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/

Images:

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Christopher Colles Had a Good Idea

Had I been born a hatter, people would have come into the world without heads.
—Christopher Colles, inventor with good intentions

This is a three-part series on the waterworks project of New York City in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is part one. Here are part two and part three.


Fish in a fresh pond with foliage around

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.

Collect Pond before it was used as a dump.

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.

Christopher Colles
Christopher Colles, circa 1812.

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.

Good Intentions

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:

The proposal presented by Christopher Colles to the Common Council of New York City, 1774.
Fire engine” was the term in the 18th century for steam engine.

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.

Design of Colles' waterworks steam engine as four shilling bank note.
Steam engine on bank note used to finance Colles’ project

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.

Not Hamilton the Musical.

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!


Footnote:

Schlimazel: Yiddish, meaning an unlucky person; if a schlemiel trips, he lands on a schlimazel.

Source:

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.

Images:

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Tea Water Pumps

Many consider New York City water as some of the best tap water in the country. It’s certainly responsible for their amazing bagels and pizza. So when Pehr Kalm, all known as Peter Kalm, a Swedish botanist, traveled through New York City in 1748, and declared, “There is no good water to be met within the town itself,” what was he talking about?

Drinking Tea

Three ladies and a gentleman sit around a table drinking tea and socializing. Painting.
Tea Time by Edward Percy Moran, c. 1890. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the 18th century, the only potable water New York City residents could drink came from the only freshwater source on the island, Collect Pond. If you recall, the East and Hudson Rivers are tidal estuaries, making the water too salty to drink. Luckily, for early New Yorkers, they established tea-water pumps in various locations throughout the inhabited wards of the city. Unfortunately, the further away the pump was from Collect Pond’s underground springs, the more brackish the water tasted.

Why was it called “tea-water?” Because it wasn’t good enough to drink plain, but was passable as water used for tea. Of course, you can always make beer with it.

Comfort’s Notorious Tea-Water Pump

Etching: A small boy sits on the side of a street pump. A man in the distance walks away with a bucket. Pump on Greenwhich Street, Blow Canal.
Rogers, William Allen, 1894. Source: NYPL

The best place for procuring water was Comfort’s Tea-Water pump (near today’s Greenwich and Liberty Streets). Comfort’s well was deep enough to reach a clean freshwater spring. Enslaved people were sent there to fill kegs every morning and evening. While Comfort’s well was superior to other public wells, it was also notorious for the disorderly house next door. Hughson’s tavern scandalously offered entertainment and liquor to a mixed crowd of enslaved people, and other men and women of different races.

Comfort’s Tea-Water Pump came to an abrupt end in 1741 in the aftermath of the Conspiracy of 1741, also called the Great Negro Plot. Mysterious fires were set across the city, and white slave owners feared a coming massacre. The evidence was dubious and witnesses had their own agenda. In the end, nearly 100 likely innocent people, mostly Black, were hanged, exiled, or burned at the stake.

After, the Common Council passed a law requiring Black people (enslaved, servant, or free) to get their water from their local well. This reduced the ability for enslaved people to congregate and plan an uprising. It also meant poorer quality water.

Public Water Pumps

WPA poster. History of Civic Services in the City of NewYork. Water Supply. No 2. Below it says: 1750 "All except the very poor bought their supplies for drinking from vendors who filled their barrels at the three or food good wells called."
Bock, Vera, WPA, 1936. Source: Library of Congress.

The fires during the alleged Great Negro Plot encouraged the Provincial Assembly to pass a law in 1742 for the upkeep of the city’s wells and pumps, aimed specifically at ensuring a sufficient supply of water to fight fires.1 These laws specified that the alderman and his assistant managed the wells in their ward. They appointed an overseer for repair and maintenance, and based on property values, residents paid an assessment tax. The law also put in place fines for vandalism to the wells, such as cutting ropes or breaking pump handles.

The taxes and fines collected by the city allowed for “the sinking of new wells, installation of pumps, and continued maintenance.”2

Tea-Water Men

Dr. Alexander Hamilton, a Scottish born physician traveling through New York in 1744, noted in his journal that wealthy residents received large casks of water from hired “Tea-Water Men.” For forty-five shillings a year, they carted water from the Tea Water Pump (near today’s Baxter and Mulberry streets), near to where Comfort’s had been.

At a little distance there is a large spring of good water, which the inhabitants take for their tea and for the use of the kitchen. … Those who are less delicate on this point, make use of the water from wells in town, though it be very bad.”

— P. Kalm, 1748

*The* Tea-Water Pump

The Hardenbrooks, who installed in a well and pump on their land, must have seen an opportunity when Comfort’s pump closed. The Tea-Water Pump became New York’s single source of good water for the rest of the colonial period.3 Right before the Revolution, the Tea-Water Pump Garden, like other nearby pleasure gardens, opened as a resort.

Ladies sitting beside a large tree painting or looking at the scenery. A spring in the background. A horse and cart in front of the tree. Photograph.
(Not New York, but this is what I imagine the garden by the springs looked like.)
American homes and gardens, 1907. Source: Smithsonian Libraries/Wikimedia Commons

Footnotes:

All refer to Koeppel, G. T.

Sources:

  • Bock, Vera, Artist. History of civic services in the city of New York Water supply No. 2: The tea water pump garden. New York City New York, 1936. [New York: Federal Art Project , Pt. 4, 1936] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/98518656/.
  • The Catskill Aqueduct and Earlier Water Supplies of the City of New York: With Elementary Chapters on the Source and Uses of Water and the Building of Aqueducts, and an Outline for an Allegorical Pageant. (1917). United States: (n.p.).
  • Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York. (1918). (n.p.): (n.p.).
  • Koeppel, Gerard T. Water for Gotham: a History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
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