Much of Born Under a Bad Sign deals with a seminal event in the history of Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains—the proposed construction of the Tocks Island Dam.
What began as a response to devastating floods along the Delaware River became a David and Goliath battle pitting land owners against officials, marshals and profiteers.
It was a big fight over a small piece of dirt.
Tocks Island is a spit of land in the middle of the Delaware River, north of Shawnee Inn and the Delaware Water Gap. Its tip is not quite visible from the top of Mt. Minsi on the Pennsylvania side of the river, with its soaring views of water that has run free for millennia.
It is also the fictional setting for the Reed farm and the mythical Indian Head Resort, named for the striated rocks resembling a Native American on the New Jersey side of the river.
In the 1930s, after decades of flooding, the federal government decided to fix the situation by damming the last free-flowing river in the east. The lake the dam would form—a 34-mile long impoundment stretching north to Port Jervis, New York—would not only control flooding, the feds said, it would generate electricity, tourism and jobs while providing recreation and water for New York City.
Government and business leaders hailed the dam as a win-win-win situation. Residents whose families had lived along the Delaware for generations had a vastly different view. For them, eviction from ancestral lands was a travesty. Those who weren’t bought out were kicked out. Homes spared by the bulldozer were rented to people the locals derisively called squatters, creating even more tension along the river.
Property owners fought with a passion that belied their numbers. As a reporter in the early 1970s, I interviewed several of their leaders, including Mini Hamilton and Monroe County Commissioner Nancy Shukaitis, both of whom lost their homes to a project that was never completed.
It is their spirit that animates the characters of the novel.