Archiver > NYORANGE > 2000-01 > 0947389813

From: Tom Cornell <>
Subject: "Drowned Lands" of Orange Co.
Date: Sat, 8 Jan 2000 22:50:13 -0500

Orange Co. researchers may be interested in the following article I
found in the Goshen Public Library some years ago about the "Drowned
Lands" or what is now known as the Black Dirt Area. Those visiting
it certainly know about the rich black soil and also the crop of
onions grown there.

I just received a question about when this area was drained and have
wondered about it myself since visiting there in 1995. Can someone
enlighten us in this subject??

Maybe there will be some names in the article that will be of
interest to some of you.

Tom Cornell
Descendant of Samuel Knapp (who is mentioned below)
THE CHEECHUNK AND DROWNED LANDS, The Outlet Ditch or Canal Which
Changed the Course of the Wallkill by Frances E. Borland-Wilcox

The Wallkill River gets its name from the Wall River in the
Netherlands, whence came the earliest settlers upon it in the Dutch
colonial time.

An old publication named "The American Gazetteer," printed in 1797,
says this about the Wallkill -- "A River of Orange County, New York,
a sluggish stream, 40,000 to 50,000 acres of land on its banks, are
overflowed a considerable part of the year, which exposes the
inhabitants to intermittent fevers."

It was estimated that 2000 lbs. would deepen the channel so as to
draw off the waters and thereby redeem, from being "drowned," the
large tract of low-lands extending from near "Outlet" southward
toward the Jersey line.

Such were the conditions in that portion of the Wallkill Valley when
the first settlers came into the country thereabouts.

(drawing of winding river course)

This illustration is not of a faraway mountain. It is a profile view
of something much nearer home not visible to the eye and known to
exist only through the scientific skill of a civil engineer. It is a
picture of the bed of the Wallkill -- a two-mile section survey made
more than a hundred years ago, and it must be today, because history
tells us about the "Outlet" ditch or canal.

The Wallkill River rises in Sussex County, N.J. and for 24 miles in
that county it is narrow and rapid, but at Hamburgh it encounters the
peculiar formation characteristic of the valley for 20 miles to
"Outlet," now Denton. The bed of the river is a succession of
limestone reefs from 5 to 10 feet high.

The Wallkill is so crooked that in the 20 miles from Hamburgh to
Outlet (Denton) its course is 30 miles and so sluggish is its flow in
that distance that the entire fall is but 11 feet.

Besides these obstructions to the current of the Wallkill, a high
wall of boulders and drift stretches across the valley at Denton and
forms an impregnable dam in the river there. This deposit must have
been carried down to the spot in the glacial drift in ages long ago.
The Wallkill was of insufficient force to cut a passage through the
rocky impediment as the Delaware did through the Kittattinny
Mountains at the Water Gap, and the waters were forced back over the
low country bordering its course.

Twelve miles south of Denton, the Pochuck Mountains obtrudes its nose
into the valley. The portion east of the mountain is drained by the
Pochuck and Waywayanda creeks -- the strip west of the mountain is
coursed by the Wallkill. Rutgers Creek and Inaker Creek are other
tributaries, and the beds of these four streams are of the same
fagged character as the Wallkill, but their fall is heavier and their
current more rapid. They enter the Wallkill at abrupt angles, whose
current was insufficient to carry them off; hence the choked-up river
and vast morass that the pioneer settlers found. At once they gave
the name to this waste of 50,000 acres, "Drowned Lands of the

Here the wild ducks and geese lived and raised their young by the
thousands. In the part known as Cedar Swamp roamed the bear and deer.

There were frequent elevations of land rising from this morass
resting on the limestone that underlay this great marsh and to which
the settlers gave the name of islands -- Pellet's Island, Pine
Island, Big Island, Merritt's Island, Fox Island, and others.

John Willcox, pioneer, purchased Merritt's Island and it surrounding
low-land, 424 acres, for $10,000 from George D. Wickham and Bridget
Wickham, his wife, according to a deed dated April 21, 1842. Half of
its acres was standing timber.

Miss Nettie H. Wilcox, granddaughter, has in her possession an old
map, dated Feb. 31. 1825, which is a copy of the original deed made
in Liverpool, England. The inscription at the top of the map reads,
"Plan of Hemp-lands in Goshen in the State of New York, North
America, distance from the city 60 miles. About 3804-1/2 acres, the
property of A. MacGregor, Esq. of Liverpool."

Portions of this land were sold by A. MacGregor to the following as
marked on this map: Benj. Davis, Caleb Smith, Robert Ferrier, Heirs
of Kortright, J. and N. Wheeler, Wm. Finn, Robert Carr, Heirs of
Armstrong, Wm. Rainer, George D. Wickham, Jonathan Burrell and
daughters, Heirs of James VanHorn, John Fergerson (sic), Hannah
Forgerson, Samuel Kimbers, John Wisner, Israel Owen, Nathaniel Roe,
Samuel Knapp, Peter Bertholf, Wm. Swan, Benj. Sammon, Inman Walling,
Dr. Gillespie, Hez. Lorrings, A. MacGregor.

These islands were inaccessible in time of freshet except in boats.
Those elevated tracts contained from 40 to 200 acres. Some were
fertile; others were covered with cedar and other evergreen trees.

The Cedar Swamp for years yielded timber, which was cut in times of
dry weather which was rare. (They had more rainfall than we do now.)
Generally in the winter when the waters of the marsh and river were
frozen was heard the sound of the woodman's axe. In those days,
every up-land farmer owned a lot in Cedar Swamp, which was blazed and
numbered streets cut through and named.

During the summer more than a thousand cows would be turned upon the
waste acres to pasture. Sudden freshets often came and the water
rose so rapidly that many cattle were annually lost before herdsmen
in boats could round them up and drive them to the upland. One of
the chief duties of the farmer boy of that time was to watch the
cattle feeding among the treacherous bog-meadows of the Wallkill.

The need of thoroughfares here and there through the "Drowned Lands"
became apparent to the pioneer and by ditching, they secured land
stable enough for such roads.

The crossing of the Wallkill at Merritt's Island is a good example,
perhaps the last of an early road and bridges across this low land.
It will soon be changed by filling in by a State Road contractor.
(1925) This State Road was surveyed 16 years ago.

This thread: