- Historic Sites
Notes on the continuing battle
June 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 4
On the gently rolling hills of Bucks County in eastern Pennsylvania five high-tension towers up to 140 feet in height, carrying five hundred kilowatts of electricity to the urban centers of New Jersey and New York, will be set in a three-hundred-foot corridor cut through the carefully nurtured woods and fields of Honey Hollow watershed—a National Historic Landmark. The rich, productive soil of Honey Hollow’s six hundred acres has been continuously farmed since early in the eighteenth century. Substantial fieldstone houses and barns of that period still stand among the trim contourglowed strips of corn, hay, and barley, the wildlife hedges, the ponds and terraces that have been maintained ever since five farmers of Honey Hollow watershed joined forces in 1939 to demonstrate the then newly developed U. S. Soil Conservation Service practices.
No specific wording in the National Historic Landmark Act of 1966 provides protection to historic sites from urban renewal projects, highways, or power lines. What little muscle the act does contain applies only to projects involving a federal agency. But the Federal Power Commission, which would be the appropriate government arm in this case, has no jurisdiction over the routing of power lines. It would seem logical for the Philadelphia Electric Company to have used an already existing route through the township for its new line, but this would have meant condemnation of houses, which Pennsylvania law strictly forbids. So a line was drawn on a map, and it fell across Honey Hollow.
In the fall of 1968 the National Park Service repeatedly wrote Robert F. Gilkeson, president of the utility company, asking that no action be taken before a landmark-status study was completed. Its letters went unanswered. And on November 25 the company officially established a route through Honey Hollow and proceeded to quietly buy up a farm in the very center of the watershed. About the same time Dr. S. K. Stevens, head of the Interior Department’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, informed Philadelphia Electric that the watershed would definitely be put on the national register, Honey Hollow residents learned that the power-line route had been shifted downhill so that it now cut through the heart of the area in about the most damaging way possible, both physically and aesthetically. Precisely why this was done is not clear. The company claimed only that it was in the interests of the corridor concept (some years earlier a natural-gas line had been laid along that route).
On August 4, 1969, the watershed was officially designated a national landmark, and Honey Hollow became one of only 797 properties singled out for this distinction. Such landmarks, writes Secretary of the Interior Hickel, “require Americans … to pause and consider whether that which they are about to build is truly of greater worth than that which they are about to destroy.” The president of Philadelphia Electric paused long enough to write the National Park Service, stating that the route for the line had been very carefully selected.
Up to this point all the clout belonged to the utility, but now the watershed group gained a weapon. The Army Corps of Engineers, in the surprising role of conservationist supporters, held up the permit needed by the utility to bring its line across the Delaware River. Suddenly the company agreed to search for an alternate route on land outside the boundaries of the historic landmark. But when it proved impossible to get such a right-of-way through purchase, they were unwilling to start lengthy condemnation proceedings. However, through the efforts and generosity of people who live on the watershed and of the National Audubon Society, arrangements for a route through a corner of the landmark were worked out with the owner of property at the edge of the watershed, who decided he would as soon have the transmission line run across his property behind his house and get paid for it as have the towers cross Honey Hollow in front of his house and not get paid for it. The landowners of the watershed are now working to bring Honey Hollow into the public domain so that this rare rural landscape may be saved from further damage. The area is also threatened by a proposed highway. Although the residents are proud of their accomplishment, conservationists are outraged that a power line will cross even a corner of the historic landmark.
The Big South Fork of the Cumberland River rises in the wilderness of east Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau. Its clear swift waters winding northward to Kentucky through the soft sandstone of the plateau have cut one of the most handsome gorges east of the Mississippi. Below high, varicolored bluffs the river courses along a jumbled bed of gigantic lichen-covered boulders, a churning white foam where the rocks channel the river through narrow chutes, long pools of quiet water where the valley widens. It seems a miracle that this magnificent river, within 250 miles of more than twenty-three million people, has stayed so untouched along its thirty-one-mile length. No one lives within the gorge itself or along the crest, no roads parallel the river, and only a very few cross it.