Near the top of the ridge of the first mountain in the Catskill chain, Yankee Lake has a rich heritage as a primary reservoir for the Delaware and Hudson (D&H) Canal.
In 1650, the Iroquois Nation defeated the local Lena-Lenapes, Shawnees and other Indian tribes in the vicinity of Wurtsboro and Yankee Pond.
We do not know what the local native Americans called our lake in the 18th century. We do know that Indian artifacts were found in the area around the original pond. That pond was a small, natural body of spring-fed water. The surrounding woods were inhabited by deer and other wildlife, as they are today. There must have been a plentiful supply of food for the local native American population, and the arrowheads found in these parts attest to their hunting pursuits.
According to local legend, a Yankee named Ellsworth made a canoe or dugout around 1800 and used it on this pond of water for fishing and hunting. Dutch hunters found the canoe concealed on the shore and correctly guessed that this was the locale where Ellsworth had got so many deer. This fact, if indeed it is true, gave the hunters a name for the small body of water: “The Yankee's Pond.”
Yankee Lake, as we currently know it, is situated in Mamakating Township, on the south side of old Route 17. It is 1430 feet above sea level, two and a half miles in length and from one to two miles in width at various places. As you will see, the lake was a much larger body of water for most of the 19th century. Yankee Lake is wholly within the Minisink Patent and the Hardenburg Patent. The boundary line of each, meeting and crossing the lake running northeast and southwest, is between the largest island and the western shore.
Yankee Lake is fed by small streams from the north and west and by springs beneath its surface. At its deepest parts, it currently has a depth of thirty to forty feet. Its outlet is the Pinekill, reputed to have been the original Basha Kill, which flows from the lake to Westbrookville and empties into the stream now known as Basha Kill. Tradition has it that in the 18th century, Basha was a squaw who was reputed to be the queen of her tribe or clan, and lived in her native village on the banks of the creek. Her full name was Baha Bashi-ba and her bones supposedly repose in the Indian graveyard nearby.
Westbrookville was named after Dirck Vankeuren Westbrook, the first white man who lived in the area. He built a stone house on his land in 1753, which still stands today. It was used for a fort during the Revolutionary War as protection from the native American Indians, who were killing settlers and destroying white settlements throughout the valley.
Early in the 19th century, Philadelphia businessman William Wurts, descendant of Swiss settlers, discovered anthracite coal in the then-sparsely populated northeastern region of Pennsylvania. Starting in 1812, he and his brothers Charles and Maurice began buying large tracts of (very cheap) Pennsylvania land, and were able to extract several tons of anthracite at a time. While the southern reaches of the Coal Region were already beginning to supply Philadelphia, they realized that the areas they had been exploring and mining were well-positioned to deliver coal to New York City. The success of the recently opened Erie Canal inspired them. If they could build a canal of their own out of Pennsylvania and into New York, through the narrow valley between the Shawangunk Ridge and the Catskill Mountains, to the Hudson River near Kingston, it would be economical and profitable.
After several years of lobbying by the Wurtses, the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company was chartered by separate laws in the states of New York and Pennsylvania in 1823, allowing William Wurts and his brother Maurice to construct the Delaware and Hudson Canal. The company hired Benjamin Wright, who had engineered the Erie Canal, and his assistant John B. Jervis, to survey and plan a route. To attract investment, the brothers arranged for a demonstration of anthracite at a Wall Street coffeehouse in January 1825. The reaction was enthusiastic, and the stock oversubscribed within hours.
Sometime in the late 1820's, the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company set its sights on the region around Yankee and Wolf Lakes as a possible spill-way for their waterway. When the D & H Canal Company had begun construction of their canal through the valley, they found sandy, gravelly soil through several miles of its length. As a result, much more water was needed in order to maintain the water level required for the canal boats during the summer. Parties of surveyors were sent to the mountains to the west of the canal to determine if sufficient quantities of water could be made available. Areas were located where they could build five reservoirs within a few miles radius of one another, all of which were on top of the mountain. These bodies of water (sometimes referred to as Ponds and at other times as Lakes) are known today as Yankee, Wolf, Louise-Marie, Masten and Wanaksink. Yankee Pond and 1500 acres of surrounding land was purchased by the D & H Canal Company. From whom were they purchased? Did the Minisink and Hardenburg Pantentees sell this property? Did they have the legal right to do so?
Many contradictory statements are found in various sources concerning the exact year(s) when the dam was constructed. Quinlan’s History of Sullivan County claims the construction of the dam took place between 1830 and 1840. According to this account, an earthen dam was originally constructed using such materials as were available on site. The story goes that the dam was made of dry-stone walls with tamped earth between, and that the tamping was done by a flock of thirteen sheep being driven back and forth by a local farmer who owned them. Thirty men were employed two years on this supposed construction.
