The Town of Colchester was formed on April 10, 1792 from the Town of Middletown and included the present town of Hancock and a portion of the Town of Walton. It was then the county of Ulster. In 1799, a part of Colchester was annexed to the Town of Walton. Hancock was removed in 1806 and part of Walton was annexed to Colchester in 1827, since that time the borders of Colchester have remained the same. Colchester was one of the seven constituent towns when Delaware County was formed in 1795. Joseph Gee, an early settler in Colchester was successful in having the town named after his home town of Colchester, Connecticut. Prior to that, the original area of Colchester was known by Lenni-Lenape name of Pawpacton.
The town of Colchester is dominated by three mountains in the center of the township; Baxter Mountain, Campbell Mountain and Brock Mountain. To the west, Bear Spring Mountain forms the barrier between Colchester and Walton and Houck Mountain in the southwest divides Colchester from Hancock.
Two main rivers run through the township. The East Branch of the Delaware River (taken from the Lenape name Papagonk meaning East Branch Delaware) and on eastern border by the Beaverkill River. The Beaverkill was referred to as the Whelenaughwemack by the original Lenni-Lenape people, which depended on this and the East Branch river flats for their agriculture, hunting and fishing grounds. Several brooks flow into these rivers. In Cooks Falls Horton area are Russell Brook, Cook Brook and Horton Brook enter the Beaverkill and further upstream, Berry Brook and Spring Brook also flow to the Beaverkill.
Downs Brook feeds into the East Branch at Downsville, part of that brook comes from the Tub Mills Falls and parts coming from Wilson Hollow, Telford and Gregory Hollows. Trout Brook at Shinhopple and Campbell Brook at Corbett also feed the East Branch.
The earliest recorded settler was Timothy Gregory who built a log house on the river flats in Colchester in 1776. Other early settlers were Frederick Miller who lived farther upriver from Timothy Gregory, Daniel Parrish near the mouth of Cole's Clove, Russell Gregory below Brock's Bridge on the east side of the river and William Rose on the west side of the river below Downsville near Rock Eddy. Thomas and John Gregory, James and S. Shaver, Silas Bowker, Peter, Harry and Hekemiah Avery and Jacob Barnhart were also recorded to have lived in Colchester before the Revolutionary War. Most of these settlers abandoned their homesteads in 1778 and fled to Kingston and other Hudson River areas until after the war.
Town Clerk records show that a
special Town Meeting was held at the home of Abraham Sprague on December
28, 1805 , for the purposes of dividing the Town of Colchester. It
was resolved that the line diving the towns of Colchester and Walton would
begin at the upper end of the long flat where Abraham Sprague lived, cross
the river running easterly in a direct line, strike the county line at a
right angle and starting from that angle continuing in a westerly line to
the Walton border. The Town of Hancock was separated from the Town
of Colchester in 1806. By the 1830 census the present town
lines were in place and the population totaled 1,424. Colchester's
population continued to grow and by the 1880 Federal and New York census
recorded the town's largest population of 3,168.
With better roads and access to outside markets Colchester continued to grow and prosper. The 1859 agriculture census reported Colchester as having 349 horses, 1.725 working oxen, 1,035 cows, 3,201 sheep and 736 swine. That year Colchester's farms produced 27,616 bushels of wheat (winter and summer), 4,805 tons of hay, 7,168 bushels of potatoes, 16,165 bushels of apples, 97,572 pounds of butter and 290 pounds of cheese and 1,883 yards of domestic cloth were woven.
The 1869 Beers Atlas listed 37 sawmills in the Town of Colchester and 36 sawmill dealers. There were ten sawmills on Downs Brook alone. Lumber provided wealth for the town and lead to the development of tanneries . William Horton tanned the first leather that was manufactured in Delaware County. George W. Downs developed his tannery in Downsville in 1857 and also ran a saw and grist mills.
