The Story of New York's Water Woes (1783-1842)

crucial component for an effective 1800s firefighting system, in addition to engines, hose, and men, was an abundant supply of water. New York struggled all through the early Federal period to provide enough potable water for its burgeoning population. Reports in the late 1790s also blamed the epidemics, like the virulent outbreak of yellow fever in 1798, on the stagnant, putrid pools of water in cisterns, swamps, ponds, and canals. Water to quench fires did not have to be that pristine but even the salty water from the bay or the polluted water from the ponds had to be delivered to fire grounds in some more efficient way than a line of eighteen engines. The proposed solution was a water supply system like Philadelphia's using water from the Bronx River. In 1798, the Common Council decided to ask the state legislature for authority to construct a water works with pipes. Unfortunately, the project, originally conceived by the Common Council as being under their control, was "hijacked" by private interests led by Aaron Burr.

Burr and his wealthy Manhattan Company collaborators probably never intended to build an aqueduct from the Bronx River. It would have been too expensive and risky. Their investment was clearly much better served by supplying much-needed capital to the mercantile interests of the city. The Company dug a few wells, built a small inadequate reservoir...less than ten per cent of what was needed, and piped everything through cheap hollow logs instead of the iron pipes recommended by engineers. Their de-emphasis of funding for the water-works meant that New Yorkers would not get an adequate supply of pure and wholesome water as originally envisioned.

After the first year the cost-saving wooden logs supplied less than one per cent of the homes in the city. Yellow fever, what the state legislators wanted desperately to avoid, came back, and while not as bad as the year before, killed hundreds more. On the positive side, the bank was quite profitable in its first year paying a dividend to its shrewd investors, including Burr. "Thanks to Burr and his cohorts, who had hijacked a civic movement in order to launch a profit-making venture, New York would remain without a decent water supply for another four decades..."

Although the Manhattan Company did pump enough water to maintain its charter, it never came close to meeting the needs of the expanding city. By 1808 the company supplied two thousand customers, less than fifteen per cent of the city's households. By 1830, the company had forty miles of pipes but still served only about one-third of the city. Almost from the beginning its customers complained about the quality of the water. The water had "a peculiar hue and taste" that was "...impregnated with certain saline properties...". Moreover, as the city grew inexorably north, the new neighborhoods rejected polluted Manhattan Company water, preferring more potable water from local city wells...there were few Manhattan Company pipes above Grand Street.

For decades every effort the Mayor and Common Council made to provide ‘pure and wholesome water' came to nothing. In 1819 Robert Macomb proposed bringing water to the city from the Bronx River. The Common Council granted Macomb's private company the right to construct the water works and lay the pipes but the project never was begun. It may have been that his company could not raise the money required.

In 1822 the Common Council revived the Bronx River scheme and funded a survey and estimates from a well-respected engineer, Canvass White. In 1823, while White was analyzing the efficacy of the Bronx River as a source of water, the Common Council approved another project, a canal from Sharon, Connecticut to the city, which the New York state Legislature chartered at the request of the city. Insufficient capital, lawsuits and mismanagement doomed this effort.

Then White's report, two years in the making, presented four plans for bringing in water from the Bronx. The cost estimates for the plans varied between approximately $1 million to $2 million dollars. In 1825, a company was incorporated appointing White as head engineer. However, its charter conflicted with the rights already granted the Sharon Canal Company and the Manhattan Company. Apparently the Sharon Company did not have funds enough to build a canal but had enough money to litigate. And, of course, the Manhattan Company had more than enough money and clout to attack defective charters. White's company was gone by 1827.

The city was desperate for water. Most citizens and virtually all medical practitioners believed the lack of ‘pure and wholesome' water caused or promoted infectious disease. Yellow fever epidemics from 1798 to 1822 killed thousands although as time progressed fewer and fewer people seemed to die of the disease. Still the onset of the disease in 1822, as mild as it was, caused a mass exodus from the city and shutdown most businesses for several months. But, epidemics alone did not galvanize the city leadership into effective action.

