A world like no other, situated in a magical corner of the city, where the city’s people came together to have a good time in public.
—New York Times, 1899
Castle Garden, also known as Castle Clinton National Monument, has had a varied past. Since its inception in 1808, the sandstone fortress in Manhattan’s Battery Park has been a military fortification, pleasure garden, and America’s first immigration center.
What was there before Castle Garden? Well, nothing in that exact spot. A little to the east along the Battery was the spot for Fort Amsterdam, which changed names to Fort George when the British took over. The fort was demolished after the American Revolution.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. *
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
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.
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 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. ***
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.
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
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.
6. Willis, Samuel J, and et al. “Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York, for the Years .. : New York (N.Y.). Common Council : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming.” Internet Archive. New York : The Council, January 1, 1970. https://archive.org/details/manualofcorporat1855newy.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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, please… BANKING!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Pumpsall 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Exchange Slip at the bottom of Broad Street.
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.
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
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.
Burling Slip, at the bottom of John Street. (Once known as Rodman’s Slip)
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.
James Slip, at the end of James Street.
Market Slip at the bottom of Market Street.
Pike Slip at the bottom of Pike St.
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.
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.
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.
[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.
A letter to the editor of the Boston Weekly Post-Boy in 1745 laid it out in so many words:
I found an answer for our long-winded friend: Because the celebration was anti-Papal, town leaders allowed these wild celebrations to happen.
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.
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.
* 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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
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
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.
*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 pleasuregardens, opened as a resort.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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, 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.
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 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]
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.
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.
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.
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.