The Wanaque Reservoir is hovering around 38 percent of capacity because of a dearth of rain over several months and near-record warm temperatures in the summer and early fall, which increased demand for water. The Wanaque and the smaller Monksville reservoirs are at a combined 48 percent of capacity. Normally at this time of year, they have rebounded from summer lows to a combined 70 percent of capacity.
Foundations of old homes are now visible as water levels drop. (Photo: North Jersey District Water Supply Commission)
North Jersey counties had been under a drought watch since mid-July, and last month the state issued a drought warning for 12 northern counties — the first since 2002.
The reservoir system supplies water to more than 100 towns in northern New Jersey, from Alpine to Newark, and also provides some water to supplement the Suez system of reservoirs along the Hackensack River, which serves 800,000 people.
The Wanaque River had been identified as a potential source of drinking water as early as 1879, but the North Jersey district wasn’t created by the state legislature until 1916. Two years later, a contract was signed to provide water to Newark. In the following decade, other towns signed on, including Passaic, Paterson, Clifton, Bloomfield and Montclair.
It cost $25 million to build the reservoir, which was completed in 1923. When full, it can hold nearly 30 billion gallons of water — enough to fill more than 100 Empire State Buildings.
The river valley was initially settled in the early 1700s by those who worked the rich mines of iron ore in the region. The surrounding forests provided wood used to make charcoal. The charcoal fueled local furnaces that turned the ore into pig iron.
“A lot of this area was farm property, and there were also some vacation villas,” said Marie Mahler, a Wanaque historian and wife of the current mayor, Daniel Mahler.
Marie Mahler’s great-grandmother belonged to the Monks family, who lived where the Monksville Reservoir now lies.
Among the Monks relatives in the 1920s was a local poet and writer, Minnie May
Monks, who wrote a book about life in the old Wanaque Valley, called “Winbeam.”
It included a poem about the destruction that occurred to make way for the Wanaque Reservoir.
Excerpts from Minnie May Monk's poem about the destruction to make way for the Wanaque Reservoir in the 1920s:
“See — they come down in our valley,
With great smoking iron monsters!
See them tearing out the girders
From our strong old iron bridge!
See them plow our old road under!
And destroy the Iron Furnace!
Tear the old stone houses down!
And blast the rocks we love away.”
About 70 homes and other buildings were razed to make way for the reservoir, and seven miles of road were relocated, as well as six miles of railroad.
Four small family cemeteries also had to be moved. In all, 37 tombstones were moved, and the remains of 256 bodies were exhumed and reburied elsewhere at a cost of about $17,000.
Mahler has a scrapbook that chronicles the reservoir’s construction. It includes photos of the sort of steam-powered digging equipment featured in Virginia Lee Burton’s classic 1939 children’s book, “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.”
Mahler’s scrapbook also includes old photos of handsome stone cottages, including Capt. Joseph Board’s homestead, destroyed to make way for the reservoir.
The reservoir’s Raymond Dam runs along the west side of Ringwood Avenue in Wanaque. The dam and the agency’s headquarters stand on the site of the former Wanaque River Paper Co., a sprawling complex of buildings that was established in 1892.
A paper mill complex sprawled over area now occupied by Wanaque Reservoir's Raymond Dam. (Photo: Marie Mahler)
Capt. Joseph Board's 19th-century stone cottage was among the buildings razed to make way for Wanaque Reservoir. (Photo: Marie Mahler)
The reservoir took eight years to build, and water first started flowing to towns in 1930, according to a history on the Wanaque Public Library website.
Toward the end of her poem, Monks acknowledges the beauty of the newly filled reservoir:
“Man-made Lake - it was for You,
All that work and sacrifice...
A beautiful and finished product
Of man’s need … cradled in the heart of hills.
We see our old abandoned roads
Run to, and lose their way in You;
We stop; and think of Yesterday —
We stand; and gaze on You Today.
You are lovely, we admit it —
As you lie here, calm, serene.”
After a major drought hit New Jersey from 1929 to 1932, officials decided the reservoir needed to be augmented with a pump station on the Ramapo River in Pompton Lakes. A drought in the 1960s led to an even larger pump station on the Pompton River in Wayne. That pump has been running nearly non-stop since Sept. 1 this year to try to replenish the Wanaque Reservoir’s sinking water supply.
But the reservoir is barely recovering – and the once-submerged foundations of farmhouses continue to dry in the sun...
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