Monday, April 06, 2009

How Epidemics and Fires Led to the Building of the Croton Aqueduct


Water has always been a problem for New York City. The lack of it had been one of the reasons the Dutch lost their colony of New Amsterdam to the British. When British warships arrived in the harbor late in August of 1664, Peter Stuyvesant, the colony's authoritarian governor, caved in quickly and surrendered. The doughty one-legged governor later defended his action in a report to the Dutch West India Company. "The little fort was and is without a well or cistern." The new English governor, Richard Nicolls, hastily rectified that oversight. "I am very proud of a well in the fort which I caused to be made," he reported in 1666.

This first public well marked both the end of Dutch rule and the beginning of the city's hunt for potable water, a search that continues to this day. A second public well, this one lined with stone, was dug in 1671 behind the Stadt Huys, the first city hall. Systematic digging of public wells began in 1677. In 1810, when New York surpassed Philadelphia in population to become the nation's largest city, it could count 249 public wells, although their water quality was uniformly poor.

A Breeding Ground for Disease
New York City had every reason to welcome fresh water. Dogs, pigs, horses and cattle roamed freely everywhere. Backyard outhouses and cesspools, rarely cleaned and often overflowing, were common. Not only were the underground aquifers contaminated by human and animal waste, they also received the outflow from graveyards, stables, tanneries, breweries, distilleries, slaughterhouses, and foundries.

The stench emanating from the city was appalling. Travelers often reported they could smell the city from two or three miles away. "There is no good water to be met with in the town itself," declared Peter Kalm, a visiting Swedish botanist, in 1748, adding that even horses balked at drinking it. Epidemic diseases--yellow fever, Asiatic cholera and typhoid fever--were a constant threat.

In the summer of 1832, cholera alone killed 3,513 New Yorkers, largely slum dwellers. Another outbreak of cholera occurred in 1834, causing a 50 percent increase in deaths over 1833. This was in sharp contrast to Philadelphia's experience. The City of Brotherly Love had curtailed the disease by instituting a vigorous street-flushing campaign. It occurred to no one in New York City that contaminated water might be a direct cause.

The city's muddy streets were repositories of garbage and animal excrement. Slaughterhouses, tanneries, glue works and stables disposed of their wastes indiscriminately in the streets, where roving bands of pigs scavenged among the garbage. For some inexplicable reason, in 1819 the Common Council had prohibited the use of sewers to carry off human waste. Instead, human waste was stored in vaults beneath backyard outhouses. A city ordinance required that these be made of stone, be at least five feet deep and be inspected regularly. In actuality, many were shallow and made of brick and wood for which exemptions were granted.

Privies were emptied from time to time by "necessary tubmen," one of the few jobs reserved exclusively for blacks. Employed by the city, they were required to carry their loads of odoriferous tubs in closed carts, and to travel through the streets late at night or early in the morning, Their loads were dumped in landfills or delivered to fertilizer dealers who mixed them with sawdust and charcoal to produce a light manure that was sold to farmers. The tubs also could be dumped freely into the city's rivers, where they quickly coatd the pilings of the docks and the shoreline with a slime that assailed the eyes and nostrils. One thing the tubmen were not allowed to do with human waste was to empty it into sewers.

In 1829 the city's Lyceum of Natural History estimated that each day the city's residents deposited over 100 tons of human excrement into the soil of the city. This, in turn, percolated down into the water table and contaminated underground streams, springs and wells. Standing in the way of indoor water closets, of course, was the lack of an adequate supply of water.

Fire, Another Menace
No less menacing than disease was fire. Shortly after British troops occupied New York City in 1776, a huge fire destroyed 493 houses--one quarter of the buildings. By the year 1790, New York had a population of 33,131. In the short space of 50 years it would swell to more than a half million persons, largely concentrated at the southern end of Manhattan Island. Water shortages and disastrous fires would become common.

In October of 1832 the Common Council appropriated a thousand dollars for a study of how to bring water to the city. The report rendered a scant two months later suggested that the Croton River in northern Westchester County would be the best source of "an inexaustible supply." Other areas considered were the watersheds of the Bronx River, the Passaic River in New Jersey and the Housatonic River in Connecticut. The following year the state legislature authorized the creation of the New York State Water Commission, to be headed by former Mayor Stephen Allen, who had served from 1821 to 1824. Surveyors hired by the Commission declared the Croton project feasible, but set the cost at $5 million.

Supporting the project was a powerful lobby made up landowners, developers, banks and insurance companies. Their impetus was the frequent fires that threatened the real estate boom the city was undergoing. Fires had decimated wealthy areas of the city as well as slum areas. Insurance company directors were heavily represeneted on the Common Council and on the Water Commission. Factories, breweries, distilleries, tanneries, dye works and soap makers all used water, not to mention the city's many taverns and grog shops. Other businesses relied on steam engines to power machinery--60 of them could be counted in the city in 1834.

