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.


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.

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.


* 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.


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.

3. Landers, Jackson. “In the Early 19th Century, Firefighters Fought Fires … and Each Other.” Smithsonian Institution, September 27, 2016.

4. “Murray Hill Reservoir.” The Croton Waterworks, April 5, 2011.

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.

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.


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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!


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.


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A Profile on Perukes

This post refers to men’s fashion of the 18th century. Please see the footnote below regarding gender terminology.

George Washington
George Washington,
au naturel

Everyone — at least in the US — recognizes the subject of the portrait on the right as George Washington, first United States president. Everyone — who hasn’t spent time researching this because they have real hobbies — assumes he’s wearing a white wig because of the frothy hairstyle and the time period. Everyone — including me from a few minutes ago, before I learned this — is wrong. (Thanks, Hollywood!) 

Wigs were a big deal beginning in the 17th century. This fashion held until about 1800, which is a very long time for a trend to run its course. What happened in the intervening years? And what made all those men flip their wigs?

As Bald as a Billiard Ball

Heredity and/or other biological conditions, such as auto-immune diseases and the effects of stress on our hormones, cause hair loss. However, these are not the reasons for the wig-wearing craze that began in the 17th century. The sores and hair loss associated with widespread syphilis accelerated the need to cover up.

Summary on syphilis: Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease. Hair loss and sores were only two of the awful symptoms. Though sheaths, or condoms, were available, not enough men wore them, stoking an epidemic in Europe greater than the spread of the Black Death. Syphilis is caused by a specific bacteria and is treated today with antibiotics.

Big Wigs

The powdered wig — referred to historically as a peruke or periwig — became a fashion trend when two vain 17th century kings lost the battle with their hair at a young age:

King Louis XIV of France experienced hair loss at the early age of 17, and he hired 48 wigmakers to help combat his thinning locks. His English cousin, King Charles II, began wearing wigs a few years later, when his hair began to prematurely grey — both conditions being syphilitic signals.

The Rise and Fall of the Powdered Wig
Louis XIV
King Louis XIV and his massive wig
Hermès Vintage Kelly Bag
Hermès Vintage Kelly Bag (approx. $10,000) made famous by Princess Grace Kelly.

Courtiers and noblemen followed their king’s styles, starting a fashion trend that ultimately spread to the merchant class as a symbol of wealth. A single, extravagant wig might cost 25 shillings, or the weekly wage of a laborer. However, men spent upwards of 800 shillings on them yearly. Calculated for inflation, this amount was on par with one of today’s iconic, vintage handbags.

Wigging Out

A hairdresser powdering a wig.

Perukes were made from horse, goat, sheep, or human hair. Day to day maintenance involved powdering with cornstarch scented with orange flowers, rose petals, nutmeg, ambergris, jasmine, orris root, or lavender [Perukes, Pomade, and Powder: Hair Care in the 1700s] to cover odors and filth. Special combs and pomades were used to maintain the wig’s shape.

Occasionally wigs needed delousing. While this may sound objectionable to today’s reader, it was better than the alternative, which was regular infestations of lice in one’s natural hair. Wigs solved this problem because a shaved head made wigs fit properly and a lousy place for lice to live (pun intended, of course). A wigmaker took care of the delousing for their patrons by boiling and nitpicking the wig.

Rockin’ the Rococo

Cotton Mather
Cotton Mather, 1700.

In the beginning of the wig craze, the longer and fuller the wig, the better. Like most fashions, this changed over time. 

Wig fashion at the beginning of the 18th century was shoulder-length and full. 

Side-rolls with a side of side-eye

By the mid-18th century, buckled side-rolls were popular with nobility and soldiers.

Macaronis preferred wigs with the height and lavishness of the French court.

"What! Is this my son Tom?", a June 24th 1774 caricature on extreme "Macaroni" fashions of the 1770s. "Honest farmer" with adult son who has large, elaborate hairstyle and stylish clothes.
This macaroni is living his best life.

