NJ town shrinks from existence
WALPACK, N.J. (AP) – If you stand in this village long enough, you can watch it disappear.
Wait by a leaning tombstone in the old Walpack graveyard as the fog rolls down Flat Brook and envelops the town whole. Drive the narrow country roads after midnight, roll down your windows and breathe deeply, sniffing for gasoline and smoke on the wind, for these are the smells of arsonists who come to Walpack to burn the old barns to the ground.
Watch for raccoons, as large as baby bears, that claw holes in the walls of 19th-century farmhouses, and watch after heavy rains as the Delaware River floods its bank, plucks waterfront cabins off their stilts and smashes them against the trees.
Stand behind the house where Ann Dunn spent her childhood, on this day when 1,000 people will arrive in Walpack to celebrate the village as it used to be.
Watch her mourn what it has become. See the slate roof, which today leaks sunlight and tonight will leak dew. Follow her eyes down the chipped white paint to the vines that consume the porch. Kick open the back door and smell the mold fanning across the kitchen wall.
A quick death might have been better than this. That’s what Dunn expected when she left in 1976, forced out by a federal government that planned to bury Walpack under a man-made lake created by a proposed dam across the Delaware.
Two years later the dam was cancelled. A few buildings, owned either by the National Park Service or by a handful of resisters, survived.
Everything else was left to rot or burn.
“Well this is a disaster. It feels pretty awful, seeing it like this,” said Dunn, stepping on a crushed BB pellet once fired by an intruder and left on the kitchen floor. “I don’t know what they’ll do with this place other than burn it down.”
Dunn returned to her childhood home for an event called “A Stroll Down Main Street,” a reunion for people who love the town. Organized by the Walpack Historical Society, it was a rare opportunity for former residents to see each other and to tour Walpack Center’s old church and post office, the doors of which are normally locked tight by the National Park Service, which still owns them.
“This is the biggest event that we have ever held,” said Don Stieh, the society’s president.
Surrounded by her former neighbors, Dunn was standing in the middle of Main Street when she jolted with surprise.
“Gary! You’re still around,” she said to Gary Treible, a childhood friend of Dunn’s son Albert.
“Mrs. Dunn! How are you?” Treible, 60, said as he leaned down for a hug.
Many said it was their first visit to Walpack since losing their homes, decades ago.
“When I grew up it felt like this town belonged to me,” said Deb Lantz, 63, a resident of Dingman, Pennsylvania, whose family lived for five generations in Walpack before being forced out in 1974. “So for years after we lost it, I couldn’t come back here. It just hurt too much.”
Exacerbating the pain is the persistent belief among many former residents that they didn’t simply lose their town.
They were cheated out of it.
Back-to-back hurricanes in August 1955 brought record floods to the Delaware Valley, killing 100 people. To prevent future flooding, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a plan in 1962 to dam the river near a strip of land called Tocks Island.
Congress eventually appropriated $400 million to build a dam, behind which would sit a reservoir 36 miles long. Congress also allocated $56 million to buy 74.5 square miles of land for the lake and surrounding park.
It wasn’t enough money, and the Corps bungled the job. Instead of paying appraised values, the agency lowballed landowners by factoring in “the property owners’ age, business acumen, and whether the owners were represented by counsel,” according to a 1970 report by the Government Accountability Office.
Ann Dunn’s parents didn’t hire a lawyer, didn’t fight back. For their home they received $4,200, or $27,000 in today’s dollars.
“My mother was ill, and she and my father were in their late 70s,” she said. “To me it’s a sore subject.”
In its hurry to flood the valley, the Corps occasionally bulldozed the wrong house, according to “Damming the Delaware,” a book by Richard C. Albert.
“Some people complained about high-pressure tactics, harassment, and duplicity,” Albert wrote. “It was a mess.”
To help pay for the project, the Corps advertised some of the newly acquired properties for short-term rent in the Village Voice, which attracted a community of hippie squatters, Albert wrote.
