Monday, April 20, 2009
'Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain'
A century ago, a book took America by storm. A new kind of children's fantasy told in conversational style, it captivated adults and children alike. Its decorative illustrations in color were unlike any that had appeared before, weaving the story into a wealth of beauty and form, of sense and nonsense, of joy and seriousness.
When it was published in 1900, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz enjoyed instant success. The first edition of 10,000 copies sold out in bookstores in the first two weeks. At the end of 1901, sales totaled nearly 90,000. After the author turned the book into a stage play titled The Wizard of Oz in 1903, starring Fred Stone as the Scarecrow, it played three seasons on Broadway and then toured for eight years. By the time the book’s copyright expired in 1956, a total of 4,195,667 copies had been sold, making it one of the best-selling children’s books of the twentieth century.
As a movie, however, the children’s classic has had a checkered history. In all, eight versions were filmed in the silent era before the 1939 Technicolor classic was made. The first, in 1910, was a filmed version of the 1903 Broadway musical. Nine-year-old Bebe Daniels, who later would star in films such as Rio Rita and 42nd Street, played Dorothy. In 1925, popular comedian Larry Semon directed a film version in which he played the Scarecrow. Rotund comedian Oliver Hardy, later one-half of the Laurel and Hardy team, played the Tin Woodman. Appropriately named 19-year old Dorothy Dwan played Dorothy. She and Semon were married just before the film’s release in January of 1925.
Sam Goldwyn bought the movie rights to the book for $40,000 in 1933. Five years later, he sold them to MGM for $75,000--a quick and easy profit, considering that he had done nothing about making a movie during that time. The eventual MGM film became the studio's second feature in three-strip Technicolor. The first had been Sweethearts, a 1938 adaptation of the Victor Herbert operetta, starring Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.
With limited space on movie marquees in mind, the film's title was shortened to The Wizard of Oz. Before it was completed, it would require the services of ten screenwriters, four directors and—in addition to the ten featured players—a small dog and 124 dwarfs of both sexes playing the Munchkins. The “little people,” as the studio referred to them, were mostly refugee circus performers from Central and Eastern Europe who presented housing headaches for MGM, often staging scandalous orgies in the Hollywood hotel in which they were quartered.
Screen credits show Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf as writers of the screenplay. In typical Hollywood fashion, others who worked on script revisions, often simultaneously, included Herman Mankiewicz (who would later write Citizen Kane and All About Eve), humorist Ogden Nash, Herbert Fields, poet Samuel Hoffenstein, Jack Mintz, Sid Silvers and John Lee Mahin. The title role was written with box-office draw W.C. Fields in mind. Producer Mervyn LeRoy wanted Ed Wynn, who turned down the role. MGM executive Arthur Freed wanted Fields, and offered him $75,000. Fields supposedly demanded $100,000, which was too steep for MGM’s budget.
The DirectorsThe film had four different directors: Richard Thorpe, George Cukor, Victor Fleming and King Vidor. When filming started, Judy Garland wore a blonde wig and heavy "baby-doll" makeup. Before he was fired, Thorpe, a workmanlike director, shot two weeks of material, none of which appears in the final film. The studio found his work unsatisfactory and called on George Cukor temporarily until a new director could be found. Cukor did not actually film any scenes. What he did was to modify Judy Garland's appearance by getting rid of the wig and the baby-doll makeup, and telling her to just be herself. Victor Fleming took over from him and filmed the bulk of the movie until he was assigned to Gone with the Wind. Veteran director King Vidor served briefly to wrap up the monochromatic Kansas scenes.
The CastIn 1938, MGM had 120 salaried stars and feature players under contract. From these, the studio managed to cast six of the major roles in The Wizard of Oz. It had to turn to agents only for the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton), the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), Auntie Em (Clara Blandick) and the little dog Toto. Surprisingly, the top salaries of $3,000 a week went to Ray Bolger (the Scarecrow) and Jack Haley (the Tin Woodman), followed by $2,500 to Frank Morgan (the Wizard and several other roles) and Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion). Margaret Hamilton received $1,000 a week, and held out for and got a guarantee of six weeks’ work. As it turned out, she was on the picture for four months and racked up a salary of $18,541.68. For each week’s work, Billie Burke (Glinda) took home $766.67 and Charley Grapewin (Uncle Henry) $750. Judy Garland (Dorothy) had to be content with a mere $500 a week. Toto, the little Cairn terrier, earned her trainer $125 a week.
