Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.
“The doom of Katonah is sealed,” began a column on the front page of The New York Times on April 8, 1893. The town of Katonah, New York, about 40 miles north of Manhattan, was slated to be demolished—washed away, really—to make way for New York City’s expanding water system. The system called for a new dam to be built—the Croton Dam—and with it, a new reservoir. The town of Katonah stood directly in the reservoir’s path.
“In the late-19th century, New York City was in desperate need of a new water system,” explains Greg Young, co-host of The Bowery Boys podcast. “In the 1830s and 1840s, the city received its water from the old Croton aqueduct, which ran from north of Manhattan down to the city. Before the aqueduct, New Yorkers got water from other sources like wells, which [were] anything but clean.”
New York City saw a surge of immigration in the mid-19th century. The city’s population only continued to rise in the years following the Civil War so that what was once a city of a couple hundred thousand had suddenly grown into a city of over a million. This greatly outstripped the capacity of the original aqueduct. A new system had to be devised.
“They built the new system—which included not only the new Croton Dam but also the Jerome Park Reservoir in the Bronx—in stages in the late-19th century. It was a massive undertaking,” says Young. “At the same time, the consolidation of New York City was occurring. This project was going to supply water for the brand new New York City. For the five borough New York City.”
But of course, supplying water to New York City at this capacity came at a price—a price that the residents of Westchester County, just north of the city, had to pay.
The town of Katonah, among a few others, stood directly in the footprint of the proposed reservoir that the new Croton Dam would create. The city’s solution? Take over the land by eminent domain, compensate the residents for their houses, and build the new water system at the loss of these towns, which would be submerged.
“Projects like this created a lot of animosity between the residents of Westchester County and New York City,” says Young. “This is why a lot of the towns that could have voted into the consolidation of New York City chose not to.”
But the residents of Katonah weren’t so easily defeated. Instead of losing their town, they chose to move it.
“It was really the townspeople who said ‘We don’t want to lose everything. We’re not going to walk away,’” says Evelyne Ryan, executive director of the Bedford Historical Society.
She explained that an association called the Katonah Village Improvement Society helped, in 1894, to arrange the purchase of land to the south of old Katonah.
“What you then had was the opportunity to redesign the town to figure out the best places for things like schools, businesses, and houses,” says Ryan.
Katonah hired landscape architects B.S. and G.S. Olmstead (apparently of no relation to the Frederick Law Olmsted) to lay out the new town, which included a commercial avenue that ran parallel to the railroad, and a residential parkway lined in green space.
Some of the buildings—like the schoolhouse—were built anew in place. But many of the buildings, like the houses, were physically moved from their original foundations to the new plot of land.
“Residents of Katonah were compensated for their land and houses,” explains Ryan. “Auctions were held so that residents could buy back the house to then have it be moved.”
The people who were building the reservoir didn’t care about the houses. They were much more interested in ensuring that things like the septic tanks were properly sealed and that the land would provide clean drinking water for New York City’s residents.
So, those who wanted their houses could buy them back—and use whatever money was left over to fund the move, which started in 1897 and continued for the next few years.
Moving a house is no small undertaking. Today, the process involves installing a steel latticework running through the foundation of the structure. The structure can then be picked up and loaded onto a platform to be relocated.
In the 19th century, though, the process was a bit more involved. “They jacked up the houses and put them on rails lubricated with ordinary laundry soap,” says Ryan. “They then used horses to pull the houses along the tracks, stopping periodically along the way.”
Complicating matters more was the hilly terrain and the various waterways that the houses had to cross. “To the best of my knowledge, they didn’t lose any of the structures,” says Ryan.
Even more incredible was the fact that many of the residents continued to live in their houses as they were being moved. “Children would go off to school, return home, and find that their house would be in a different location,” adds Ryan.
While the town of new Katonah was partially made up of these moved structures—about 55 in all—some townspeople opted to build anew, which resulted in architectural uniformity throughout the newly planned community.
“Because it was all happening at the same time, the houses, whether they were moved or not, are of the same Victorian style,” says Bedford town historian John Stockbridge.
“When going down these streets today, it feels like a time warp to 1897. The houses were either being built then or being brought over then. Most are standing today, over a hundred years later.”
The new village hit the ground running, according to the book Katonah: The history of a New York village and its people, and even boasted that “social life was far less affected by the move. It continued in much the same pleasant pattern established in the old villages.”
A hundred years on, the village of Katonah still thrives today, easily accessed by train from New York’s Grand Central Station. Even more, the Croton Dam—and the greater water system installed in the last decades of the 19th century—still works. It is joined by two other systems to supply New York City residents with water.
As for old Katonah? It, too, can still be found by those who are adventurers at heart: “It’s just a couple of miles north of new Katonah—you could jog it,” says Stockbridge. “If you go out in a rowboat onto the reservoir, you can go up onto the land and find the old foundations.”