Underground Waterways: NYC

Man fishing, rod in hand, fish dangling from the tip of his fishing rod.
Fishing. Source: Hallie Alexander, 2021.

Coming up with this blog post was the ultimate dive down a rabbit hole. While searching for information on tunnels below Manhattan, hoping to find some that predated the legendary and possibly mythical cow tunnels, I came across an article about fishing in a basement below Second Avenue in the 1950s. How could I not investigate this matter for you, dear reader? And by you, I mean me. Us. The hopelessly curious.

While some of what I found touches on 18th century Manhattan, much of it references the 19th century to present times.

Manhattan’s Terrain

Let’s begin at the beginning. When the Lenape inhabited the island of Manhattan, it was lush with forests, “streams, kills, rivers, brooks, ponds, lakes, burns, brakes, and springs.”1 Then the Dutch arrived in 1625 and began systematically rearranging nature to suit their purposes of creating a sustainable town — sustainable to European-style living. They dug canals reminiscent of their beloved Amsterdam. Just like Amsterdam’s canals, eventually they became polluted by residents dumping refuse into them.

The image shows a canal with buildings on either side. There are small rowboats in the water. Two men stand at a dock.
Broad Street, 1640. Source: NYPL

When the British took over in 1664, they had no interest in rehabilitating the canals. They filled them in and built over them, as well as other waterways. This started out as a good idea to expand and make the land more habitable. However, that wasn’t always the outcome.

Collect Pond

The hilly area around the Collect Pond.
Collect Pond by By Archibald Robertson. Source: Met Museum

To the west of the famous Tea Water Pump, where drinking water was delivered by the barrel to residents in Lower Manhattan, lay the Collect Pond. Over the course of the 18th century, the pond became polluted by run-off from nearby industries (tanneries, cattle farms, etc.). It was time to bury the pond as it no longer served its purpose and was taking up valuable real estate. In 1819, developers built an elegant neighborhood called Paradise Square atop the filled in pond. It’s elegance didn’t last.

“The engineers of those days evidently believed that the leveling of the hills, down the sides of which coursed the rivulets … would exterminate the stream. But they were mistaken.”

— 1883, New York Times
Three men stand around an iron fence in the courtyard of the Tombs. It is a stone building with grates on the windows.
The Tombs, 1850-1930. Source: NYPL

The fancy homes began to sink into the land within ten years, and as it did, methane from the rotting wildlife beneath the fill escaped. No longer a place where the wealthy wished to live, the area fell to slums and tenements, becoming the notorious Five Points. In fact, The New York Halls of Justice and House of Detention, better known as the Tombs, built over the original deepest part of the pond, sank shortly after its opening. The cells were compared to dungeons of the worst conditions due in part by the pond’s haunting remnants.

Minetta Brook

Down a manhole. The walls of the tunnel are brick. There is a river running below.
Minetta Brook, underground. Source: Untapped Cities, photo credit: Allison Meier

Minetta Brook, under today’s Greenwich Village, flowed from the western section of Washington Square Park where its course took it to the Hudson River. Marshland around the brook eventually became tobacco farms.  By the time the Yellow Fever epidemic swept the country in 1797, these farms were converted to cemeteries.

Eventually, the city moved the cemetery’s lots to another location, building a neighborhood called Little Africa, the city’s first free black community, in its place. Like the Collect Pond, the area where the Minetta Brook had freely flowed turned into slums and became an uptown version of Five Points.

Old, plain buildings, fire escapes, etc.
Minetta Street, 1925. Source: NYPL
(Notice how the road turns at the far end. That is the original course of the brook.)

Some believed that there was a connection between fever outbreaks and the communities built over buried waterways. I would argue that this might be a case of causality vs. correlation. Slums, overcrowded by those who couldn’t afford medical care or better sanitation, may have hastened the prevalence of fast-spreading diseases. It didn’t help that they lived on land with rotting material beneath.

Egbert Ludovicus Viele

Colonel Viele in his US Army, Civil War uniform.

Colonel Viele served in the US Army in the Civil War. Before the war, he’d seen how poor sanitation caused illness and was a proponent of the theory that building over buried waterways was the cause. As a civil engineer and surveyor, he set out to map the island’s streams and ponds. It illuminated “what the island looked like before it was filled in.”2

[Egbert Ludovicus Viele. Source: Library of Congress]

The pressures of 19th century growth forced the city planning commission to develop an aggressive plan that would encompass the whole of old Mannahatta. A massive 2,028 block grid stretched 13.4 miles and took nearly 60 years to complete.