With the development of the lumber industry rafting on the Delaware River provided a way to market the timber to markets in Philadelphia for shipbuilding and building construction. Abraham Sprague and Daniel Bowker ran the first raft down the East Branch and they gave the names we still use today to many of the turns and islands along the river.
The first school in the Town of Colchester was a timber structure built by Daniel Parrish in 1784 at the base of Cole's Clove. Parrish had been a school master and surveyor in New England. He came to Delaware Valley to do surveys around 1750 and after the Revolutionary War he moved his family into Colchester.
In the late 1800’s Colchester had 30 one-room schoolhouses, more than any other town in Delaware County. Each school district size was between three to five square miles, as most students walked to school. The school year was generally split between two terms. Female teachers taught in the summer term when younger children went to school. Male teachers were preferred for the winter term because older boys attended in the winter and it was thought that male teachers would keep better control of the students. Male teachers were paid more for the winter term, but were expected to split and stack firewood as well as maintain the woodstove fires in the schoolhouse.
The first school in Downsville was a three-room school on lower Main
Street. A second school was built on upper Main Street, on the lot
behind the present Old School House Restaurant.
The first school in Downsville was a three-room school on lower Main
Street. A second school was built on upper Main Street, on the lot
behind the present Old School House Restaurant.
The next major impact on Colchester occurred in early 1904 when Frederick F. Searing, president of the Searing & Company, an industrial banking house in New York City visited the area. Tourism in the Catskills was just beginning and hotels and boarding houses often were funded or had arrangements with the newly built railroad lines. Searing and his party arrived in East Branch on the O&W line from Manhattan. The next day he chartered a horse and carriage to make the fourteen mile trip up the river to Downsville. The trip took over four hours over the rough roads. When Searing arrived he was completely surprised to find the quaint little village of Downsville nestled in the foothills of the Catskill. He was very impressed by this little gem that was complete with prosperous businesses, stores, a newspaper, churches and hotels, but yet isolated from the outside world. The only transportation in and out of Colchester were the stage coaches which carried mail and passengers to the nearby villages. Searing felt the time was right to bring a railroad into the beautiful mountain valley and started work on the development of the Delaware and Eastern Railroad.
Searing teamed up with R.B. Williams Superintendent of the Scranton Division of the O&W Railroad and J.J. Jermyn their financial backer in order to join the Lackawana and Delaware & Hudson lines with the line that would run up the Delaware River to Margaretville. Between 1904 and 1906 teams surveyed the river banks and track was laid between East Branch and Downsville, and then continuing up the valley to Margaretville the cost was $1,200,000. Creameries and depots were built in Arena, Shavertown, Pepacton, Downsville and Margaretville.
On November 17, 1906 a large crowed gathered at the Downsville depot to await the first train into Downsville. The Downsville Concert Band played in the special train car that carried the D & E President Searing along with the company officers and directors. R. B. Williams who had driven the first spike in the track in Arkville in 1905, completed the track by driving in the last spike in Downsville.
The railroads ushered in a new era. Colchester residents could now move their farm products to the metropolitan markets quickly and economically. Before the railroads, travel for most Colchester residents was limited to stage coach or private carriage rides to the neighboring villages. With the arrival of the trains travel beyond the township borders brought new opportunities and experiences. This railroad (later called the Delaware and Northern)was the link between the Ontario and Western Railroad at East Branch and the Western and Delaware at Arkville. There were now two mail deliveries each day. New industries were developed. The blue stone business could now expand beyond the local markets and could fill the construction demands of New York City and other expanding cities Creameries could now ship fluid milk to the city markets as well as their famous butter and cheese. The area schools were also impacted by the new railroad. Students in outlaying areas of Colchester could now ride the train into Downsville where a new high school had been constructed. More teachers were hired and the first class to graduate from the Downsville Union Free High School was in 1908.