A more persuasive account appears in a book entitled The Delaware & Hudson Canalway: Carrying Coals to Roundout, by Dorothy H. Sanderson. Sanderson quotes The Ellenville Press of 23 August 1901: “Canal reservoirs... served as ‘feeders’… The largest of these were located in the towns of Mamakating and Thompson, and they were all except one built between 1849 and 1856. The first constructed was the Yankee Pond, lying south of the turnpike. It is an immense body of water created by damming a small stream called Pinekill, which flows into the Basha Kill at Westbrookville. The divide between Yankee and Wolf Pond separated two small ponds. Originally the Company built a capacious dam across the outlet of Wolf Pond in 1856 and made it substantially one reservoir with Yankee Pond… They then raised a dam across the outlet of Lord’s Pond, or Fowl Wood Pond, as it has been lately called. This raised the waters of what was originally a Lake, twenty feet and gave an area of water about five square miles, and in some places nearly 100 ft. in depth. Their next and last improvement was as late as 1869 when they dammed the outlet of a small lake called Mud Pond.”
The lands on which the ponds were located were leased by The Delaware and Hudson Canal company from the State for a period of ninety-nine years. The Company provided a $100,000 bond to insure the State against any damages that might result from the giving-way of the dams or any other cause. The Company survived the financial debacle of 1837 and, with several enlargements in its coal-carrying capacity, went on through the Civil War. The rise of the railroads led to the demise of the Canal in 1898.
Maurice Wurts played a leading role in the supervision of the Irish workers who built the dam at Yankee Pond. The following is from a letter penned by John Wurts, Esquire, President of the D & H Canal Company, on 6 January 1847:
“The Reservoir at Yankee Pond has been completed in a substantial manner to sustain a head of 24 feet on it. After completing the dam and embankment of this reservoir, it was found that the swells occasioned by high winds cut it away, so as to endanger the dam and it was deemed prudent to face the whole embankment with stone, which has been completed and the dam is now considered safe and permanent. This has increased the cost of completing the reservoir beyond my estimate.”
In another letter of John Wurts, dated January 1849, mention was made of a dam built at Wolf Pond one year after the Yankee Reservoir was completed.
The Wurts family name was enshrined in the name of the Village of Wurtsboro in 1828, after the village had previously been called Mamakating Hollow and then Rome.
According to the Ellenville Press for 22 August 1901, Yankee Lake became known as an outstanding “fishin’ hole.” After the reservoirs had been in existence five or ten years, they became the best fresh water fishing grounds in the state. Tons of pike, pickerel and perch taken from the reservoirs in the fall and winter found their way to eastern markets, and to many families they furnished the means, and about the only means, of living.
At the time the dams were built, there was no concrete used in their construction. The spillway consisted of expertly cut stones weighing hundreds of pounds and laid with precision and accuracy. The water retainer consisted of oaken planks four feet in length and six inches wide. These were fitted together crossways in yellow pine channels, constructed and embedded in the stone for this purpose. When water was needed to replenish the canal, a man merely pulled as many planks as was necessary for the water to flow by gravity down the Pinekill.
During Yankee Lake’s use as a canal reservoir, Wolf Lake water was kept high and a feeder ran from Wolf to Yankee, and then down the mountain via the Pinekill to a special “slip” at Westbrookville where the required amount of water was directed into the canal by a weir tender, usually a local resident. The completed dam raised the water level above the old pond by a considerable amount and flooded a large area of standing timber, which accounts for the great number of stumps, many of which can still be seen today. They exist as a petrified forest, preserved by water and weathering, as a perennial reminiscence of the past. These submerged stumps and logs form an important part of the current ecosystem, providing food, shelter and warmth for the lake animals and plants.
An article in the Orange County Times Press of 31 May 1912 gives a vivid picture of the lake as it was then. The article states that in Canal days, the normal height of water was within two feet of the top of the dam, and flooded and submerged hundreds of acres of forest land. Quinlan’s History of Sullivan County states that, in the 19th century, there were several floating islands of considerable size in the lake. Close inspection found them to be the former topsoil embedded with roots of trees flooded many decades earlier. A type of marsh gas was generated from the flooded vegetation, and caused this debris to rise to the surface. After a few weeks the accumulated gas was expelled and the mass sank below the surface to begin another of nature's cycles. Even today, in late September and early October when the lake temperature goes down, we see a few small islands appear that are undoubtedly descendents of that earlier phenomenon.
The dam at Yankee Lake was repaired and enlarged many times during its ownership by the D & H Canal Company, the last time being the years 1894-95. At that time more than 1500 acres were under water. Its entire length was registered at 2,145 feet. Its height was twenty-two feet, and the dam was so constructed as to hold an eighteen foot head at the spillway.