After a number of popular stars rejected the role of the Wizard as too small, MGM decided to include the roles of Professor Marvel, the doorman and palace guard, as well as the coachman who would perform a musical number. This was to increase the screen time for the actor playing the title role to match the rest of the cast. Even so, the film occupied little of contract player Frank Morgan’s working time—less than a week as Professor Marvel and a few more weeks as the Wizard in the other roles. Morgan (real name, Wuppermann) was an heir to the Angostura bitters fortune.
Usually playing jovial or befuddled characters, Frank Morgan, like many Hollywood stars, had a secret--a drinking problem. His favorite drink was Champagne, and he always carried a supply in small attaché case fitted with a minibar. From time to time on the set he would repair to his dressing room “for a little snifter,” but his drinking never caused him to muff his lines. His occasional attempts to stop drinking, however, would leave him short-tempered and irritable. On the Oz set, director Victor Fleming once told him to “get back on the Champagne kick so we can live together.” He died of a heart attack in 1949 at the age of 59. Unlike many movie stars, Frank Morgan is not buried in California but in the family plot in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery (Sect. 168, Lot 1447).
Makeup ProblemsElaborate makeup was a problem for the players in the film. Long hours were spent in the makeup chair while elaborate facial changes were made to the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion. Judy Garland’s dumpy teenage figure required a tightly laced corset that also flattened her breasts. Ray Bolger was originally cast as the Tin Woodsman, but insisted that he would rather play the Scarecrow. His childhood idol, Fred Stone, had originated that role on Broadway in 1903. Lanky dancer Buddy Ebsen, who had been cast as the Scarecrow, switched roles with Bolger. But the special makeup for the Tin Woodsman was toxic. Ebsen had a violent reaction to the aluminum powder dusted on his face and hands and wound up in intensive care in the hospital. In the makeup used on his replacement, Jack Haley, aluminum paste was substituted for the aluminum dust that had poisoned Ebsen.
Dorothy’s line, "Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." was voted as #4 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Movie Lines. "There's no place like home" was voted as #23. “I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog, too” squeaked in at #99.
SongsThe songs in The Wizard of Oz were the result of the collaboration between prolficic songwriter Harold Arlen, who was only 33 years old, and lyricist E.Y. “Yip” Harburg. Arlen would work with 31 lyricists over his long career. (Harburg was earlier responsible for the lyrics of the hauntingly beautiful “April in Paris” and the anthem of the Great Depresion, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”) Among the dozen Oz songs, the wistful classic “Over the Rainbow” would become a Judy Garland standard. It was voted #1 in the American Film Institute's list of "The 100 Years of the Greatest Songs."
Honors“Over the Rainbow” won the film’s only Oscar. The Wizard of Oz was voted #6 in movies in the AFI’s 1998 list of top movies in 100 years of film making, #1 in fantasy films, #26 in inspirational movies, and #3 in movie musicals. Judy Garland was voted # 8 in the AFI’s list of 100 top movie stars.
AftermathThe film began shooting on October 13, 1938, and was completed on March 16, 1939, at a record-breaking cost of $2,777,000. It earned only $3,017,000 on its initial release. After the costs of distribution, prints and advertising were added to its production cost, the loss to MGM came to nearly a million dollars. The film came close to making a profit during its first re-release in 1948-49, when it brought in another $1,500,000. It did not really begin to make money until 1956 when it was leased to TV. By 1976, theatrical distribution had yielded MGM a total of $4,800,000. The combined take from leasing the film for TV, first to CBS and then to NBC, was more than twice that--$9,950,000.
The Wizard of Oz received only a single mention in The Guinness Book of World Records. Ironically, this was for the dubious honor of being the film to which a live-action sequel was added after the longest period of time. The 1985 sequel titled Return to Oz was released 46 years after the original.
Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Judy Garland's real name was Frances Ethel Gumm. (Her father's name was Francis and her mother's name was Ethel.) She hated her name and changed it as soon as she could. She made her first movie for MGM in 1936 when she was 14 years old. To control her tendency to chubbiness, the studio alternately dosed her with amphetamines to speed up her metabolism and control her weight, followed by sleeping pills to bring her down from the amphetamine high. As a result, she became addicted to prescription drugs and continued to abuse them during most of her adult life.
Judy Garland died in London of an accidental dose of barbiturates on June 22, 1969, a dozen days after her 47th birthday. Fans who lvisit the graves of the famous don't have to go to California to find Judy Garland's last resting place. She is buried at Ferncliff Cemetery on Secor Road in Hartsdale, N.Y., in Unit 9, Alcove HH, Crypt 31. By coincidence, prolific composer of "Over the Rainbow," Harold Arlen (real name: Hyman Arluck), is also buried at Ferncliff in Grave 1666 of the Hickory Plot.