Little known fact: the song “Yankee Doodle” pre-dates the American Revolution by a good 15 – 20 years. A British military surgeon wrote the song to “mock the disheveled, disorganized colonial ‘Yankees’ with whom they served in the French and Indian War.” [Yankee Doodle]

Colonel James Hamilton
Pink hair, don’t care.

By the time the Revolution came to Concord, men in America began switching to powdering their hair instead of wearing wigs. In fact, George Washington didn’t wear wigs. He pomaded and powdered his red hair. (This guy over here is Colonel James Hamilton and he prefers pink, a color worn by all genders in the 18th century.)

Splitting Hairs

Ship’s Steward
Bet he’s not reaching for a wig inside his jacket.

Wigs became less popular in the latter half of the 18th century. During the Age of Enlightenment, leading up to the American and French revolutions, philosophers questioned leadership based on the circumstances of one’s birth versus the new theory of democracy. Wigs, equated with the nobility, fell out of fashion.

British men were the last to stop wearing wigs. In Britain, the Duty on Hair Powder Act of 1795 meant to subsidize wars with France brought the fashion trend to an end. The tax cost wig-wearers one guinea.

According to author Jenny Uglow, those who chose to pay the guinea hair powder tax were nicknamed “guinea-pigs” by reformist Whigs who chose instead to cut their hair short (the “French” cut) and go without a wig as an expression of solidarity with the French.

Yankee Doodle

Footnote on Gender:

Terminology regarding gender in 18th century American and British cultures, as recorded in history, was limited to the binary. Though the gender spectrum exists across cultures and throughout history — including American and British cultures of the time, it did not become a discourse with distinct terminology until the 1950s. These posts reflect binary gender and those who identified in the record as that gender. If I’ve made an error, I welcome feedback as an opportunity to learn.


18th Century Hair & Wig Styling: History & Step-by-Step Techniques

Duty on Hair Powder Act 1795

Perukes, Pomade, and Powder: Hair Care in the 1700s

The Rise and Fall of the Powdered Wig

The Rise of the Wig

Why Did People Wear Powdered Wigs?

Yankee Doodle


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Inventing 18th Century Spectacles

“As long as primates have been around, there’s probably been myopia
—Dr. Ivan Schwab, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of California, Davis. [1]

Primate wearing snazzy spectacles. Source: Hallie Alexander, 2021.

For humans, the rates of myopia (nearsightedness) have increased alongside the invention of the printing press and later the political fallout of the Reformation. 

As literacy rates rose, so did the need for corrective lenses. Not that literacy, or rather education, is bad for the eyes—genes and nutrition also play a role. However, close work such as reading or computer use puts a strain on the eyes, contributing to vision problems.

It’s a good thing lenses and the way we employ them have advanced over the years.

Early Lenses

The magnifying glass came about a long time ago. Using convex lenses whose edges curve outward, they are used to magnify an object or focus light to ignite a fire. In 424 BCE, Aristophanes’ play, The Clouds, a character did just that.

Reading Stone. Source: Pexels

The next advancement came in 1000 CE. Quartz, beryl, or glass shaped like a stone and polished were used as reading stones. Placing these on top of text magnified letters. 

Venetian glassmakers in the 13th century produced the first spectacles. By sending these along the Silk Road, among other Italian items to sell, they brought vision correction to Asia. Unlike modern eyeglasses, these spectacles were heavy and very breakable.

Better Spectacles

Pince-nez. Source: Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin , Public Domain.

Spectacles changed very little for the next 500 years. It took until the 18th century with the prevalence of cheap newspapers and more opportunities for non-clergy to be educated, for Europeans to finally demand better and more stylish options.

Around 1700, lenses were being made round and large, staying on by pinching the nose. The French called them pince-nez

By 1730, design rapidly changed when Edward Scarlett (1688-1743), optician to King George, produced spectacles of differing strengths and with ‘arms’. [2] His spectacles could be purchased over the counter, or ground to one’s specifications. In fact, he used a set of lenses with different focal lengths to fit the right spectacles to the customer.

Whalebone spectacles. Source: College of Optometrists.