After the abandonment of the Delaware and Hudson Canal, the Canal Company's interest in Yankee Lake was purchased on 7 August 1905 by a newly formed corporation known as the Yankee Lake Company, Inc. The agreement covered “all flowage and riparian rights to the area” and four hundred acres of land. Three years later, a New York Supreme Court decision was rendered directing the owners of Yankee Lake to drop the water level to a pre-determined elevation at which it is held today. Residents of the valley below, fearing for their safety in the event of dam failure, were thus successful in their litigation with the Yankee Lake Company. With the permanent lowering of the water level, a vast acreage once covered by water was once again left for nature to reestablish itself with new forest growth as seen today. It is estimated that approximately one-third of the original flooded area is under water currently.
After the purchase by The Yankee Lake Company in 1905, the lake was restocked with pickerel and perch. The Company expended considerable money each year for the improvement of the Lake and surrounding area to convert it into a vacation and summer home resort. A new road was built around the north side, and the land divided into lots or camp-sites with a lake front of one hundred feet each. Shares of stock in The Company went to those lucky enough to buy a camp-site. The Yankee Lake Company was without a doubt composed of astute businessmen. The timing of their purchase was right, and the location of the lake was ideal for that time. It was near Middletown and Port Jervis and a moderate distance from New York City and New Jersey. With the coming of the automobile, there was an urge to travel and to get away from the heat of the cities in the summer. By 1911, only six years after the purchase of the lake property, according to the Times Press, “3,000 people made Yankee Lake their place of outing or haven of rest.”
According to the same Times Press article, a man by the name of Jerome E. Best, owned the Yankee Lake House. The property was composed of a hotel and a one hundred ninety acre farm, which had previously been used to house the workers who built the dam. Mr. Best was instrumental in the opening of the old Turnpike road. The Turnpike had not been used for travel for nearly twenty years. Mr. Best circulated a petition among the taxpayers, securing fifty contributing signers for the improvement of the Turnpike. This was the same road later used for old Route 17.
Mr. Best also worked to secure a free mail service at Yankee Lake and vicinity. This mail service began in May of 1912 and continued until 16 March 1914, when a United States Post Office was opened at Yankee Lake with William Smithem as the first postmaster. This arrangement was discontinued on 15 June 1927, and mail service was transferred to Wurtsboro. In 1912, long distance telephone service was connected to the lake.
In the 1920's, regular bus service commenced from New York City to Wurtsboro, which put an end to the railway known as the New York O & W Railroad. In the 19th century, travelers to the Yankee Lake area had been told to: “Take the ferry at the foot of Debrosses or West 42nd Streets, New York to Weehawken, thence train without change of cars direct to Mamakating Station, which is only one mile from the village. Stages meet all trains….”
Gasoline for automobiles became expensive during the depression years of the 1930's, and was rationed during the time of World War II. Few people could travel up to their camps for a weekend. Such a trip became an unattainable luxury, although many families, mothers, and their children, would be installed at the lake shortly after school was out in June, and would remain until Labor Day. Fathers would come up for the weekend with the groceries. By 1950, weekend travel was again possible, and Yankee Lake was “discovered” once again. People began to occupy their camps for the summer or rented them out for one, two or more weeks at a time. The Lake was considered a great “fishin’ hole” once again by anglers far and wide. And for those families who stayed the entire summer, there was the general store known as “Chickadee Farms” for bread, milk, groceries, and especially ice cream. For a time, there was even an A & P grocery at the eastern end of the lake. Dugan’s bakery truck delivered bread and cakes house-to-house, and so did the “chicken and egg man” in his old truck. There were many purveyors of fresh produce, as well as an ice man, who came for those who still had ice boxes. In the late 1940s, another group, The Yankee Lake Association, acquired the Clubhouse, a scene for many festive social events, and a place where teenagers could hang out.
The Lake itself hasn’t changed much in the past half century. The prominence of the birch tree has given way to a mix of other deciduous trees. Chickadee Farms, the Dugan's truck, and the ice man are long gone. The Yankee Lake Company no longer exists and in the late 1990s, The Yankee Lake Association merged with a new group, The Yankee Lake Preservation Alliance, to form the Yankee Lake Preservation Association, Inc. The goal of the YLPA is to preserve the pristine beauty of our lovely Yankee Lake... and to foster a sense of community, which they are achieving through an active social calendar with summer events scheduled for residents of every age. And the lake, thanks to annual fish-stocking of bass, perch and other varieties, is once again, an “outstanding fishin’ hole.”
Orange County Times Press for 31 May 1912
Patterson, Donald: A Collection of Notes and Local Memories
Sanderson, Dorothy H: Delaware and Hudson Canalway: Carrying Coals to Roundout
Quinlan's History of Sullivan County
Wurts, John, Letters on Exhibit in a Dispute with Pennsylvania Coal Mines, Inc. 1847-49.