Most of the social activities of Downsville, during the period following the opening of the railroad, were centered around The Opera House Building. The Opera House Building or concrete block, as it was also called was built in 1907 by C.E. Hulbert and Dr. E. A. Holmes. The first bank in Downsville headed by Mr. Hulbert and the Opera House Pharmacy, headed by Dr. Holmes were housed on the first floor of this building. Also on the first floor of this building was a dance hall with a theatre above it. The seating capacity of this theatre was 428 persons, plus two boxes each seating twelve people. William Baldwin opened the theatre as manager with the DeRue Brothers Idea Minstrel Company on October 8, 1909. The Delaware and Eastern Railroad ran special excursion trains up and down the Valley to give people along the line an opportunity to witness this new kind of entertainment. During the summer months different stock companies came to Downsville playing to the packed theatre. Local theatre productions were also presented to benefit local organizations and annual formal dances with held in the hall. During the winter months basketball games were also held in the hall. This building was destroyed by fire on January 22, 1949. The Downsville Fire hall now stands on that location.
The Delaware and Northern sold it's rights of way to the Board of Water Supply and the last train ran in October of 1942. Now Colchester had to arrange for mail, freight and passenger service. The local stone dock near the rail station closed as well as the local creameries
Impact of the Construction of the Pepacton Reservoir
George Downs had predicted before his death in 1861 that, "There will be a reservoir here someday!" Rumors persisted throughout the early 1900's. In 1905 the State Legislature passed an act allowing New York City to acquire lands and construct reservoirs and aqueducts in the Catskills. Mayor Fiorella La Guardia visited the East Branch Valley in 1936 to view possible areas for the construction of a new reservoir. Test bore wells were drilled in 1936 next to the D & N railroad tracks above Downsville.
In 1939 Downsville did begin to feel a change with the beginning stages of the development of the Pepacton Reservoir. Field surveys began in 1939 and an influx of over sixty-five engineers from the Board of Water Supply of New York City moved to the village. The beginning of World War II delayed the start of construction until 1947. The actual work on the Dam was started on November 28, 1947. 3,000 acres of land would be taken and four small adjacent communities would be lost. Owners in nearby communities in the reservoir area had the option to buy back their building, tear them down or move them out of the reservoir territory. Arena, Pepacton, Shavertown and Union Grove's 974 residents were forced from their homes. Some bought homes in Downsville and others moved out of the area. The reservoir project brought in over 350 workers and their families between 1939 and 1949. Many local residents and veterans returning from World War II went to work on the reservoir project attracted by the union wages of between $2 to $2.25 per hour In 1948 the reservoir construction project was paying $3,000 a day to its workers.
A new centralized school was built in 1939 and was one of the last WPA projects in New York State. and an another addition was added during the height of the reservoir project. A new fire station, theatre and bank were all built and two new churches were added, the Episcopal and a Catholic church. The post office was moved to a larger space and a new Town Pool was constructed in Downsville.
The Board of Water Supply was responsible for moving the cemeteries in the reservoir area; In the Town of Colchester they moved 183 graves from the Edget, 33 from the Cat Hollow, 26 from the Shaver, 11 from the Flynn and one from the Sickler cemeteries. Donald Henry, a Board of Water Supply engineer was in charge of the removals and interments. Relatives preferences were followed for internments and the remaining unclaimed bodies were placed on the five acre Pepacton Burial ground on the north side of the Reservoir north of Downsville.
The reservoir has had a huge economic and environmental impact on the Township of Colchester. More than two-thirds of Colchester tax levy is now paid by the City of New York. In 1997 and agreement was signed between the City, town, counties and villages and the U.S. EPA, New York State and the environmental community to provide programs funded by New York City, to replace septic systems, build new community wastewater treatment facilities, provide sand and salt storage buildings, fund educational projects and support economic, development in the reservoir region. The Pepacton Reservoir is not a flood control reservoir and the amount of void and water releases into the Delaware River is still controversial in the Township of Colchester.
