Once upon a time, a forested countryside expanded into a lush valley that emptied into a sizable and deep freshwater pond fed by underground springs, emptying into salt marshes that would one day become meadows, reaching all the way to the Hudson River.
Can you imagine this? If you are standing in Foley Square near Chinatown in Lower Manhattan today, close your eyes and transport yourself back 400 years.
A speedy geology/geography lesson you are welcome to skip: Manhattan Island sits between Manhattan Bay and three brackish rivers: The East River, The Hudson River, and The Harlem River. Without boring you with an even greater info dump on the Ice Age, it’s enough to know that the East & Hudson Rivers are estuaries and the Harlem River flows between them, making it estuarine as well.
TL;DR: The rivers surrounding Manhattan are not, and have never been, potable.
So, where did early New Yorkers get fresh drinking water from before the tea-water pumps of the 18th century—so called, because they were really only good for making tea?
If you have no idea, that’s okay. The source no longer exists … sorta. I mean, after years of environmental abuse it was drained, but the swampy nature of the land persisted, haunting the miserable 19th century Five Points prison, vividly referred to as The Tombs. That’s a post for another day.
The answer, dear reader, was the 48-acre Collect Pond.
Before the Dutch colonized New York in 1624, Manhattan was the home of the indigenous peoples known as the Lenape.
Manahatta is Lenape for ‘hilly island’. In fact, to the northeast of the Collect Pond lay Bayard Mount at 110 feet.
The Lenape, who called the area Werpoes, meaning ‘thicket’, would come to the pond for hunting and fishing. Deer, bears, wolves, and cougars lived in the forests full of chestnuts, hickories, and maples. Surrounding the pond was prodigious vegetation, full of cattails, bladderworts, lilies, blackberries, blueberries, and mulberries. The pond was home to sunfish, eels, perches, turtles, frogs, and salamanders.
When the Dutch “bought” the island, they renamed the area Kalck Hoek, or Chalk Hook, for the oyster shell middens left behind. When the British took over in 1664, Kalck Hoek became Collect.
In 1697, when Trinity Church controlled the city’s burial grounds, a law was enacted excluding Black slaves and freemen from being buried in a churchyard. Colonial authorities allowed them to establish a burial ground to the west of the pond. In 1991, the burial ground was rediscovered during construction. Now, a national monument is there, renamed as the African Burial Ground.
When Manhattan grew into a burgeoning, diverse town under British rule, New Yorkers enjoyed the Collect Pond in the summer for picnicking and boating. In the winter, when it froze over, they skated on it.
New Yorkers enjoyed the Collect Pond in the summer for picnicking and boating. In the winter, when it froze over, they skated on it.Tweet
As Manhattan became more populated in the middle of the 18th century, tanneries, breweries, and slaughterhouses were built on the shores of the pond. This didn’t bode well for the natural landscape. Pollution and contaminants from these businesses emptied into the pond, destroying habitats and creating major public health concerns.
An engineer brought up the idea of cleaning up the pond, but it was rejected in favor of draining and filling it in by leveling Bayard Mount. This became an even worse environmental nightmare because the buried landscape decomposed, letting off methane and attracting mosquitos. Since the land, a natural depression, continued to sink, it no longer held value to elite New Yorkers. Slums were built over the befouled land, creating the Five Points Neighborhood. Now, the only reminder that the pond ever existed is a park that bears its name.