Frames of this era were typically made from whalebone, tortoiseshell, or horn. These materials were both strong and flexible.

Wig Spectacles. Source: College of Optometrists.

During the Georgian era, when men commonly worn wigs, wig spectacles came into fashion. These frames were double-hinged, jointed on the sides meant to be worn over a wig. The shape of the frame didn’t fit the head without one.

Martin’s Margins. Source: National Museum of American History.

By the middle of the 18th century, Benjamin Martin (1704-1782) invented the stylish Martin’s Margins. These were silver-framed with spring-loaded arms to stay on better, and round lenses rimmed with dark horn or tortoiseshell to help protect the eye from sunlight.

Bifocals. Source: College of Optometrists.

While Benjamin Franklin is often praised for the invention of the bifocal around 1760, they were in fact being produced in London at this time. His half split lenses, half for distance and the other half for close work. Bifocals like Franklin’s were very important to artists and craftsmen who needed the range for their work.

Lorgnettes. Source: Public Domain.

Lorgnettes came along in the last quarter of the 18th century. They were spectacles one held in front of the face with a handle that doubled as its case. To fit, the bridge of the nose folded at a hinge to slip inside the handle. They became wildly popular with theatre-goers. These are closely related to the quizzing glass in that they were a lens held by a handle, but quizzing glasses were fancier, more like jewelry pieces. They came a little later, at the dawn of the 19th century.


Inuit Eyewear. Source: Public Domain.

Eyewear protecting eyes from bright sunlight goes all the way back to prehistory with the Inuit and their walrus ivory “glasses” which contained no glass at all. They fit like goggles against the eyes with slits in the middle to reduce the sun’s glare. They also helped in focusing the eyes.

Venetian Sunglasses. Source: College of Optometrists.

Some credit James Ayscough (1720-1759) with the use of modern tinted lenses for protection against sunlight, but that wasn’t his goal. He was experimenting with blue and green lenses for corrective purposes. It was the Venetians, again, who designed and used spectacles to protect the eyes from sunlight. They made green-tinted sunglasses, which had no UV protection for use against the bright glint of sunlight on water.

In Case You’re Wondering

It wasn’t until the 19th century that ophthalmologists performed eye exams. Before then, a lens-grinder offered lenses with varying focal lengths to choose from.


  1. What Did Nearsighted Humans Do Before Glasses? Jacewicz, Natalie. “What Did Nearsighted Humans Do Before Glasses?” NPR. NPR, July 7, 2016.

  2. What a spectacle!


“The Evolution of Sunglasses – Google Arts & Culture.” Google. Accessed May 16, 2021.

Handley, Neil. “Eighteenth Century Spectacles.” College of Optometrists – Professional body for optometrists. Accessed May 16, 2021.

Magnifying Glass,

Reading Stones,

“Spectacles.” National Museum of American History. Accessed May 16, 2021.

What a Spectacle!

What Did Nearsighted Humans Do Before Glasses? Jacewicz, Natalie. “What Did Nearsighted Humans Do Before Glasses?” NPR. NPR, July 7, 2016.


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Writing the 18th Century

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.
—Benjamin Franklin…maybe

A cartoon of Shakespeare holding a quill and a scroll of paper.
Shakespeare with his quill. Source: Pixabay

Have you ever gone into a stationery or craft shop just to check out the latest pens for their colors, the way they feel in hand, or glidability? (Yes, I made up “glidability.” Don’t be one of those “language is static” people because I’m sure Shakespeare would want a word with thee.)

Speaking of writers writing with quills… Today’s topic is quills, pencils, and erasers, for all your 18th century writing needs.

Quill in an ink pot
Source: RawPixel

The 18th century, like the century before it, and before that one too, was limited to quills and pencils. There were styluses, but I’m not going to get into those ancient tools here, just as I’m not going to delve into advances made in the 19th century.

