare commuter who appreciates the sudden surround of sky, light and air as he or she crosses the Hunter Brook Bridge, 50 feet above the black waters of the Croton Reservoir.

Fewer still are those who ponder what's below. No, there aren't any evil trolls clambering about the steel spans. That's the imp you're thinking of, stirring up trouble along the Hudson River.

I'm thinking of a lost civilization, or a lost civilization of hamlets, to be exact. And while legend has it that ghostly ruins are visible when the reservoir is low, there are in fact witnesses who've seen ... What Lies Beneath. What does indeed lie beneath the surface are the vestiges of four towns, more than 400 farms, and the schools, stores, houses, barns and mills that couldn't be hauled away before the New Croton Dam flooded some 20 square miles in 1907, according to May Josephine D'Alvia's "The History of the New Croton Dam."

The present-day dam was built in 1907 when the old Croton Dam and aqueduct, built between 1837 and 1842 to alleviate the shortage of drinking water that New York City had suffered since before the Revolutionary War, could no longer supply sufficient water to the booming post-Civil War population. By 1875, plans for a new dam - the country's biggest - were under way. The Aqueduct Commission spent the next 15 years appraising and condemning properties, evicting occupants, and tearing up 32 miles of roads and 24 miles of railroad tracks. Fifteen hundred bodies were moved out of the six cemeteries that lay in the path of the Croton River, which flows from Connecticut to the Hudson River.

One of those hamlets was the community of Huntersville. Now part of Yorktown, the 6-square-mile area lies roughly within the boundaries of the Taconic Parkway to the east, the reservoir and Route 129 to the south, and the Town of Cortlandt to the west. According to Christopher Tompkins, author of "The Croton Dams and Aqueduct," the center of old Huntersville is now underwater. Tompkins, 34, is also the descendent of one of Huntersville's first occupants. In the early 1750s, two Tompkinses from southern Westchester County purchased land from the Van Cortlandts. John M., who died in 1825, seems to have been the first. Both are buried in Huntersville at what was once known as the Yorktown Baptist Church. Still on Baptist Church Road, the 1848 Greek revival structure is now called the Yorktown Community Church, and is non-denominational.

"I think they were becoming freeholders," Tompkins said of his ancestors, who he suspects were tenant farmers who moved north to the banks of the Croton River because the area "had a great reputation for being fertile and it had access to the (Hudson) River. It was still quite wild and very Anglo," unlike neighboring Dutch communities. By 1820, the family owned some 1,500 acres.

While probably occupied by only a few hundred people, Huntersville was a thriving community, home to industry as well as farming. At least one mill produced wire and Tompkins speculated that there may have been a brick yard as well. Ruins that resemble a stone wall near the church are the remnants of a grist mill.

History books also show a covered wooden bridge, known as the Wire Mill Bridge or Dugway Bridge, that spanned the Croton River, connecting the central Croton Valley to the east side of the Hunter's Brook and Yorktown. Replaced by the Hunter's Brook Bridge, it was dismantled and burned sometime before the Croton River was dammed. "It was a coherent community, and water destroyed most of its fabric," Tompkins said.

Several of his ancestors' farms in the valley were lost, and like other Huntersville residents, they relocated to Route 129 or Yorktown. Just behind Tompkins Garage on Route 129, which is operated by Christopher Tompkins' cousin Jimmy, is a Tompkins house that was taken apart, moved and reassembled. The building housing the Department of Environmental Protection's Croton Precinct was reportedly rolled from its original location on logs. But many of the old houses could not be saved, given the rugged, steep environs of the valley. "I've been told they burned a lot of the houses" that couldn't be relocated, Tompkins said, although he's skeptical, given that generation's reputation for thrift.

Still and all, Tompkins acknowledged that Huntersville was probably already past its prime. After the flood of 1841, which silted in much of the Croton River, farmers and mill owners no longer had access to the Hudson River to ship their goods. "By the later 1800s," Tompkins said, " the railroad was bringing products in. You didn't need as much locally grown stuff. The railroad changed everything. It was already a dying community, but the dam clearly ended it."

Next week, The Star looks at "The Community That Wouldn't Die."

2001, The Journal News. Reprinted with permission.