The battle over the Tocks Island Dam, one of two major events in the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, took on a new and dangerous front in 1969 when the U.S. Army Corps of engineers advertised houses for rent in several New York City newspapers.
The Corps had begun buying and condemning property for the dam and now those empty houses and farms stood vulnerable to vandals. Renting those structures along the Delaware River, the dividing line between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, would provide income for the government.
It also would create a conflict as explosive to locals as the Vietnam War.
At first, all looked peaceful. The feds called the renters flower children. They called themselves river people. They settled by the Delaware to grow crops and lead an alternative life. Angry at being displaced from their homes by hippies they viewed as decadent, the locals called them squatters.
By the early 1970s, that anger boiled over. Buildings in the squatter encampment burned. There were reports of drive-by shootings of windows and the killing of farm animals and pets.
The Corps finally acted. In September 1971, armed U.S. Marshals bulldozed six houses and a pup tent in an effort to clear out the trespassers, according to The Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, Pa. A legal battle ensued. In November 1973, a judge gave the river people 30 days to vacate. When they didn’t, in February 1974 about 90 U.S. Marshals staged a predawn raid to evict the 65 squatters who remained in the area of Shawnee-on-Delaware, on the Pennsylvania side of the river.
Steve Drachler, a colleague of mine at the Record, served as the pool reporter for the removal operation. He said that despite local hostility toward the squatters, their eviction by heavily armed U.S. Marshals was surprisingly peaceful.
“It was a very emotional moment, watching as these families, and a number of singles, were taken from the homes they had occupied. As soon as the people were removed the bulldozers began knocking the buildings down.”
Their experience, and those of the residents whose homes were condemned, form the backbone of Born Under a Bad Sign. The novel is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.
Finding Woodstock is a personal reflection on a decade that changed many of our lives—the Sixties. A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the collection of short essays provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, in the words of Joni Mitchell, to get back to the garden.
With original photography by the author.