The Mighty Quill

A feather in the grass
Source: Hallie Alexander, 2021

Writers have used quills to write since the Dark Ages. In fact, quills remained in use well after better options became available. Using feathers from common birds such as geese, crows, and swans, quills were cheap to make, and the materials easily acquired. Unfortunately, they had their downsides. If it wasn’t for broken shafts or tips going blunt, the ink spluttered, staining hands and leaving splatters on pages.

Can you collect a feather from the yard and begin writing?

Apparently, not. To turn a feathers into quills:

… [they] were dried, sometimes in hot sand, the exterior membrane was removed, and the remaining tubular structure was either used immediately or hardened by various means, including dipping in acid to make the quill’s point stronger and longer lasting. The quill was finished by three basic strokes of a pen knife.

The Ingenious Pen

Incidentally, the word for pen comes from penna, which is Latin for feather.

Get the Lead Out

In 1564, a storm hit Borrowdale, England and toppled a tree. The locals noticed the roots were encased in a solid black substance which scientists of the day mistakenly called “Black Lead.” In fact, it was not lead at all but graphite, a pure carbon molecule.*

So, did a “lead” pencil ever exist?
Two slabs of wood with a flat slab of graphite sandwiched between them. The wood appears to be chiseled to a point, revealing a tip of graphite.
The oldest pencil in the world, found in timbered house built in 1630. Source: Faber-Castell

No. The closest lead has ever come to being used for writing was the lead stylus from Roman and Egyptian ancient times, which I promised not to discuss in this post, yet here we are.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, England’s mines produced the highest quality graphite. Countries in Europe and North America imported pencils produced in England. Until, of course, the importing country and England faced each other across battlefields.

The Napoleonic Wars forced the French to come up with an alternative to the English pencil. Since graphite mined in France wasn’t nearly as high in quality, the French sought a new technique. Nicholas Jacques Conte, a French army officer, developed a mixture, combining graphite, clay and water. By changing the ratio of the three ingredients, French manufacturers were able to produce pencils with varying degrees of hardness.

Likewise, the United States experienced a scarcity of pencils during the War of 1812. With British and European imports drying up in the States, William Munroe, a cabinetmaker in Massachusetts, seized the opportunity to make the first pencils produced here.

Let’s return to the 18th century before we do something wild like invent the steel nib.

The Accidental Eraser

three gum erasers piled on top of each other
Art gum rubber erasers

From the beginning of pencil use, a stale wad of bread served as an eraser. The first use of a rubber eraser, however, occurred by chance in 1770 when Edward Nairne, an English engineer, accidentally picked up a piece of rubber instead of bread, and found it did a better job of erasing his mistakes. It would take many years before pencils came with erasers attached.

The next time you pick up a pencil, or a quill if you have one lying around, give a moment’s pause to appreciate the longevity of our writerly technology.

(Another day, we’ll take a look at inks and things.)


* Diamonds are also pure carbon, but the arrangement of the carbon structure designates it as either a very hard substance or something soft and flaky.


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Slips on the East River

Ships sailing toward New Amsterdam from the East River.
New Amsterdam, 1700. Slips extending from the mainland.
Source: NYPL Digital Collections

During the early days of New Amsterdam, when a ship arrived, it anchored off the East River. Small boats which could handle the shallow river’s muddy edge conveyed the cargo and passengers to shore.

They needed a better option.

Why Slips?

The Dutch did not build wharves on the East River because of its shallow depth, which was impossible for merchant vessels. It also had the tendency to flood area marshes at high tide, making it less than ideal for warehouses and other businesses that relied on shipping. The government offered citizens an incentive by the government to buy up waterfront lots on the East River on the condition that they fill in the shallow water with landfill to make a “‘wharf or street’ of a specified width at the outer edge, but the remainder of the filled land would become theirs to build on.”1 None of the slips were dug out from the riverbed.

Basic map of New York showing the slips along the East River.
Map of the “made and swampland of New York,” 1856. Source: Boston Public Library

Land-making accomplished two goals. First, it extended the shoreline beyond the shallow water near the natural shore so that ships could dock at landside wharves instead of anchoring far out in the East River. Second, the waterfront’s close proximity to the trade ships led to the construction of markets, storefronts, warehouses, and other commercial structures which were conveniently close to landings where farmers could moor their boats and unload livestock and produce for sale. In this way, land-making had a crucial impact on the development of New York’s burgeoning economy.

