Christopher Colles Had a Good Idea

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

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


Fish in a fresh pond with foliage around

The story of Manhattan can’t be told without talking about water. Which I do a lot on this blog… but for good reason. It’s not just because Manhattan is an island and therefore surrounded by all that wet stuff, but the sheer magnitude of population growth once it was colonized, and the fact that humans can’t live without drinking water.

You’d think the colonizers would have made drinking water a priority. You’d also think Europeans would have been as intelligent as the indigenous people already there to know you can’t trash an environment and expect it to remain pristine. After all, it’s not like the colonizers came from another planet. Sadly, that’s exactly what happened. The trashing, not the intergalactic colonizing.

Nature’s Natural Reservoir

If we go back to the beginning, to both the Lenape and and the start of this blog, I waxed poetically about Collect Pond for being a freshwater source on an island surrounded by briny rivers, a beautiful place for colonizers to picnic and boat in the summer, skate in the winter, and then dump industrial waste all year long.

Collect Pond before it was used as a dump.

For a while, the pond held itself in check. Tea Water Pumps all over the city delivered fresh water in wells dug to the same groundwater springs that fed the pond. Though, the farther one got from the Collect, the brinier and filthier the water. If folks wanted and could afford the freshest water, they paid Tea-Water Men to deliver it in casks.

All of this worked until it didn’t. Profound, I know. When it became obvious that there was a problem, a potentially huge problem, the New York Provincial Assembly passed a bill in 1742 aimed specifically at ensuring there was sufficient water in the city for fighting fires.

[This was after the fires from the Conspiracy of 1741, which was blamed on the Black population, though it was really white people acting out of fear of their enslaved population rising up against them. Racist is as racist does.]

Oops. They forgot about fresh, clean drinking water, not just the delivery of water.

Love That Dirty Water

That filthy water I mentioned? In short, it was caused by runoff. Have a dead pig? Leave it in the street to decompose and join the stream of refuse and human waste slowly making its way down to…

Who knows? The entire city was a stinking cesspool. Something needed to be done to save the residents of Manhattan from themselves.

Steam Engines in America

In 1774, New York City found a solution in Irish-born inventor, engineer and perennial schlimazel*, Christopher Colles.

Christopher Colles
Christopher Colles, circa 1812.

After arriving in Philadelphia and lecturing at the American Philosophical Society — a think tank started by Benjamin Franklin — the APS turned him down when he asked for a stipend to build a steam engine. Eventually, a local distillery hired him to build one for pumping water into cooling tanks. A noble purpose, especially by colonial American standards. Those folks loved their ale.

Colles’ steam engine is considered the first steam engine built in America. [Koeppel] By the way, Colles didn’t invent the steam engine. He endeavored to improve on Jonathan Hornblower’s English model.

Good Intentions

On April 22, 1774, coincidentally the same day as the New York Tea Party (like Boston, but in New York), Colles presented his plan to the Common Council — the alderman of the city with legislative power — to save Manhattan from its drinking water problem:

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

In short, Colles wanted to use a steam engine to pump water into a reservoir capable of holding 1,200,000 gallons of water for both drinking and fire fighting. In doing so, he intended to lay a network of pipes made of pitch pine logs bored out six inches and connected with iron rings. They were to be buried four feet under the street, and by gravity, convey a supply of fresh water throughout the fourteen miles of road that made up Manhattan.

After three months of deliberation, the Common Council approved Colles’ proposal. However, it didn’t quite happen as planned.

Manhattan, We Have A Problem

One stipulation from the Common Council was that Colles had to dig a well and prove good water came from it before he could go ahead building his steam engine and laying pipes. Not the problem.

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

Colles built his reservoir to hold 2,000,000 gallons of water. His steam engine worked ten strokes a minute — not as good as Hornblower’s, but not terrible. And they’d cast the cylinders in February 1775. Getting close to the problem.

The City of New York signed a contract with both Isaac Mann Sr. and Jr. from Albany, New York to purchase 60,000 feet of logs, fourteen to twenty feet long, without shakes or large knots. They were to be shipped down the Hudson later that year. Getting a lot closer to the problem.

April 1775 came, and so did the Battles of Lexington and Concord. There’s the problem.

For all his determination, Colles didn’t quit even as Manhattan emptied of businesses and families in preparation of what… or who… was to come.

Not Hamilton the Musical.

General Washington arrived in New York in April 1776 and fortified the city against the British. This was the breaking point of Colles’ project. He and his family fled the city for safety.

By the time the war was over in 1783, there was nothing left of Colles’ project. It would take over sixty years, many preventable deaths, and city-destroying fires before Manhattan had enough clean water to provide for her residents.

Burr Makes It to the Room Where It Happened

In the intervening years — after the war but before killing Alexander Hamilton — Aaron Burr conned the leaders of Manhattan and made a fortune before losing it all. And yes, this has everything to do with delivering fresh water to Manhattan. Next week: Part Two!


Footnote:

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

Source:

Burrows, Edwin G., and Mike Wallace. Gotham: a History of New York City to 1898. New York ; Oxford: Oxford university press, 1999.

Koeppel, Gerard T. Water for Gotham: a History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Images:

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Tea Water Pumps

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

Drinking Tea

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

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

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

Comfort’s Notorious Tea-Water Pump

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

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

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

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

Public Water Pumps

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

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

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

Tea-Water Men

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

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

— P. Kalm, 1748

*The* Tea-Water Pump

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

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

Footnotes:

All refer to Koeppel, G. T.

Sources:

  • Bock, Vera, Artist. History of civic services in the city of New York Water supply No. 2: The tea water pump garden. New York City New York, 1936. [New York: Federal Art Project , Pt. 4, 1936] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/98518656/.
  • The Catskill Aqueduct and Earlier Water Supplies of the City of New York: With Elementary Chapters on the Source and Uses of Water and the Building of Aqueducts, and an Outline for an Allegorical Pageant. (1917). United States: (n.p.).
  • Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York. (1918). (n.p.): (n.p.).
  • Koeppel, Gerard T. Water for Gotham: a History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Rescuing Her Rebel: Lydia's father intends to make a match for her at the winter ball while he ambushes his enemy — the man Lydia loves.


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Rescuing Her Rebel for free