It may come as a surprise to learn that Ferncliff has represented the final curtain call for many stars of stage and screen, including Joan Crawford, Ona Munson (who played Belle Watling, the good-hearted bordello madam in Gone with the Wind), Basil Rathbone, Jerome Kern, Preston Sturges (whose The Lady Eve is still one of the most delirious screwball comedies ever made), Paul Robson, Ed Sullivan, and Frances Ford Seymour, mother of Jane and Peter Fonda. Other perhaps less well-remembered names include Richard Barthelmess, Irene Bordoni, Connee Boswell, Lya De Putti, Hugh Marlowe and Raymond Walburn.
Monday, April 13, 2009
'No Irish Need Apply.' The Clash of Cultures Along the Old Croton Aqueduct
Long before the first shovelful of dirt was turned, it was obvious that the Croton Aqueduct faced massive problems. The land along the Croton and Hudson Rivers through which it would pass was already well settled. With the breakup of the manors of Cortlandt, Philipsburgh and Fordham after the Revolution, many tenant families purchased the properties they farmed. After the War of 1812, wealthy merchants and speculators from New York City bought up much of the remaining desirable land along the Hudson and built large mansions.
By the mid-1830's, some 200 landowners along the route of the 41-mile-long aqueduct and on the site of the future Croton Reservoir would have to be compensated and, in some cases, moved. One impediment to the start of construction was the requirement to ascertain the names of all persons holding title to land along its right of way and for one of the aqueduct engineers to visit each person.
"Some of them are not at home when called on; others are a mile or two away from their residences; and many who are seen want time to make up their minds as to the amount of compensation they are to receive." So wrote Maj. David B. Douglass, chief engineer of the Croton Aqueduct, a hero of the War of 1812, and former professor of engineering at West Point. Legally, work could not begin on any land that had not been appraised or purchased. Slow moving and cautious, Douglass--on the job for little more than a year--was replaced in 1836 by self-taught engineer John B. Jervis, who would see the project through to completion.
Westchester residents fought the aqueduct at every turn. When the state legislature met for its 1836 session, it was besieged with demands that the powers of the water commissioners granted in 1834 be reduced. An act was passed directing that land taken for the aqueduct and not used for that purpose be returned to its original owners. It also stipulated that necessary fences, culverts and overpasses would be built.
In 1837, spurred by Theodorus C. Van Wyck--the same unrelenting foe of the Croton project who had distributed handbills during the 1835 vote--angry Westchester citizens again petitioned the legislature. They attacked the Croton Aqueduct for unconstitutionally extending the boundaries of New York City and "invading the historic manor of Cortlandt and County of Westchester." Landowners demanded that the 1835 act be repealed because it deprived them of their property without their consent and against their will. Unfortunately for them, the state had the legal right to claim private lands for public works.
Compounding the delay, as the first construction contracts were about to be signed, the financial panic of 1837 erupted. Although required by law to make payments in specie (hard coinage), New York banks decided to resort to using paper money. This completely demoralized money markets. In that year alone 618 banks failed, and the ensuing depression lasted about seven years. Although bids had been received on 23 sections of the aqueduct, bids on ten sections were deemed to be too high. The city's tightened purse strings allowed contracts to be let only on 13, totaling $921,698. With 86 sections yet to be bid on, it was obvious that the total cost of the Croton Aqueduct would exceed the $5 million estimate.
Hostility toward the aqueduct took many forms. Surveying parties were denied access to some properties under threat of suits for trespass. Surveyors were subjected to abusive language or even assaulted. Stakes hammered into the ground to mark site boundaries mysteriously disappeared. Landowners attempted to extract every bit of compensation they could by any means. Opportunistic speculators bought up farmland along the route of the aqueduct, divided it into village lots, and tried to convince aqueduct appraisers of their inflated values.
Landowners vs. Laborers
Once construction began, many claimed they had suffered grievous injury because of theft by construction workers of fruits, vegetables, timber and tools. Affidavits were presented alleging extensive damages. One stated, "A residence near this aqueduct is extremely unpleasant, by reason of the noises, riots, and drunken revels of the said laborers." Moreover, it was "unsafe and imprudent for a respectable female to walk on, or near, or along where said aqueduct is constructing." To counter these, other affidavits were offered from farmers who indicated they had never lost any property or heard of women being insulted, claiming, "so far as their observation extends, the laborers are a civil people."