Archaeological Study of Rutgers Slip, 2009


Diggers leveled some of Manhattan’s hills, and carters brought the fill to the river’s edge. Log cribbing was used to hold back the fill. Developers brought in Pine and Hemlock from the Hudson Valley. 

The timbers were stacked horizontally, one on top of another, and notched together in a manner similar to how the walls of a log house are built. This technique was a typical way of building wharves in North America from the early 18th through the late 19th centuries.

Archeological Discovery at Burling Slip, 2011
Black and white photograph with warehouses in the background and a slip in the foreground. South Street from Maiden Lane to Burling Slip, New York City, February 23, 1891
Burling Slip, 1891. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The inlets created by the landfill were long arms reaching from the land, creating “alleyways of water.” [NYT] These slips were about two blocks long and about as wide. In this way, larger ships could easily tie up close to the warehouses constructed for this very purpose. 

Some of the cargo brought in during the 18th century was coffee, spices, foods like green bananas, and both necessary and luxury items enjoyed by the colonists. 

The Twelve Slips

Between the 17th and 18th centuries, the inhabitants of Manhattan built out twelve slips. Some names for the slips reflected those who owned the land, but others reflected the trade that took place in the markets set up on or near the slips.

View of Market Slip taken from the corner of Cherry St. 1859
View of Market Slip, 1859. Source: NYPL Digital Collections
  1. Whitehall Slip next to Battery at the base of Whitehall St.
    • When the American Revolution ended, George Washington boarded a barge at Whitehall Slip that carried him across to New Jersey. This was the first leg of his farewell procession, taking him home to Mount Vernon in 1783. Along the way, he formally resigned his commission as commander-in-chief.
  2. Exchange Slip at the bottom of Broad Street.
  3. Coenties Slip, at Coenties Alley near Broad Street.
    • Conraet Ten Eyck, a tanner and shoemaker, was an early Dutch landowner. He was nicknamed Coentje, or “Coonchy” to the British. The nickname and spelling stuck.
  4. Old Slip, at the bottom of William Street.
    • Old Slip goes back at least as far as its first appearance on a map in 1691. Its most famous moment in American history came a hundred years later when, in 1792, the 90-ton merchant brig Betsy sailed out of Old Slip to become the first ship to carry the American flag around the world.2
  5. Coffee House Slip, at the bottom of Wall Street. 
    • In 1774, Manhattan held a Tea Party which did not rival Boston’s. The Nancy, loaded with tea, was refused to dock. The captain rowed to shore and stayed at a tavern for two days, then took his ship back to England. And that is why you rarely hear about this event.
  6. Fly Market Slip, at the base of Maiden Lane.
  7. Burling Slip, at the bottom of John Street. (Once known as Rodman’s Slip)
  8. Peck Slip, at the base of Ferry Street.
    • Market boats full of produce and livestock sailed from Long Island, where they were farmed, to Peck Slip. These items were sold at a public market built nearby. There were also warehouses and brick residences for market-men and ship owners.
  9. James Slip, at the end of James Street.
  10. Market Slip at the bottom of Market Street.
  11. Pike Slip at the bottom of Pike St.
  12. Rutgers Slip, at the end of Rutgers Street.
    • This slip was named for Henry Rutgers (1745-1830), whose father owned most of the Lower East Side in the early colonial era. He was an organizer for the Sons of Liberty and fought in the American Revolution.

The End of the Slips

Why wasn’t the Hudson River used as a port in colonial New York?

It wasn’t an ideal choice for sailing ships. Not only was the shore rocky, but it was also too windy and the currents too strong in places. A few wharves existed on the Hudson in the 18th century [Montrésor’s map, 1775], but it wasn’t until the 19th century, with the advent of the steamship, that the Hudson became a busy landing.

At the same time, Manhattan needed more buildable land as its needs expanded. The city began to fill in the slips on the East River. The last slip ended its run in 1900.

