Aaron Burr & His Perfect Monster

As early as 1748, New York’s well water reportedly was so bad that even horses balked at drinking it.
—Gregory S. Hunter, Historian

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


Side profile portrait of Aaron Burr in 1802.
Aaron Burr

Aaron Burr was a hero of the American Revolution. General Washington honored his leadership, his ability to guide 5,000 men safely away from the British as the Americans retreated from New York, by promoting Burr to lieutenant colonel.

This isn’t a story about American Revolutionary heroes. This is the story of greed and bureaucracy in public service where it least belongs but always does. It’s also the story of how a new nation takes shape. There had to be stumbles and oversized egos, but justice prevails… eventually. You just have to be patient. And in the case of NYC water, very patient!

Recap of Part One

In 1774, Manhattan’s Common Council authorized Christopher Colles to install pine water mains under the city’s streets for conveying fresh water from the Collect Pond to all of the city. A steam engine, the first to be built in America, was to be used in pumping large quantities of water into a reservoir. Before the war, all of Manhattan encompassed fourteen miles of road. Once the Revolution came, all construction ceased.

After the War

The map shows the bottom portion of Manhattan. about 3/4 of the way up, the map stops just above City Hall.
Manhattan in 1783, after the American Revolution: “No street laid out above [Chambers] street.”

When the Revolution ended in 1783, the Common Council, the governing body for the city, didn’t resume Colles’ plan. instead, they busied themselves with expanding streets north on the island. More importantly, Collect Pond, Colles’ fresh water source, was no longer fresh. After years of being abused as an industrial dumping ground (tanneries, slaughterhouses, breweries, etc.), the pond was disgustingly polluted. Because of this, homes and businesses relied on cisterns, wells, and natural springs for their water.

Though New Yorkers wanted Colles’ plan revived, using the Bronx River instead of the Collect, the Common Council refused, citing exorbitant costs.

Not Obvious Until It’s Obvious

Looking east at old Bellevue front gate on a cloudy day.

After the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 (the same infamous one that hit Philadelphia that year), the Common Council established a Health Committee. These inspectors patrolled the waterfronts, quarantining sick sailors at Belle Vue Farm, which would soon be called Bellevue Hospital. 

Another yellow fever epidemic hit in 1795, after which Mayor Varick concluded that the disease was “most fatal among the poor, immigrants who lived and died in filth and dirt.” [Burrows] Legislation approved a Health Officer for the city and gained another pest house on Bedloe’s Island when Bellevue ran out of beds. The Health Officer had the right to enforce cleaning ordinances. However, the water from the city’s pumps and wells drew from underground springs polluted from streets sullied with raw sewage, runoff from stables, seepage from graveyards, and apparently, free-range pigs.

Central to this publication is a map of the Collect Pond and vicinity extending roughly from Broadway westward to Chatam Street, south as far as City Hall Park and north to Canal. Roughly between Barlet Street and Franklin rested the Collect Pond, a natural depression and drainage area that filled with water seasonally.
The neighborhood known as Five Points would eventually be built atop the drained Collect Pond.

Another yellow fever epidemic came to Manhattan in 1798. Citizens demanded the government do something about the water quality. Though they got the science of the disease backwards, they at least understood that rank, wet environments invited disease. (Mosquitoes attracted to these environments in warm weather carry yellow fever, not the water itself.) The government refused this next request for an aqueduct (running from the Bronx River into the city), again citing cost. They did, however, agree to drain the Collect, hoping to one day use the land for premium housing.

They didn’t think it through. The drained swamp continued to be a drained swamp beneath landfill. Basements flooded from the underground springs, buildings built atop it sank (The Tombs — prison, in particular), and it stank because of, well, the buried swamp.

Had this unwholesome region been set aside as a public park — abundantly planted with trees which would have sucked up the moisture out of the sodden soil — the city would have made a substantial gain on the double score of beauty and of health.

Thomas Allibon Janvier, 1894

Instead of premium housing, the worst tenement living conditions existed there for the poorest residents, immigrants, and gangs. It became the Five Points neighborhood.

Then, in 1799, the Health Office wrote a report whereupon they discovered:

  • New York City needed sweeping public health reforms!
  • Public welfare had to come before the individual’s rights!
  • The city needed to be supplied with “pure and wholesome water!” [Gerber]

Two hundred and twenty some odd years later, and the ghosts of New York are still rolling their eyes at those politicians.

New Legislation

The Common Council finally approved legislation for the city’s municipal waterworks. The bill explicitly stated that whoever took over the municipality could not do so for profit.

