I vividly recall the sound of rushing water, the sound of our steps echoing off the stone walls, and the winding staircase disappearing into the depths of the gatehouse. My grandfather held my hand and coaxed me forward, but I just could not go any further—my fear had overcome my curiosity in this fascinating building that reminded me of a fortress or a castle. My grandfather, John Matthew Tompkins, was the superintendent, or “gate keeper” in archaic terms, of the Croton Aqueduct gatehouse in Yorktown, but was coming to the end of his long career with the Department of the Water Supply for the City of New York.
John Tompkins’ career spanned the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, and Viet Nam, not to mention the terms of many mayors of the City of New York. All that while, though, his job and the jobs of so many others was to protect New York’s water and to ensure that there was a constant flow of clean water from the taps of every home and business in New York. Granted, by the 1950s, the original Croton Aqueduct was more on “reserve” than in use, but its location and importance in the entire system—both historically and into the future—was not lost on me, despite my being only a child.
“Poppy,” as the family called him, came from a long line of Tompkinses connected to the Croton Valley. In the mid-eighteenth century, an earlier John Tompkins purchased land at the confluence of the Croton River and the Hunter’s Brook from the Van Cortlandt family of what we know today as Croton-on-Hudson. That purchase began the connection between the Croton Valley and the Tompkins family that exists to this day. Poppy and his twelve brothers and sisters were born within sight of the Croton, but he was one of those numerous children born after the New Croton Dam was completed in1906 and the waters of the enlarged Croton Reservoir had covered their ancestral home. Poppy’s older siblings were born at the family farm while the dam was under construction and experienced the move from the family lands to their new location above the encroaching waters.
Poppy’s life in the Croton Valley was influenced by the presence of the Croton Reservoir, the New Croton Dam, and the Croton Aqueduct. The three provided employment and some recreational enjoyment for the many members of his family. With so many family members, various members used non-agricultural means to make a living. Chester Tompkins was an exceptional stonemason; Arthur Tompkins opened and operated a repair garage for “horseless carriages” that still operates under the name Tompkins Garage to this day. Relatives such as Harvey Anderson and Lester Wilson gained employment overseeing the upkeep of the park below Croton Dam, known today as Croton Gorge Park.
John married Irma Dennison, who grew up in Peekskill and whose family owned Dia Maria’s in Cortlandt. His years working for the City of New York were spent residing in the Palmer House (Keeper’s House), along Route 129 and just down the road from the Gate House Bridge (also known as the Arcady Road Bridge and the “Thunder Bridge,” for its loud “thunder” when its deck was made of wood planks), the City Barn, and the gatehouse itself. The house, still owned by the City of New York, is now used by the Department of Environmental Protection police, but is slated for demolition. After surviving the encroachment of the reservoir’s waters when it was moved to higher ground by a team of 50 oxen, its abandonment during the Viet Nam era when it was used by squatters, and now its service as a police station, its historic value in the Croton Valley will be lost unless steps can be taken to save it.
Poppy’s life in the Palmer House was simple, but fruitful in many ways. Known throughout town for his gardening interests and capabilities, he also kept chickens and rabbits in an outbuilding that still had straw in it when I walked the grounds in the 1980s. A small cement dam that can still be seen off Chapman Road provided spring water run-off from Turkey Mountain for the family. Coal deliveries were made from Peekskill on a regular basis and Poppy and my father, John Roger, would rise early in the morning to “get the heat up” and start the kitchen stove. A rowboat was always nearby for fishing in the reservoir just below the house, and a rain gauge stood out front for official measurements taken daily for the record at “Croton Lake.”
Amidst this rural life-style, Poppy oversaw a water supply system that provided water for the financial and business capital of the world, just 35 miles to the south. The atmosphere changed during World War II, when fears of sabotage of the water supply were as high as they are today. The Japanese caretaker of the Chapman estate, located just above the Palmer House, was attacked as he went to pick up the mail at the rural delivery boxes. It was Poppy who stopped the grievous assault. (Part 2 will be in the next issue of the newsletter.)