Fire was a different kind of disaster. It could shut down businesses permanently. If the fire were big enough, it would even bankrupt insurance companies, many of whose investors were large property owners or Common Council members. Typically, after a large fire, the Common Council would react quickly. In response to an 1804 fire that destroyed forty-four buildings worth about $2 million, the Council increased the number of engines and firemen, built new fire houses, added fire wardens and Assistant Engineers, and issued comprehensive guidelines for the fire department. By 1806 the department had thirty-four engines and seven hundred sixty one firemen. After a large fire in 1811 near the corner of Duane and Chatham Streets, the Council took its first step to build a system of reservoirs and cisterns to be used only for firefighting. City Hall was to have two reservoirs of two hundred hogshead each, which meant each reservoir could supply an engine pumping 50 to 60 gallons per minute for about four hours.

The Council's plan to extend these cisterns throughout the interior of the city next to churches, at the expense of their congregations, met with little enthusiasm. Eventually, the city itself began building the cisterns and assessing the neighborhood served rather than a congregation. In 1825 the Common Council authorized fifteen cisterns, about half of them near churches, but also near schools, markets, and major intersections. The cistern system seemed to work and seven additional cisterns were authorized and built in the next two years.

In 1828 a fire broke out in livery stables on Bayard Street, spread in minutes to a half dozen adjacent buildings, and soon consumed the magnificent Bowery Theater and most other buildings on the Bayard-Bowery-Pump- Elizabeth Street block. It took the firefighters five hours to quench the blaze. A month later Jameson Cox, the Chief Engineer, in his report to the Common Council, noted cisterns near the most recent fire had been depleted by frequent use. The fire in his opinion would have been controlled much sooner if there had been adequate water. Cox proposed to almost double the number of cisterns in the city, generally in the northern neighborhoods, on average about a half mile from one of the rivers. In August the Council authorized eighteen more cisterns.

In 1829, the Council began to take more assertive steps. Perhaps it was Fire Chief Jameson Cox's final report that motivated the council into action. Cox reminded the Council that "Various Institutions have been chartered for the purpose of bringing Water into the City, but none have as yet ever complied with the main object of their Charters..." and "The water pipes of the Manhattan Company extend to such parts of the City as they may deem advisable to put them, on the score of profit..." but "...the upper part of our City... are unwilling generally to take the Manhattan water..." because of its poor quality. "The result is, that all that part of the City lying above Grand street on Broadway, or Pearl street on the east side of the City, has not the use of the Manhattan water for the purpose of extinguishing fires."

With no water from the Manhattan Company for firefighting, the fastest growing section of the city was dangerously vulnerable. From Grand Street to 14th Street, Manhattan Island was about one mile wide. Relying on a chain of engines and hose from the rivers was impractical. To reach and fight even a small mid-town fire with two lines would require a massive mobilization of twenty-six engines. A bigger fire mid-town would be a disaster since the entire department, with less than fifty engines, could only form three complete lines.

One solution the Committee on the Fire Department evaluated was to extend the system of cisterns. The city already had forty cisterns each with a capacity of about sixty-three hundred gallons and each costing about six hundred dollars. To adequately cover the newer section of the city would require sixty more cisterns, which would cost thirty-six thousand dollars. The extension to the cistern system was feasible and provided for short term fire needs, but many considered it to be a technological dead end. In addition to ongoing maintenance costs, the cisterns and had a life expectancy of twenty to twenty-five years at which time they would need to be rebuilt. Moreover, in the not too distant future (they hoped), a water system would deliver copious quantities of water into the city. When that happened, the alternative of an expanded cistern system, if built, "...would become worse than useless."

The Fire Committee proposed an alternative, which was to build a reservoir near 13th and Bowery Streets with a capacity of about twenty cisterns (126,000 gallons or 17,000 cubic feet) that would feed two pipes each twelve inches in diameter and about one mile long. One pipe would be laid down Broadway to Park Row (nee Chatham); the other, down Bowery to Canal Street. With a twenty foot high reservoir built on the higher ground at 13th Street, water pressure would enable water flowing through pipes, hydrants and hoses to form streams as high as three stories. The cost of this alternative system would be $26,000 plus the annual expense of a horse-driven pump. The water to fill the reservoir and pipes would come from wells already dug.

The benefits that would accrue this proposal from the Committee on the Fire Department were clear. The Reservoir-Pipe System would provide large amounts of water, a whole reservoir rather than just two or three local cisterns to fight a fire. It would reduce both the time and the extraordinary efforts of firefighters to bring water to a fire. It would reduce fire insurance premiums by reducing the loss by fire, which the previous year had been $600,000. It was also less expensive than the other plan of sixty more cisterns and would last longer.