Steemit / @voronoi

Viele’s map shows all the known, original waterways as well as the city’s grid system. Since it is impossible to know how these waterways might affect construction today, structural engineers still use the 1865 map before beginning any job in Manhattan.

A full map of Manhattan. A grid is laid over the majority of the island which includes all the waterways known in 1865.
Sanitary & Topographical Map of the City and Island of New York Prepared for the Council of Hygiene and Public Health of the Citizens Association. Under the direction of Egbert L. Viele, Topographical Engineer, 1865. Source: Public Domain
Key to the map. Green with darker green tufts is marshland. Orange indicates manmade. A paler green with hashmarks is meadow. A dark line drawn down a street indicates the presence of sewers. Blue is waterway.
Key to Viele’s map.
A segment of Manhattan by Pearl Street that shows off all of the facets of the key.
Detail of Viele’s map showing waterways under streets, meadows, landfill, and sewers.

Fishing in the Basement

Finally, we go fishing. In the 1950s, New York experienced another regrowth. New, heavier buildings with deeper foundations replaced smaller buildings. This caused underground waterways to reroute again.

An old city hardware store with a sign out front.
Hardware Store, 1941. Source: NYPL

Then, in 1955, two hurricanes swept through New York within ten days of each other: Hurricane Connie and Hurricane Diane. As you might guess, these caused unprecedented flooding and destruction.

Between the rerouted waterways and the flooding from the hurricanes came a story that took place on Second Avenue and 53rd Street under Gasnick Supply Company, a hardware store. Mr. Gasnick described his experience in an article in the New York Times on August 22, 1971.

Let’s allow Mr. Gasnick to tell his story:

"...We had a lantern to pierce the cellar darkness and fifteen feet below I clearly saw the stream bubbling and pushing about, five feet wide and up-on its either side, dark green mossed rocks. This lively riverlet was revealed to us exactly as it must have appeared to a Manhattan Indian many years ago.

"With plum-bob and line, I cast in and found the stream to be over six feet deep. The spray splashed up-wards from time to time and standing on the basement floor, I felt its tingling coolness. 

"One day I was curious enough to try my hand at fishing. I had an old-fashioned dropline and baited a hook with a piece of sperm-candle. I jiggled the hook for about five minutes and then felt a teasing nibble. Deep in the basement of an ancient tenement on Second Avenue in the heart of midtown New York City, I was fishing. 

"Feeling a tug, I hauled up in excitement and there was a carp skipping before me, an almost three pounder. I was brave enough to have it pan-broiled and buttered in our upstairs kitchen and shared it with my brother..."

Today, both Gasnick Supply Company and the building are gone. There have been no other reports of fishing in basements in New York City, though in 2007, Giles the author of Urbablurb, a short-lived New York blog, claimed he saw a 19th century clapboard house in Brooklyn with a sealed up well in the basement floor.

Fish Tale or Not?

Maybe. Possibly? I’d like to think Gasnick caught his fish.

Japanese style illustration of a carp.
Carp. Source: RawPixel

Could Carp live their whole lives in New York City’s underground waterways? Not likely. What would they eat? Their diet consists mainly of algae and plant matter, which would have a hard time growing without sunlight. Carp migrating from a backyard pond after the flooding from the hurricanes is a more likely theory.

A conservation ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society argued that it was “unclear whether water still flowed in many of the underground streambeds, because most of the water that once drained into them now flows into storm drains instead.”3 And yet, after heavy rainfall, these underground streams still cause basement flooding, sinking foundations, and backyard sinkholes.

The Last Tribute

Two Fifth Avenue is a high-rise apartment building completed in 1952. I checked. It’s still there. The building is located across from the Washington Square Triumphal Arch, and until 2011, the high-rise’s lobby displayed a glass pipe revealing silted water bubbling up from the buried Minetta Brook. As a triubte to the underground waterways, it was the last of its kind. Sadly, after a renovation, it was never replaced.

Footnotes:

  1. Watercourses
  2. When There Was Water, Water Everywhere
  3. An Ancient Stream Under a Manhattan Building Leads to a Dispute

Sources:

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