‘Ghost Waters’ captures spirit of river

More than 35 years ago the federal government threatened to dam the Delaware River and create a 37-mile-long lake and park. The Tocks Island Dam would provide flood control, electricity, recreation and drinking water to New York City.

The reasons for the project might have made sense but the tactics used to acquire the land didn’t. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers bought homes at bargain prices and began bulldozing them. They rented others. Squatters soon took over the buildings, until they were forcibly evicted by armed U.S. Marshals in 1972. Residents whose families had lived near the river for generations were outraged. Environmentalists joined the protests, arguing the project would destroy the last free-flowing river in the East. They also questioned whether the soil beneath the river could withstand the weight of the earthen dam.

Ghost WatersThere, on a unpopulated island between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the environmental movement got its start. Decades later, the dam was finally deauthorized and the land transformed into the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. But homeowners had lost something they could never replace.

New Jersey cinematographer Nick Patrick considered that a crime and set out to tell the homeowners’ story in a full-length documentary. With the creation of an abbreviated version of “Ghost Waters,” he’s almost there. Judging by the version he sent to me, the project is worth the wait.

The story is compelling, how David went up against Goliath and won. The structure is spare and matches the material, a series of interviews without narration. In one scene we see a photo of one of the dam’s fiercest opponents, Mina Haefele, now Mina Hamilton, sitting in an overstuffed chair in her farmhouse by the river. When interviewing Hamilton for the film, Patrick places her in the same armchair, this time in a house that is dark with decay. It’s a brilliant move.

So is the use of archival images ala Ken Burns, an important element in helping place the struggle in historical context. The cinematography is striking as Patrick contrasts the rich color of fall with the barren landscape of winter. My only suggestion would be to interview Nancy Shukaitis, a former Monroe County, Pennsylvania, commissioner and one of the original and most credible opponents of the dam. Nick says he’d like to include her in the final cut.

You can view the trailer and make tax-deductible contributions to the International Documentary Association online, or by mailing them to: Nick Patrick, Ghost Waters, 8 Rubin Hill Rd., Montague, NJ 07827. You can also view the trailer and outtakes at YouTube.

— Jeff Widmer