In August of 1938 Colchester residents voted to form a central school district. The central school district consist of 19 districts: Union Free District No. 21, Town of Colchester; Common School Districts Nos. 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 8 ,9 ,13, and 19 of the Town of Colchester; Nos. 10 and 18, Towns of Colchester and Hamden; Nos. 15 and 17, Towns of Colchester and Walton; No. 30 Towns of Colchester and Andes; No. 3, Town of Hancock; Nos. 7 and 8, Town of Hamden; No. 10, Towns of Hamden and Colchester.
November 1939, the newly constructed building was opened and 292
elementary students and 197 secondary students were enrolled.
The average elementary class size was 27 and the average secondary
level was 18.
The Class of
1940, with 26 students, was the first class to graduate from the new
central school district.
n November 1939, the newly constructed building was opened and 292 elementary students and 197 secondary students were enrolled. The average elementary class size was 27 and the average secondary level was 18. The Class of 1940, with 26 students, was the first class to graduate from the new central school district.
The Town of Tompkins was added to the central school district in 1946. Cooks Falls, Russell Brook, Morton Hill and Spring Brook sent students to Roscoe Central School.
On May 10, 1966 East Branch District No. 16 was annexed into Central School District No. 1.
In September 1965, the State Education Department granted permission to use “Downsville Central School” as the popular name of the district.
In 1949 eight classrooms and a cafeteria were added to the original building and in 1953 two shops, two kindergarten rooms, an art room and music suite were added. A school bus garage was constructed in 1952. In 1970 additional facilities were needed and the library and commercial room spaces were enlarged, separate dental and health units were added as well as new administrative and guidance offices. New classrooms allowed space to double each grade K-6 and a new science complex and two-station gymnasium completed that expansion. In 2011 the completion of a $16.9 million dollar renovation was realized. This project added a new library, science laboratory classrooms, and weight/exercise room. Newly renovated gymnasium facilities and classrooms for Pre-K, kindergarten, art, music, and special education; as well as new health/dental suite and administrative offices are also part of project. A totally new state of the art bus garage has been constructed.
Photographs and reports of flooding in Colchester appear as early as 1895.
A large tropical storm produced the "Great Pumpkin Flood," in October of 1903 causing major damage along the streams and Delaware river areas in Colchester The next major flood occurred in 1926 washing out the Downsville Main Street bridge and also causing damage in the Spring Brook area of Colchester.
On August 24, 1933 another flood hit the lower part of Downsville and down the Delaware River valley. Again in 1938 flood waters severely damaged the Russell Brook and Horton areas of Colchester.
One of the largest floods in Downsville occurred in August of 1940 when storm waters washed out the grist mill on Downs Brook. The mill dam was constructed in 1848 and in the early 1900's was used to produce hydroelectric power that supplied electricity to the village of Downsville. During that storm Wilson Hollow Brook also washed over the road above Tub Mill Falls and many of the bridges and roads in the area around Downsville were washed out or overflowed their banks.
Flood waters hit Downsville again in 1941 ,1942, and 1950.
According to the 2012 DMA 2000 Hazard Mitigation Plan for Delaware County, "The largest flood on the East Branch Delaware River, during the 30-year period since the Pepacton Reservoir was constructed, occurred on May 30, 1984. The peak discharge was 9,400 cubic feet per second (cfs). Further downstream, a peak discharge of 10,700 cfs was recorded. This Flood inundated farmland along the River, as well as some homes."
Other disastrous floods hit Colchester on January 9, 1996, September 18, 2004 with Tropical Storm Ivan and June 24, 2006, washing out roads, bridges and damaging businesses and homes. Colchester suffered again on June 19, 2007 when flash flooding caused the death of four people; destroyed roadways along Route 206 and displacing residents along the streams and river areas. Most recently Colchester suffered flooding on August 28, 2011 during hurricane Irene. The economical impact on Colchester has been significant but recovery is progressing.