NYC Water: A Tale of Bureaucracy & Greed

Water! Water! is the universal note which is sounded through every part of the city and infuses joy and exultation into the masses.
—Philip Hone, former mayor of New York City, 1842

This is a three-part series on the waterworks project of New York City in the 18th and 19th centuries. If you missed them, here are: part one and part two.


A view down Wall Street in 1846. A horse and carriage is leaving a civic building on the left with pediment and columns. There are people on the street. Lots of other buildings after that first one.
Wall Street, New York, 1846.
The Manhattan Company is the imposing building on the left.

In part two, we left off with the Manhattan Company in the early 19th century slowly adding to their network of poorly fitted, cheap wooden pipes and rapidly growing their highly profitable bank.

Unfortunately, an adequate water supply for a city requires it to be available to everyone. Not only did there have to be enough for drinking, but fire fighting and cleaning muck from stables, seepage from cemeteries, and overflowing privies that added to the unsanitary conditions of a busy and growing city.

Municipal Waterworks

The Common Council finally parted ways with the Manhattan Company in 1831 and formed their own municipality. The city took over the waterworks project and spent $1,000 dollars to have an engineer write up a report telling them what they already knew:

With the city expanding, they needed a source of water that could handle the projected population.

This meant that they needed to stop delaying an investment in an aqueduct capable of bringing the “pure and wholesome water” from either the Bronx or Croton Rivers into all parts of the city, including the poorest sections. Unfortunately, building a civic project of this magnitude takes time. The bill approving the use of the Croton River with its greater capacity didn’t happen until 1833.

The previous yellow fever epidemics were horrible enough, but before the completion of the Croton River aqueduct and reservoirs, two major setbacks would overwhelm Manhattan’s agencies and economies.

Cholera!

Ten years passed since a yellow fever epidemic hit New York City. The Board of Health as well as the city’s residents had grown complacent. The only disease prevention practiced was to quarantine ships coming in from locations known to have epidemics. However, this didn’t happen often.

U.S. CARTOON: CHOLERA, 1883. 'Is This a Time for Sleep?' American cartoon, 1883, urging more vigilance and action to vanquish public health diseases such as cholera, here shown as a monster arriving in New York City harbor while 'Science' sleeps on his watch.
‘Is This a Time for Sleep?’ American cartoon, 1883, but applicable to 1832.

The medical doctors on the Board of Health refused to diagnose an illness until it was absolutely necessary, and even then, they didn’t always offer an honest diagnosis. They weren’t eager to cut off the flow of trade and profit because they feared angry merchants more than they did lying to the public. [Gotham]

It was 1832, and a horrific cholera epidemic rolled across Europe and into London. It was only a matter of time before the horrible disease came to New York Harbor on one of the hundreds of merchant ships that arrived daily.

Those who took their Hippocratic oath seriously grew more and more nervous reading about the escalating spread of disease and deaths in London. They implored the city to clean streets, disinfect latrines, and establish a network of emergency hospitals. It wasn’t done.

On June 15, cholera arrived from Quebec via the St. Lawrence River, through the Erie Canal, and down the Hudson. A laborer became ill, survived, but his children did not. It soon spread like wildfire. The Board of Health maintained there was nothing to fear, calling it the usual “summer” cholera, a regular digestive malady brought on when food spoiled in the summer heat.

The Council and evangelical clergy responded to the growing fear permeating the city by saying:

…that the Plague, should it come, would pass over the virtuous parts of town and descend, like God’s wrath, on its Sin-Infested quarters. [Gotham]

In other words, cholera would choose its victims based on morality.

Quit dram drinking if you would not have cholera
Temperance Activists

Sylvester Graham, a minister and dietary reformer, preached that liquor, impure foods, and sexual dissipation undermined the body’s ability to resist cholera.

(It would be another 22 years before John Snow of London would discover the true cause of cholera — not a moral failure, but the bacteria Vibrio cholerae contaminating drinking water.)

By July 2, medical doctors in the city knew there was a greater problem than “summer” cholera. They announced the tally of sickness and death occurring in the city. The Common Council was furious. They didn’t want the public to know there was a health crisis because it would hurt the economy.

The very next day saw an exodus of wealthy residents fleeing the city to escape the epidemic, just as they’d done with the arrival of yellow fever. Sure enough, businesses suffered by the lack of wealthy customers. Of the approximately 100,000 people who couldn’t afford to leave, 3,513 died. It is unknown how had many in total suffered under cholera’s grip. *

Fire Fighting

There was one other immense responsibility that the Manhattan Company’s waterworks failed to protect against: fire. With their pipes not extending throughout the city, there was little chance of stopping a large-scale fire in its tracks. In the years between parting ways, the city hadn’t had a chance to do much more

Small red fire engine that would be drawn by horse, water hand-pumped
Fire Engine Model, early 1800s.
[Smithsonian]

Bucket brigades were a thing of the past. Back in 1799, the city imported its first fire fighting engines from Hamburg. More would be purchased in the intervening years. These engines had long hemp hoses that connected to each other, bringing water from the one of the city’s wells, rivers, or cisterns to its destination. Unfortunately, these engines did not produce enough pressure, nor did they reach the upper stories of the newer, taller buildings. All of this would become glaringly obvious during The Great Fire of 1835.

The Great Fire of 1835

The night of December 16, 1835 was met with temperatures dropping seventeen degrees below freezing and blustery winds. It had been so cold of late, the East River was frozen.

At nine that evening, a watchman smelled smoke at the corner of Pearl and Exchange Streets. He, along with other watchmen, found a fire in a five-story warehouse. In a matter of minutes, the fire tore through the roof. They watched in horror as the flames jumped to an adjacent building on the tightly developed street. Within fifteen minutes, the fire destroyed fifty buildings.

