Saturday, August 9, 2008

The "Ghosts" of Canistear

Over the last decade or so the Internet has become a cornerstone of my life. Many have had this experience. It’s changed things forever for all of us, becoming an invaluable source of information, shopping, and amusement. Other radical innovations in information technology once did the same for humanity—the printing press, telegraph, radio, and television. But the sheer—what is the right word? Endlessness? Bottomlessness? The sheer MASS of online data out there means the Internet has taken this info-saturation to a new level, both for good and bad.

I’ve found the Internet to be the most amazingly useful tool I’ve ever known, and also the most astonishing time-waster to sucker me in since I was sixteen and playing Missile Command. And just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, those nefarious wonks at Google go and introduce Google Earth.

If you haven’t seen it, Google Earth is a seamless, 3-D aerial photographic program, allowing you to virtually “fly” across any U.S. landscape you choose. Like an eagle, you can soar over cities, mountains, lakes, rivers, and highways, seeing and enjoying all the places you’ve known in your life from a new perspective, all digitally processed from satellite photographs into a real color landscape.

Taking a “flight” up along Route 23, I enjoyed the scenery through Newfoundland and the Pequannock River area, and then turned up into Vernon. And suddenly, I realized I was seeing more than just a beautiful and fascinating landscape. I was seeing ghosts.

Not ghost ghosts, the kind people with infrared cameras and digital tape recorders walk around old buildings at 2 A.M. trying to find. Rather, ghosts of the landscape. Particularly, ghosts of old Canistear village. As I “flew” up along Canistear Road, I noticed that the satellite photos had been taken when Canistear Reservoir was only about 60 percent full—probably a few years ago. And this revealed the ghosts.

Canistear was once a little town up in mountains of far southern Vernon Township. It grew up around a small iron forge in the 1750s, and was first called Winchester. In 1796, the forge was re-built and called the Canistear Bloomery (it was the kind of forge that made wrought iron directly by heating iron ore and hammering it, and these were called bloomeries. The origin of the name “Canistear” is one of those mysteries nobody has ever quite ferreted out.) After that, the town was called Canistear. Aside from the bloomery forge and its large pond, there was an iron mine, many farms, a blacksmith shop, a school, a couple of churches, and a cemetery, all along Pacack Creek, from which the forge derived its water power.

The little town met its end, however, in the 1890s, when the City of Newark acquired tens of thousands of acres of forest and old farms along the headwaters of the Pequannock River for a new system of water storage and supply. A new reservoir was planned at Canistear, all the old farms and businesses were bought out, and by 1900, “Canistear” no longer signified a village, but a body of water where a village once stood. Vanished. Gone.

Well, not quite gone. The reservoir builders tried to wipe the landscape clean, but they failed. The buildings were torn down and roads re-routed along the shores of the new reservoir, but traces remain—traces still clearly visible on Google Earth. In the 1800s, one road came from the south into Canistear (from present Route 23—this is the road to the Canistear boat launch area, past the Canistear Cemetery, just off modern Canistear Road.) Another old road passed through Canistear northeast-southwest (between present-day Route 515 near High Breeze Estates to modern Canistear Road going into Highland Lakes). New highways above the reservoir bypassed these old sections of road. But though the old stretches were forgotten, their underwater routes can still be seen on Google Earth, the old roads now dipping beneath the waters.

At the center of Canistear, the remains of the old bloomery forge dam—a massive, curved thing made entirely of slag (the waste product of the forge) is clearly visible on Google Earth. The forge pond dam was breached at one end, perhaps when the reservoir was built. Another secondary, or wing, dam, with a stone-walled causeway on top, is likewise visible. With the reservoir about a third empty as it is in the satellite photo, the outline of the original forge pond (called Canistear Pond) once again shows up, as it did 200 years ago, with its odd shape like a lobster claw. Canistear Pond was perhaps a quarter the size of the present reservoir. The site of the forge itself is still underwater in the satellite photos, and hasn’t been above water for some forty years.

All around the forge, near the intersection of the two roads were farms owned by families of men like W.C. Strait, Adam Smith, Christian D. Day and other mountain farmsteaders. What is still quite visible on Google Earth of these old farmsteads are the stone farm walls, once outlining fields, that form a patchwork quilt along the bottom of the reservoir. Some of them are amazingly straight, and transect the sinuously curving shoreline of the reservoir.

In what is now a cove on the northwestern shore of the reservoir is a massive culvert made of huge flagstones laid over blocks. Now utterly incongruous, it once allowed a farmer to drive his wagon over a stream that bisected his farm. This, too, can be seen from Google Earth, though barely.

Easily visible on Google Earth are the largest man-made features here, the ones that put an end to all the previous ones: the main dam (earthen) and the wing dam (cut stone) of Canistear Reservoir, both constructed in the late 1890s by battalions of Italian immigrant laborers.

The irony is that though the reservoir destroyed the village of Canistear, it protects the traces that remain. These ghosts of the landscape come back during those brief intervals when the reservoir is low, but the rest of the time they are protected by the deep blue waters, sometimes for years or decades. But like all ghosts, they’ll come back in time.

Try Google Earth if you haven’t. It’s fun, it’s educational, and you’ll learn about your town. You can see the dam of the old bloomery forge pond at 41.07’20.54N/74.29’01.17W. As for Google Earth, I forget the website address. Just Google it.