Up until that time, the city's fire prevention efforts had been focused on extending the "fire limits"--that section of the city where building codes regulated the design and construction materials of both residential and commercial buildings. In 1812 the fire lmits applied only to Manhattan south of Chambers Street. Three years later they were extended to a line extending from river to river just north of Washington Square. By 1833 fire limits had reached Second Street and the year following to 14th Street.

The city had spread north so quickly it could no longer rely on chuch sextons to sound the alarm when a fire was detected, so it substituted strategically placed bell towers, with the number of clangs souunded indicating in which of the city's five fire districts a blaze had been detected. But these wooden structures often fell prey to the fires themselves. In April of 1835 city officials stationed around-the-clock spotters who would ring a fire bell and hang a lantern indicating the direction of the fire.

To increase the availability of water for fire fighting, the Common Council created a temporary network of 40 cisterns, usually located beside a church in which to collect rainwater. Even small fires taxed the volunteer fire companies. City pumps emptied well water into troughs. From these, the water was relayed to the site of the fire by bucket lines. Later, primitive hand-operated pumps supplied water through copper-riveted leather hose. During summer droughts or winter cold spells, firefighters were handicapped by a shortage of water in wells and cisterns.

In periods of low rainfall. water from the Hudson (then called the North River) and the East River could be used. Fire companies dreaded a call to Grand Street, which ran east-west at Manhattan's widest part. Lined up and relaying water from one engine to the other, it could take twenty engine companies and a mile of hose to get a stream of brackish water from the river to the fire.

Neither cisterns nor river water could generate enough pressure to reach the top floors of the newer and taller buildings. In 1829 the city constructed a reservoir at the Bowery and 13th Street. A huge cast-iron tank 43 feet in diameter, 20 feet high with a capacity of 305,422 gallons was built atop an octagomal stone tower itself 27 feet high. Water flowed from it south to the city through iron pipes, one set running down Broadway to Canal Street, and the other down the Bowery to Catherine Street. These were connected to hydrants making it possible to project water up to the roofs of three-story houses, even without the use of engines.

The number of hydrants was soon increased and street boxes containing coils of hoses made of hemp were placed nearby. But the tank at 13th Street could not supply water to fight simultaneous fires, nor could it supply enough pressure to reach the tops of the four- and five-story warehouses being constructed along the waterfront.

Complicating firefighters' problems, in 1833 foundry owner James Allaire erected Manhattan's first "tenement" house on Water Street, just east of Jackson Street (the site is now in Corlears Hook Park)--a four-story, 60-foot-deep building to house his workers and their families. The word tenement was a legal term describing any residential building with more than three family units. Tenement housing grew rapidly. On July 1, 1865, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper reported that NewYork had more than 15,000 tenements, each housing on average more than seven failies each.

The Croton Aqueduct
If the Old Croton Aqueduct could be said to have a birthday, it would be February 26th. On that day in 1833, the state legislature, passed enabling legislation for appointment of five water commissioners to plan for the acquisition of lands and construction of a dam and aqueduct to bring water to New York City from Westchester.

This action immediately aroused stubborn opposition in Westchester. Landowners and farmers understandably were suspicious of a project that threatened both their property rights and their peace of mind, and unhappy over the prospect of a small army of intemperate laborers camped nearby. Nevertheless, the commissioners appointed Majoor David B. Douglass, professor of civil engineering at West Point, to draw up prelinary plans and map the route of a proposed aqueduct. On May 2nd, 1834, the legislature passed another law "for Supplying the City of New York with Pure and Wholesome Water."

It remainod for citizens of the city to vote on the project. The estimated cost was $5,412,000--about five times the city's annual budget. One Westchester resident, Theodorus C. Van Wyck, rode his horse to Manhattan and distributed handbills at each polling place opposing the acqueduct, but the outcome was never in doubt. After voting during three days in mid-April of 1835, aided by a bit of electioneering in the form of free samples of Croton water from barrels at the polls, citizens of the city made their desires known: 17,330 in favor of the Croton project and 5,963 against. Voters in favor of Croton water were a majority in twelve of the city's fifteen wards. The exceptions were two of the poorest wards in the Lower East Side with the worst water in the city and one in northern part of the city where water quality in wells was still good.

In December of 1835, only eight months after the vote, the need for an adequate supply of water was underscored when New York City suffered one of the worst disasters in its history. The great fire of December 17th wiped out many of the city's early buildings that had survived the fires of the Revolution. Before the conflagration was extinguished, it leveled 20 blocks, destroyed 674 buildings, 530 of which were warehouses or commercial establishments. Estimates of property loss reached $40 million. Fifteen hundred merchants were ruined, and nearly all the city's fire insurance companies went bankrupt.

At last, an adequate supply of water was definitely to be part of New York City's future. Actual construction of the Croton Aqueduct would not begin until two years later in the midst of the financial panic of 1837. Another five years would elapse before water would begin to flow to the city.

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