The "laborers" in question were workers, mostly recent immigrants from Ireland who had been engaged to build the aqueduct. Unlike new arrivals from Germany and Scandinavia who sought farmland, the Irish--although chiefly from rural areas--tended to cluster in Eastern seaboard cities where they sought work as laborers or servants. Usually penniless on arrival and not easily assimilated into a Protestant, industrialized, urban culture, the Irish found housing only in the worst slums. The stereotype of the hard-drinking, brawling Irish Paddy took hold early. In Eastern cities, it was not unusual for advertisements in newspapers to state bluntly, "No Irish need apply."
During the 1830's, the Irish comprised 44 percent of all immigrants. “From Ireland there comes yearly a great rabble, who because of their tendency to drunkenness, their fighting and their knavery, make themselves commonly hated," one observer wrote. “A respectable Irishman hardly dares acknowledge his nationality.” Yet they were ambitious, hardworking, energetic--and aggressively patriotic, as the large numbers who later served in Irish regiments during the Civil War attested. Thirty-eight Union regiments had the word "Irish" in their names. .
A people accustomed to dealing with rent collectors and oppressive landlords, they knew the advantages of organization and took to city politics with skill and enthusiasm. No immigrant group made its influence felt in political life quicker or more effectively than the Irish.
Prejudice Rears Its Ugly Head
"It is a fact," declared Samuel F.B. Morse, professor of painting and sculpture at N.Y.U. and inventor of the telegraph, "that an unaccountable disposition to riotous conduct has manifested itself within a few years when exciting topics are publicly discussed, wholly at variance with the former peaceful, deliberative character of our people." Morse, the author of two books that fanned the fires of nativism, was deeply suspicious of Catholic motives in the United States, saw Catholic enterprise as propaganda for a return to monarchy.
In his Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States, first published in 1835, Morse wrote: “Surely American Protestants, freemen, have discernment enough to discover beneath them the cloven foot of this subtle foreign heresy. They will see that Popery is now, what it has ever been, a system of the darkest political intrigue and despotism, cloaking itself to avoid attack under the sacred name of religion. They will be deeply impressed with the truth, that Popery is a political as well as a religious system; that in this respect it differs totally from all other sects, from all other forms of religion in the country.”
Washington Irving also echoed the xenophobia. In an 1840 letter to the editor of Knickerbocker Magazine in New York City, he described how a camp of Irish laborers near Sleepy Hollow had been beset by the headless apparitions associated with the place and aroused by “strangers of an unknown tongue.” These ghostly specters intimidated the workers, and kept them from walking past the haunted Dutch church to nearby whiskey mills, so that “the paddys will not any longer venture out of their shantys at night.” Irving warned that if the harrying continued, the aqueduct workers, tired of being cut off from their whisky, might “entirely abandon the goblin regions of Sleepy Hollow, and the completion of the Croton Waterworks be seriously retarded."
As part of their contract with the city, aqueduct contractors had agreed not to "give or sell any ardent spirits to their workmen," or to permit any such spirits to be given or sold, or even brought upon the line. Despite all efforts to keep liquor away from aqueduct laborers, the water commissioners noted that "the love of lucre has induced certain individuals, regardless of the injury inflicted on others, to open places of resort for the laborers, where this enemy of man may be obtained, in any quantity, for money." A few unscrupulous Westchester farmers even turned their homes into taverns where aqueduct workers could imbibe "a drop of the creature." Conniving local magistrates collaborated in this practice by granting licenses.
The Irish also brought with them their sectarian secret organizations. Among these were the pro-Catholic ribbon societies, so-called because members wore a green ribbon. Traditional Irish factionalism erupted on the aqueduct in April of 1838, with a battle between men from County Cork in southwest Ireland, and those from Fermanagh in northern Ireland. Many were injured, and one man was killed. A resident engineer's report casually dismissed the incident: "The affair that resulted in the death of one of the overseers on Section 10 appears to have been nothing more than one of the usual Irish fighting frolics."
Property owners continued to complain about the depredations of aqueduct laborers. Presenting a bill of $3,012 for his losses in 1840, Joshua Purdy wrote: "I have made it for damages actually sustained and have not taken into consideration the inconvenience, trouble and anxiety of having between three & four hundred Irishmen upon my own farm and within a few rods of my dwelling house--for of that no calculation could be formed or any calculation made--of this I do not now nor shall not hereafter make any charge. But I can assure you it is no pleasant thing to have huts or shantees as they are called stuck up within a few rods of my dwelling and peopled with the lowest and most filthy of mankind, children nearly naked before your eyes, and that of your family."