Today, the only part of the slips to still exist are their names on street signs.

Street Signs: Coenties Slip and Pearl Street in the Fraunces Tavern Block Historic District.
Source: Forgotten New York


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Guy Fawkes Day In America

I’ll be honest here. I have no idea why I wanted to know more about Guy Fawkes Day. That was last week, or about 274 days ago in 2021 time. Maybe I was looking for holidays people celebrated in colonial America? Why I needed to know this for the book I am writing will forever remain a mystery.

My loss time; your gain.

The 5th of November

Guy Fawkes was a Catholic in a time when the king of England, King James I, considered Catholicism a superstition and religious tolerance a waste of his time. Guy and his gang came up with a plan. On November 5, 1605, they were to don masks and blow up Parliament on Opening Day. Reader, it was not a success.

Bonfire with man jumping over it in the middle of a city street.
(Photo via Eazydee | Twitter)

To celebrate the king’s survival of the attempt on his life, the people of London lit bonfires like they just won the Super Bowl.

As the celebration became a yearly event—by an Act of Parliament, revelers added props to the festivities, including but not limited to effigies of the Pope, Devil, and a sundry of political figures. The anti-Catholic dangers of popery sentiments, obviously, remained.

In Colonial America

When colonists took up residence in New York and New England, they brought the good times with them, adding in the fun of poor kids begging for pennies.

Guy Fawkes stylized mask with goatee.
Guy Fawkes Mask. Source: Creative Commons

[Side note: this is also a feature of the Jewish holiday of Purim in which masks are also worn and one religion wanted to do away with another. Sadly, these holidays are at opposite ends of the year, so the crossover stops there. Except, now I want to dress up as Guy Fawkes for next Purim.]

The earliest known Guy Fawkes/Pope’s Night celebration in the colonies took place in 1623 in Plymouth. Drunken sailors built up huge bonfires and burned down several houses, to no one’s surprise.

A hundred years later, things settled down… somewhat. They replaced bonfires by parading the effigies through town and then brought to a specific location to be set on fire. Mostly, this night was celebrated by the “lower sort.” The sailors, laborers, apprentices, artisans, servants, and slaves. Except women. Or at least, women didn’t make the historical record. I, for one, would have loved standing at the back of the crowd just to watch those drunk fools from a safe distance.

South End Forever. North End Forever. Extraordinary Verses on Pope-Night. (A fragment of a song sheet.)
Pope Night Verses, 1768. Boston. Source: Public Domain

A letter to the editor of the Boston Weekly Post-Boy in 1745 laid it out in so many words:

Why the enormity above all others should be winked at, and the Inhabitants of the Town with their Dwellings left to the mercy of a rude and intoxicated Rabble, the very Dregs of the People, black and white, and why no more has been done to prevent or suppress such Riotous proceedings, which have been long growing upon us [ed: like this sentence!], and as long bewailed by all sober persons, must be humbly left to our betters to say.

— A letter to the editor of the Boston Weekly Post-Boy, 1745

I found an answer for our long-winded friend: Because the celebration was anti-Papal, town leaders allowed these wild celebrations to happen.

A conveyance and a parade to burn Guy Fawkes in effigy.
Detail from a 1768 broadside depicting Pope Night in Boston.
Source: Public Domain
Is that a triceratops on the right? What is happening here?

Connection the American Revolution??

Not the answer you were expecting, but twenty years later, those Rabble and Dregs in Boston became the leaders of the Sons of Liberty.

So, did Guy Fawkes Day, or Pope’s Night end because we won the Revolution?

Hold up. Not so fast.

It’s 1775, and General Washington wants to gain control of Quebec and convince Catholic French Canadians to form an alliance with the Americans in fighting the British. That wasn’t going to happen if the Continental Army went around singing anti-Catholic songs. General Washington forbid his troops to continue their “childish custom” and “improper” behavior.