Alarms sounded, church bells pealed. The firefighters — whose numbers hadn’t increased with the population’s growth — needed all the help they could get to put out the fires. Worse yet, they were exhausted from fighting fires the last two nights, which also meant that the city’s cisterns were empty.

View of the Great Fire in New York, December 16–17, 1835, as seen from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, painted by Nicolino Calyo
The Great Fire of 1835 as seen from Brooklyn

The conflagration lit the sky so bright, people could see it from as far as New Haven and Philadelphia. Gradually, fire companies from surrounding communities arrived. They took their axes to the frozen rivers, hooked up their hoses on their fires engines, but if any water flowed, it blew back on the firefighters with the wind, or it froze in the hoses.

Over two nights, 674 buildings in downtown Manhattan burned. Almost every structure below Wall Street was lost — all thirteen acres of Manhattan’s original settlement, now mostly a business hub. Miraculously, only two people died. Had the downtown area still been residential, the loss of life would have been staggering.

Imagine how the city would have faired if they’d built a fully functioning waterworks with the ability to bring thousands of gallons of water, at high pressure to every street in the city.

Water, Water Everywhere

Between yellow fever and cholera epidemics, and the Great Fire of 1835, the Common Council realized, albeit late, that they needed to retake control over the city’s waterworks. Though the proposal for the aqueduct system was quoted at a staggering $5 million dollars, the Council had the support of landowners, developers, banks, and insurance companies because they all feared fire. (It would actually cost them $13 million in the end.)

The stone bridge forms part of the immense works erected to bring water from the Croton River to New York City.

The Common Council submitted a Croton Project Referendum. The aqueduct passed 17,330 to 5,916. The poorer districts voted against the waterworks, fearing they’d be priced out of using it, though that was never the intention.

The city bought back the Manhattan Company’s waterworks, pipes, and water rights. They employed John B. Jervis ** as chief engineer. He managed damming the Croton River in Westchester County, constructing the forty-one mile aqueduct, the receiving reservoir by 79th & 86th Streets and 6th & 7th Avenues that held 180,000 gallons of water, down to the distributing reservoir capable of holding twenty-four million gallons of water at Murray Hill on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue. ***

Side profile of the aqueduct system from the river, to the aqueduct, water towers, reservoirs, etc.
Profile and Ground Plan of the Lower Part of Croton Aqueduct by engineer, John B. Jervis.

On July 4, 1842, the project was complete. “Pure and wholesome water” flowed into the city, through cast-iron pipes, to every home and business who opted in. The Murray Hill reservoir stood like a proud fortress designed in the Egyptian revival style. Its walls towered thirty-eight feet above street level. A twenty-foot wide promenade ringed the top most portion, enclosed by iron railings.

"42nd Street looking west at street level with Murray Hill/Croton Reservoir in the background and cart at right.
Murray Hill, or Croton Distributing Reservoir at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue ***
People celebrating around a 50 foot fountain.
Opening of the fountains in City Hall Park, 1842

New York celebrated their new and functioning waterworks on October 14, 1842 during the “Festivals of Connection.” A five-mile procession marched through the city, filling it with boisterous cheers and pealing bells. A hundred-gun salute honored the fifty-foot fountain displayed in front of City Hall Park.

Of course they celebrated! New York City had waited since 1774 for fresh, safe water.

Into the Future

Stone foundation of the NYPL

The Croton Aqueduct could not keep up with the growth of the city. About 1939, the municipality added the Catskill and Delaware watersheds to the system.

The Croton Distributing Reservoir at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue was torn down in 1911 and parts of it are still visible in the foundation of the main branch of the New York Public Libary. In 1940, the receiving reservoir was drained and became the Great Lawn in Central Park.


Footnotes:

* This is why contemporary politicians thought these diseases were a product of being poor, immoral, or “foreign” [immigrant-caused], as wealthy citizens fled, leaving behind those who couldn’t afford to.

** John B. Jervis cut his engineering teeth on the Erie Canal.

*** You might recognize this address because the location would eventually become the main branch of the New York Public Library (where the two lions guard the entrance). Some of the library’s foundation stones are remnants from the reservoir.

Sources:

1. Burrows, Edwin G., and Mike Wallace. Gotham: a History of New York City to 1898. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 

2. Gerber, David E. “Pure and Wholesome: Stephen Allen, Cholera, and the Nineteenth-Century New York City Water Supply.” “Pure and Wholesome.” The Pharos, 2013. https://alphaomegaalpha.org/pharos/PDFs/2013/1/Gerber.pdf.

3. Landers, Jackson. “In the Early 19th Century, Firefighters Fought Fires … and Each Other.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, September 27, 2016. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/early-19-century-firefighters-fought-fires-each-other-180960391/.

4. “Murray Hill Reservoir.” The Croton Waterworks, April 5, 2011. https://crotonaqueduct.wordpress.com/field-notes/individual-structures/murray-hill-reservoir/.

5. Robinson, Lauren. “The Contentious History of Supplying Water to Manhattan.” MCNY Blog: New York Stories. Museum of the City of New York, April 14, 2014. https://blog.mcny.org/2013/07/16/the-contentious-history-of-supplying-water-to-manhattan/

6. Willis, Samuel J, and et al. “Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York, for the Years .. : New York (N.Y.). Common Council : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming.” Internet Archive. New York : The Council, January 1, 1970. https://archive.org/details/manualofcorporat1855newy.

Images:

Rescuing Her Rebel: Lydia's father intends to make a match for her at the winter ball while he ambushes his enemy — the man Lydia loves.


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