Some idea of the inflation of land prices caused by claims and protracted negotiations may be gleaned from the following statistics: Originally estimated at $36,000, the 813 acres of land bought for the Croton Aqueduct actually cost the city $165,786. Land for the reservoir created by the Croton Dam, estimated at $28,500, set the city back $91,412.
The widespread unemployment resulting from the 1837 financial panic allowed wages to be kept low for the thousands of workers from the construction trades and the hordes of recently arrived Irish immigrants who found work on the aqueduct. Resentment over low wages and strict work rules led to violent strikes--"turn-outs" in official reports--took place during the building of the aqueduct. At the outset, laborers earned 75 cents a day. In the spring of 1838, when contractors offered them 81-1/4 cents a day, they demanded more. The laborers laid down their tools and marched "in a tumultuous manner" along the route of the aqueduct from Croton Dam to Sing Sing (Ossining). Along the way, they forced other aqueduct workers to join them until the protesters numbered several hundred. Local magistrates broke up their demonstration. After another strike in July of 1838, contractors raised wages to a dollar a day, and this rate was maintained during the summer of 1839. During the shorter days of winter, however, wages were cut back to 75 cents. In April of 1840, laborers again demanded a dollar a day, but contractors insisted on retaining the 75-cent rate.
By the spring of 1840 the aqueduct reached the northern edge of the city. Former mayor Philip Hone, the indefatigable diarist upon whom we are dependent for much of our knowledge of the life and times of the period, recorded:” There has been a flare-up amongst the Irish laborers on the Croton Aqueduct occasioned by the contractors reducing their wages from $1 to 75 cents/day. Large numbers turned out and marched from Westchester to Harlem, prevented others from working, and committed some acts of violence upon the workers."
This strike caused a worried Mayor Isaac Varian to try to intimidate the rebellious workers by calling out and leading three troops of aging mounted militia of the 27th Regiment of the National Guard. “The dogs barked, the boys shouted, the men laughed, the ladies smiled, and the men looked silly,” reported James Gordon Bennett’s Morning Herald. The part-time soldiers patrolled the line of the aqueduct as far as the Harlem River, but the Irish instinct to see life in a comic light prevailed. After meeting with good-natured heckling from the strikers, the cavalry troopers retreated. Because the depression caused by the financial panic of 1837 was still being felt, the laborers had to settle for 75 cents a day.
In spite of many handicaps, the Croton Aqueduct was completed in 1842 and brought an abundant daily supply of 90 million gallons of water to New York City. By the early 1880’s the Croton water, even after being supplemented by 20 million gallons of Bronx River water, had become inadequate for the city’s needs. A New Croton Aqueduct was authorized in 1883. Begun in 1885, it came partially on line in 1891 and was fully completed in 1893. The new system expanded the carrying capacity by 300 million gallons of water daily.
More Than Water
The Old Croton Aqueduct did more than carry water. Indirectly, it brought Roman Catholicism to the lower Hudson Valley. In cities, immigrants from Ireland tended to cluster around existing Catholic churches. Workers on the Croton Aqueduct, however, had no access to houses of worship. Missionary priests, notably Father James Cummiskey traveling from Sing Sing (Ossining), ministered to their needs in makeshift accommodations all along the aqueduct line.. Informal services in sheds and private homes provided the seedbed for the establishment of Westchester County's first Roman Catholic parishes in Yonkers, Dobbs Ferry, Beekmantown (later North Tarrytown, now Sleepy Hollow), and Sing Sing.
As it turned out, the thousands of Irish who labored to build the Old Croton Aqueduct were only the vanguard of the millions who would flee the Emerald Isle because of the Great Famine. Between 1845 and 1855, some 1,500,000 persons would leave Ireland for the United States. Paradoxically, the Irish influx was exactly what a growing America needed and what this country did not have: a laboring class with little choice but to accept the jobs that were offered. Fortunately, jobs such as digging canals and building aqueducts and railroads were many.
Pick-and-shovel work was new to America, and few Americans wanted to do it. As a result, successive waves of Irish were welcomed to the cities, where their labor met the need for better streets, sewers and new housing, all the while suffering terrible hardships doing the roughest, most dangerous work without complaint. The Irish hod carrier and bricklayer became the butt of many a vaudeville joke. With time, however, prejudices eventually faded, as the brawn and mechanical skills of the Irish made their adopted country an industrial giant and the envy of the world.
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.