Those who had been forced to sell their homes now saw their properties occupied by a rotating cast of outsiders, who turned the area around Walpack into “a major station in the underground hitchhikers’ highway linking New York with Canada,” according to a series of stories by the Pocono Record in 1972. It took a raid by federal marshals in 1974 to evict the squatters.
As the Vietnam War strained federal budgets, the dam project stalled due to persistent concerns about the stability of soil beneath it, rising costs, new environmental laws and local activism. In 1978 Congress protected sections of the Delaware River under the Wild and Scenic River Act, killing the project.
“It’s one of the most beautiful places in the state,” said Russ Moffett, who continued to rent near Walpack for two decades after leaving his home in 1960. “I just figured I’d live in this valley the rest of my life.”
If you drive in Walpack long enough, you can watch it become something else.
Peer out the windshield of Jen Wycalek’s Subaru and take a blurry cellphone picture of a green farmhouse collapsing into the forest. Roll down the windows and listen. Maybe you’ll hear a screech owl, a great horned owl, the wail of a bobcat in heat.
Bring a book. Out here, where sprawl met wilderness and lost, the phone service is terrible, internet service is even worse, the radio hears nothing, the TV is blind, cable is nonexistent, newspapers won’t deliver, and mail gets lost.
“It’s not for everyone,” said Wycalek, driving Old Mine Road at four miles an hour as she tried, and failed, to avoid potholes. “But I love this place. I really do.”
New Jersey doesn’t do ghost towns. Its cities are famous for growing, not dying, for squeezing office parks and housing subdivisions into every inch of land.
The same nearly happened in Walpack. Before Tocks Island Dam was proposed, housing subdivisions encroached on the area, Albert wrote.
“Without the park service, this place would be all McDonald’s and strip malls with condos along the river for rich people,” said Wycalek, a member of the historical society.
Instead, the proposed dam and its failure created an oasis of streams falling from ancient ridge lines, covered in quiet forest.
“They pay me to maintain trails, but sometimes I wonder why,” said Matt Williams, 29, one of 80 full-time and 50 seasonal employees stationed at the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area by the National Park Service. “Nobody comes here. Nobody’s using them.”
The land was preserved. Walpack was not. In 1970, 384 people lived in Walpack Township, according to the U.S. Census. Twenty years later, 57 remained.
Today Walpack is home to eight people spread across 24 square miles. Most are senior citizens, said Wycalek, 72, a member of the township’s three-person committee.
This year the township’s budget is $116,797.
“We deal with taxes, schools, budgets,” said Wycalek, who concedes that schools cost little, since Walpack has no children. “We have the same kind of problems as other towns, just with much less money involved.”
Every year the abandoned roads wash farther down the hillsides. Every year the forest grows thicker. When people here die, their family members don’t buy obituaries in local newspapers, Wycalek said, for fear of tipping off looters and arsonists.
The latest suspicious fire, discovered Aug. 7, destroyed a house built on Mountain Road in about 1840.
“Nobody smelled the fire. Nobody saw it. It burned to the foundation,” Wycalek said. “They can’t say for sure it was arson. But everybody knows it was arson.”
This year the park service will spend $1 million of its operating budget to maintain more than 700 structures inside the recreation area, which spreads across 89.5 square miles in two states, five counties and a string of abandoned towns with names like Flatbrookville, Conashaugh, Dingmans Ferry and Pahaquarry.
“Building maintenance needs exceed our available resources,” said Kathleen Sandt, a spokesperson for the park service.
The agency’s operating budget allocates $1.15 million to maintain 30 parking lots and more than 200 miles of road.
“I worry that when I die, the park service will stop maintaining this section of road,” said Wycalek, whose house sits on an otherwise abandoned 9-mile stretch of Old Mine Road.
Here, 70 miles from Manhattan, in the most densely populated state in America, lies a town slipping into fog, forest and memory.
“Someday it’s going to go away,” Wycalek said. “This town won’t be here.”