Reader, the municipality would totally be rigged for profit.

The Council issued a charter of incorporation to Aaron Burr as the founder of Manhattan Company. It allowed Manhattan Company to dig wells, divert streams, lay pipes, and anything else they needed to do to bring “pure and wholesome water” to the city.

A Monster is Born

How did the Manhattan Company make a profit off of a city municipality when the Council explicitly decried it?

(Aaron Burr’s unyielding Hamilton obsession pays off.)

Burr and the president of the Chamber of Commerce and the president of the Mechanics Society “argued that the aldermen should abandon their plan in favor of a privately operated water company, a position Alexander Hamilton hammered home to the Council in a separate concurring opinion.” [Burrows]

Burr himself drafted the charter of incorporation. He included a vague clause that one could exploit if one were trying to game the system. He wrote that “any surplus capital could be used for any monied transactions or operations.”

That sounds like they could reinvest in the waterworks if they came into a profit, they could reinvest it through legal avenues, such as trade, insurance and… drum roll, pleaseBANKING!

The state issued them $2M to start the waterworks company. The Manhattan Company took $100,000 of it to begin work… found themselves with a profit!

Bank of the Manhattan Company; members of the Federal Reserve System. Chartered 1799, Transfer Agents of the State of New York since 1818. 40 Wall Street, New York.
Bank of the Manhattan Company masthead, ca. 1922

Not to give away the ending or anything, but Manhattan Company would one day become Chase Manhattan Bank.

Btw, Burr twisting Hamilton’s argument to make a profit off of a municipality, you could say, wasn’t what Hamilton intended.

[Burr] has lately by a trick established a Bank, a perfect monster in its principle; but a very convenient instrument of profit & influence.

Alexander Hamilton

Putting the “No” in InNOvation

Was this a conflict of interest? Only if you cared about fresh water.

The board of directors for the Manhattan Company, Burr at the helm, had no interest in running a waterworks municipality. The banking division of Manhattan Company was too profitable to waste time on their true purpose. Instead of building an aqueduct to the Bronx River, they went back to Colles’ plan and sunk wells at springs near the site of the (landfilled) Collect Pond.

Just one (ok, more than one) problem: between 1786 and 1804, the population of Manhattan tripled. [Bailey] The truly egregious part? Unlike Colles’ plan, they didn’t want to divert money from the bank’s profits on a steam engine (unbelievably new technology in 1774 when Colles proposed it). So in 1799, they ran the pumps hooked up to horses.

Three work horses going around a circular path with a beam between them to keep them on their path.
Horses working/walking in circles

Six years after the chartering of the Manhattan Company, they’d only laid six miles of pipes, providing water for a terrifyingly low number of homes — 400 in total. The water wasn’t available for flushing gutters or reaching the city’s markets where it was needed to wash away filth. The Manhattan Company even refused to fix streets their workers had dug up laying pipes.

None of this improved the city’s public health. Yet the Manhattan Company made quite the profit.

Leaves a Bad Taste in Your Mouth

Though the Common Council didn’t split ways with the Manhattan Company, they removed Aaron Burr from the board of directors. His complete fall from grace came swiftly after.

Burr went on to more illustrious affairs that included being Jefferson’s Vice President, and raising a small army in a plot to annex Spanish territory in Louisiana and Mexico to be used toward the establishment of an independent republic. [History.com]

He was arrested and charged with treason.

The Manhattan Company, without Burr, continued to expand the water supply system at whatever pace you call the opposite of a New York minute, doing as little as possible to maintain their charter.

Next Week: Part Three

Will New York City ever get clean water? Well, you already know their water is famed for its quality, but you might not know how it finally happened.

Pour yourself a cold glass of water, make yourself some hot tea, or wash your hands. But come on back. HEA guaranteed.


Sources:

1. “Aaron Burr.” REV WAR | BIOGRAPHY. American Battlefield Trust. Accessed June 9, 2021. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/aaron-burr

2. Bailey, Rosalie Fellows. Guide to Genealogical and Biographical Sources for New York City (Manhattan), 1783-1898. United States: Clearfield, 2009.

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

4. Editors, Biography.com. “Aaron Burr Biography.” The Biography.com website. A&E Networks Television, May 6, 2020. https://www.biography.com/political-figure/aaron-burr.

5. Editors, History.com. “Aaron Burr Arrested for Alleged Treason.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, February 9, 2010. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/aaron-burr-arrested-for-treason.

6. 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.

7. Janvier, Thomas Allibone. In old New York. New York: Harper & brothers, 1894.

8. 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/

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