Had I been born a hatter, people would have come into the world without heads.
—Christopher Colles, inventor with good intentions
The story of Manhattan can’t be told without talking about water. Which I do a lot on this blog… but for good reason. It’s not just because Manhattan is an island and therefore surrounded by all that wet stuff, but the sheer magnitude of population growth once it was colonized, and the fact that humans can’t live without drinking water.
You’d think the colonizers would have made drinking water a priority. You’d also think Europeans would have been as intelligent as the indigenous people already there to know you can’t trash an environment and expect it to remain pristine. After all, it’s not like the colonizers came from another planet. Sadly, that’s exactly what happened. The trashing, not the intergalactic colonizing.
Nature’s Natural Reservoir
If we go back to the beginning, to both the Lenape and and the start of this blog, I waxed poetically about Collect Pond for being a freshwater source on an island surrounded by briny rivers, a beautiful place for colonizers to picnic and boat in the summer, skate in the winter, and then dump industrial waste all year long.
For a while, the pond held itself in check. Tea Water Pumps all over the city delivered fresh water in wells dug to the same groundwater springs that fed the pond. Though, the farther one got from the Collect, the brinier and filthier the water. If folks wanted and could afford the freshest water, they paid Tea-Water Men to deliver it in casks.
All of this worked until it didn’t. Profound, I know. When it became obvious that there was a problem, a potentially huge problem, the New York Provincial Assembly passed a bill in 1742 aimed specifically at ensuring there was sufficient water in the city for fighting fires.
[This was after the fires from the Conspiracy of 1741, which was blamed on the Black population, though it was really white people acting out of fear of their enslaved population rising up against them. Racist is as racist does.]
Oops. They forgot about fresh, clean drinking water, not just the delivery of water.
Love That Dirty Water
That filthy water I mentioned? In short, it was caused by runoff. Have a dead pig? Leave it in the street to decompose and join the stream of refuse and human waste slowly making its way down to…
Who knows? The entire city was a stinking cesspool. Something needed to be done to save the residents of Manhattan from themselves.
Steam Engines in America
In 1774, New York City found a solution in Irish-born inventor, engineer and perennial schlimazel*, Christopher Colles.
After arriving in Philadelphia and lecturing at the American Philosophical Society — a think tank started by Benjamin Franklin — the APS turned him down when he asked for a stipend to build a steam engine. Eventually, a local distillery hired him to build one for pumping water into cooling tanks. A noble purpose, especially by colonial American standards. Those folks loved their ale.
Colles’ steam engine is considered the first steam engine built in America. [Koeppel] By the way, Colles didn’t invent the steam engine. He endeavored to improve on Jonathan Hornblower’s English model.
On April 22, 1774, coincidentally the same day as the New York Tea Party (like Boston, but in New York), Colles presented his plan to the Common Council — the alderman of the city with legislative power — to save Manhattan from its drinking water problem:
In short, Colles wanted to use a steam engine to pump water into a reservoir capable of holding 1,200,000 gallons of water for both drinking and fire fighting. In doing so, he intended to lay a network of pipes made of pitch pine logs bored out six inches and connected with iron rings. They were to be buried four feet under the street, and by gravity, convey a supply of fresh water throughout the fourteen miles of road that made up Manhattan.
After three months of deliberation, the Common Council approved Colles’ proposal. However, it didn’t quite happen as planned.
Manhattan, We Have A Problem
One stipulation from the Common Council was that Colles had to dig a well and prove good water came from it before he could go ahead building his steam engine and laying pipes. Not the problem.
Colles built his reservoir to hold 2,000,000 gallons of water. His steam engine worked ten strokes a minute — not as good as Hornblower’s, but not terrible. And they’d cast the cylinders in February 1775. Getting close to the problem.
The City of New York signed a contract with both Isaac Mann Sr. and Jr. from Albany, New York to purchase 60,000 feet of logs, fourteen to twenty feet long, without shakes or large knots. They were to be shipped down the Hudson later that year. Getting a lot closer to the problem.
April 1775 came, and so did the Battles of Lexington and Concord. There’s the problem.
For all his determination, Colles didn’t quit even as Manhattan emptied of businesses and families in preparation of what… or who… was to come.
General Washington arrived in New York in April 1776 and fortified the city against the British. This was the breaking point of Colles’ project. He and his family fled the city for safety.
By the time the war was over in 1783, there was nothing left of Colles’ project. It would take over sixty years, many preventable deaths, and city-destroying fires before Manhattan had enough clean water to provide for her residents.
Burr Makes It to the Room Where It Happened
In the intervening years — after the war but before killing Alexander Hamilton — Aaron Burr conned the leaders of Manhattan and made a fortune before losing it all. And yes, this has everything to do with delivering fresh water to Manhattan. Next week: Part Two!
Schlimazel: Yiddish, meaning an unlucky person; if a schlemiel trips, he lands on a schlimazel.
Burrows, Edwin G., and Mike Wallace. Gotham: a History of New York City to 1898. New York ; Oxford: Oxford university press, 1999.
Koeppel, Gerard T. Water for Gotham: a History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
- Yellow Perch chromolithograph (1878) by Samuel Kilbourne. Original from Museum of New Zealand. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel. https://www.rawpixel.com/image/2340177/free-illustration-image-fishing-fish-samuel-kilbourne Public Domain CC0. Accessed June 2, 2021.
- Christopher Colles, by James Frothingham, 1812-1816 – Metropolitan Museum of Art. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57365043 Public Domain CC0. Accessed June 2, 2021.
- Christopher Colles’ Proposal to the Common Council in 1774, by Hallie Alexander, 2021.
- Proposal of Christopher Colleges for furnishing the city of New York with a constant supply of fresh water. (1774)
- FOUR SHILLINGS. | NEW-YORK, Printed by H. GAINE.: Proposed steam-operated water pump of Christopher Colles, 1775. http://numismatics.org/collection/0000.999.29207 Public Domain BY. Accessed June 2, 2021.
- Hamilton: A Lego Musical, #14 Stay Alive: I’m a General. Whee!!!, June 2017. https://www.flickr.com/photos/hamilton-a-lego-musical/33349251464/in/photostream/ Public Domain CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Accessed June 2, 2021.