by Stephen Lane
8:00 am rolls around on a cool March day. You roll out of bed in your nightwear, pull back the blinds on the window and look out. The world outside seems to be slowly awakening. Lace-like trails string across the townhouses from their chimneys. Soon the morning northbound train whistles off, running by the flag stop at Aitch.
You start to lace up your boots after getting dressed and look out towards the sun. It’s now just starting to peek over the hollow. The last of the train cars just rattled by as you start out the door. You’re on your way to the Raystown Lake to do some morning fishing. The peacefulness of this valley is nearly perfect. A manmade lake just walking distance from your town, quaint cottages dotted along the shores, and nature just being at ease amongst you make for an incredible setting. Yet, if we are writing this description from 1953 in just 20 years’ time, it will all be gone.
This is the story of the Raystown Lake, a project that has benefitted thousands at the expense of an entire town. It is a story that still today has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many local people.
First, however, to understand these feelings, let’s turn the clock back to 1905 with two men, George Ernest and Warren Simpson, fishing on the Raystown Branch of the Juniata River. It was recorded by the New Era Journal that these two men claimed this branch would be a fine place for a developing hydroelectric power plant. Within a year or so, ten individuals supported the creation of the Raystown Water Power Company, and Governor Pennypacker signed the charter for development of the Raystown Branch on March 30, 1906. The dam was finished in 1912 and was a solid concrete structure.
As water started to rise, so did the desire to move by the new lake. The waters were prime for fishing, and hundreds of cottages were built along the shores. All was well for the residents of the area until 1936, when a flood devastated the area and the need for better flood control was perceived.
On Oct. 5, 1962, the Pennsylvania Congress approved funding for a newer, larger dam in the Raystown area. It was a 225 foot dam replacing the original 45 foot tall one. This would flood the valley, and with it take out the entire town of Aitch, Pa. Although flood control was the legitimate reason congress provided to secure funding, it was the establishment of a recreational haven that gave the project the increased public support. Through eminent domain, the federal government was going to take control over the locals’ land and give a reimbursement of what they considered a fair value.
After reading that statement, think about it for a moment. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who lived in Aitch; flood control and tourism are all the justification the government needed to justify eradicating your hometown.
I talked with Claire Grove, quite an incredible person who has lived a full life. He was born near what is now Juniata College’s Raystown Field Station. In perspective, this is two miles up from the town of Aitch.
“It was in the late ‘50s that rumors of flooding the lake were happening…about 1959-1965 they started having meetings about flooding the lake,” Grove said. In 1968, the dam’s construction began.
“They all thought they were going to be millionaires, thinking the tourists would spend a lot of money in the area, that all this construction was going to happen,” Grove said.
I asked Grove what he had lost in the flooding; he replied 210 acres, the sawmill they ran, a sugar maple grove and the whole farm.
“They wanted to give me $42,000 initially; they said that’s all it was worth. I said I needed at least 80,000 or 400 dollars an acre (with the buildings on it). Eventually they paid me on the courthouse steps $76,000,” Grove said.
Grove was able to locate another farm a few miles down the road and acquire it with the money that was paid to him for his land. Just as he bought that farm, he said a U.S. marshal showed up at his home place to give him a warrant of eviction. In two weeks he had to be moved out.
He told me that not everyone was as fortunate as he was; most of the money offered to the locals was hardly sufficient to relocate with. He said that due to the people being forced to buy new land and the coming of the lake, the value of property rose significantly. Many people had to move to Somerset or other places far away.
Something important to understand is that those who made farming their livelihoods most likely had the worst time moving on. With the seizure of their property, they no longer had any collateral to present to the bank. A friend of Grove’s had lost his 30-acre farm, and the money that was given to him was enough for him to build a small house on three acres, and that was with a bank loan.
I asked Grove what happened to the buildings in the town of Aitch. “Burned down and pushed in, there is nothing left of the old town. The demolition contractors made sure there wasn’t. Even the old stone springhouses were busted apart. We were timber men, we wanted to buy the trees that were going to be flooded out, but they wouldn’t let us. Beautiful trees were bulldozed into a pile and burned. It was just wasteful.”
The Raystown Dam was almost completely filled in 1972 by Hurricane Agnes. The flood would have cost (according to the Army Corps of Engineers) $60 million in additional flood damage, had the dam not prevented the water from flowing through. Nearly paying for itself in a single event, the dam proved that was useful. The Army Corps of Engineers claims that area residents have been spared hundreds of millions of dollars in flood damage, thanks to the construction of the dam.
It was not until 1986 that construction began on the hydroelectric power plant, making a fourth (after a fish and wildlife preservation) utilization of the lake. In 1988, 76 years after the original power plant was built, it was completed.
Today, thousands of people are drawn to the Raystown Lake, yet few realize what was once here: an entire town, with a culture and history gone, a whole other dam, and the memories left behind by those who inhabited the valley. Today the old dam still partially remains with the old power plant in a casket of water. Original cabins that may still exist from when the first dam flooded the area. Streets, roads and a single bridge are all that is known to be left under the chilly waters of the Raystown Lake. If you go there, take the time to remember who came before you and what some people were made to sacrifice so that what you are enjoying could be created.
“I still go to the same church I did because of the sake of two miles (away from the flooding). I’ve lost several friends because of the lake, but I’ve made many more that, if not for the lake, I never would have met. The Field Station still exists, so I didn’t lose my heritage. I was born here, and I thought I was gonna die here. But I’ve moved on,” Grove said.
Categories: Volume 97 Issue 8 Campus Spin