A parade of re-enactors of the American Revolution carrying a Benedict Arnold effigy to where it will burn.
Annual Burning of Benedict Arnold.
Source: AtlasObscura

Even though it was a British victory, Benedict Arnold fought heroically for the Continental Army. In fact, this battle was when he received the injury that set him on a course for treason.

Interestingly, winning the Revolution didn’t dampen our taste for chaos and drunken bonfires (see Super Bowl above). So, for many years we supplanted Benedict Arnold into Guy Fawkes’ honor and celebrated our own brand of anti-treason…

…Until Halloween became a more popular holiday in the 19th century.


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Colonial Theatres

* Note on spelling: These buildings for the performing arts in colonial America are spelled “theatre” because they were built before the Revolution and therefore spelled in the British way.

Theatre has been important to English society since… well, at least Shakespeare… I assume. I didn’t go that far back in my research. But I can tell you that once the English set down roots in the American colonies, actors began performing.

The First Theatres

In the early years, actors performed plays and operas in taverns, barns, and warehouses. By 1716, professional actors from England had arrived, and Williamsburg, Virginia built the first theatre solely committed to performing. It was called the “Play House.” Actors put on English plays, frequently Shakespeare, until 1745 when the theatre was demolished and its frame was used to construct a town hall.1

New York’s first theatre, a small, two-story wooden structure, came a little later in 1732 on Nassau Street. It found its largest competition in the Royal Oak Tavern on Broadway, near Bowling Green.

Last week arrived here a company of comedians from Philadelphia, who we hear have taken a convenient room ... [on] Nassau Street, where they intend to perform as long as the season lasts, provided that they meet with suitable encouragement.
Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776
Image: Hallie Alexander, 2021

Interior of an American Theatre

A typical colonial theatre was shaped like a large rectangular room. The stage, a platform about five feet off the ground, took up one third of the room. Benches, known as the pit, filled the rest of the floor. 

It cost four shillings for the middling class to sit on the hard benches of the pit. They were allowed to bring their own cushions and foot warmers to make their experience more comfortable. The pit never permitted women. 

A longitudinal section through a playhouse drawn by Christopher Wren, believed to be Wren’s plan for the second Theatre Royal on Drury Lane. 1: Proscenium arch. 2: Four pairs of shutters across the stage. 3: Pit. 4: Galleries. 5: Boxes. Source: Wikimedia

Along the sides of the theatre, wealthy patrons paid five shillings to sit in boxes, much like the second Theatre Royal in Covent Garden (1674-1791).

And the last seating area, the gallery, students, sailors, and slaves watched the performances from above for two shillings each. 

The Playhouse Experience

Eighteenth century theatres were surprisingly loud and bright. Chandeliers and oil lamps illuminated them, offering the same level of brightness to both the performers and the audience. This made the space less dramatic and intimate, which lent to exuberant chatting.

A typical evening at a theatre lasted five hours. There was continuous entertainment, from Shakespeare plays, ballad operas, to musical performances.

The John Street Theatre

The John Street Theatre is commonly referred to as the city’s first permanent playhouse. It’s also considered the birthplace of American theatre because the first American-born playwright staged his play there. 

John Street Theatre. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The theatre was active from 1767-1798. It had two tiers of box seats, a pit, and a gallery. The dressing rooms were located in a shed at the back of the building. It sat 750 guests, which was far  larger than the Theatre on Nassau Street.

This is the theatre the British took over during their occupancy of New York in 1777. They renamed it “Theatre Royal” for the Covent Garden theatre. The British wanted to keep morale high for their soldiers living far from home. Major John Andre, hanged for spying and his dealings with Benedict Arnold, directed extravagant performances there. Not only did he act, he also painted his own scenery.

Name Dropping

Elizabeth “Eliza” Arnold Hopkins Poe (1787 – December 8, 1811). Source: Wikimedia

Six years after the British evacuated New York at the end of the war, in 1789, President George Washington enjoyed performances at the John Street Theatre. A few years later, Eliza Arnold took the stage as a cast member. She was Edgar Allan Poe’s mother.




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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


All refer to Koeppel, G. T.


  • 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.
  • 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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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.


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


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