The Committee foresaw one other crucial advantage. The pipes laid for what would initially be just a firefighting system could be used later for providing water to individual homes when the long hoped-for water system was in place. The Common Council immediately approved the Reservoir-Pipe plan and authorized funds to build what was considered the first phase of a new and very necessary water system for the city. It was as though they were using their own "Trojan Horse" strategy. Imbedded in a crucial firefighting strategy, which had the support of almost every political faction, was the beginning of a modern water delivery system that, although popular, was still a few years away from overcoming the barriers of obstructive political forces like the Manhattan Company.

By 1831, the Reservoir-Pipe system was in place. For the entire length of both pipes, the pressure was high enough to stream over two-story buildings and in many sections over three stories. The stream from each hydrant was equal to at least the stream from two fire engines. And, there were already success stories. A fire in the block between Mott and Elizabeth Streets raging in high wind was quickly quenched by two streams from the Broadway line and two from the Bowery line. The system was such a spectacular success that the Common Council quickly extended it south to Hanover Square and west to Bedford and Christopher Streets.

The mood of the Council and the public at large was changing. The Common Council leader for the Reservoir-Pipe system, Alderman Samuel Stevens, continued to press for an adequate water supply. In one resolution he observed "...that the Manhattan Company although chartered in the Year 1799, for the express and apparently sole purpose of furnishing the City with... (pure and wholesome water)... have not in the opinion of the Common Council, complied with the conditions of their Charter and ... under such circumstances, it has become necessary for the Corporation to do that which the Manhattan Companies have failed to perform." Stevens then proposed that the Council repeal the powers of Manhattan Company that allowed them to bring water into the city and vest those powers in the Corporation of the City of New York. He also proposed that the city raise by loan a sum not exceeding $2 million "... for introducing an ample supply of pure and wholesome water."

In February of 1831, the Common Council passed two parts of Stevens' resolution. The first part enjoined the Council's attorney to prepare a memorial to the state legislature to explain the dire need for a water supply. The second asked the legislature to repeal the powers of the Manhattan Company and vest them in the City. The Council defeated the third part of the resolution that would have authorized the loan for the project, presumably deciding that it was premature before there were better estimates of the projects cost.

Later the same year, the Council sent a bill to the state legislature with a plan, a variation of the old Canvass White proposal, that specified the Bronx River as the source and a brick conduit as the main carrier of the water. The projected cost was $2 million. Unfortunately, the plan also included an untried method of pumping the water into Manhattan using as its motive force the tides of the Hudson River. The legislature rejected the tide-pump as too experimental, too risky to bet $2 million.

However, the Common Council, undeterred, began to formulate another plan that would include professional engineering proposals and, most importantly, an independent paid water commission to manage the project. The commission would be largely unaffected by the annual electoral changes to the Common Council and would have the requisite technical and financial expertise. In addition, the Council also tested other Manhattan water sources, primarily from wells. These tests proved beyond doubt the city would have to get its unpolluted water from off the island. Then, another epidemic, this time cholera, accelerated the Council's deliberate pace.

Over a four month period in 1832 cholera killed 3,500 New Yorkers. In July at its most virulent 104 people died in one day. One hundred thousand people, almost half the population, abandoned the city. Many attributed the scale of the epidemic to the polluted and inadequate water. In response, the Common Council hired Colonel Dewitt Clinton, Jr., a civil engineer working for the federal government, to recommend a plan to solve the city's perennial water problem.

As Clinton noted in his report in December of 1832, the principal reasons "...for the long delay in securing a satisfactory water-supply..." was not only the "powerful opposition of the Manhattan Company" (as he actually mentioned in his report) but also "...the great difference of to what source should be selected." He took as one of his primary tasks an evaluation of the conflicting sources and methods that had essentially arrested the development of a satisfactory water supply. He then painstakingly analyzed every proposal of the previous four decades and made, for the first time, a recommendation to use the Croton River as the source.

In rejecting other sources and schemes, Clinton made a crucial assumption. He determined that the source of the water and the supply system to and through the city should be sufficient for the foreseeable future. By foreseeable future, he meant until there were 1 to 2 million people in Manhattan, which reasonable projections would mean 40 to 50 years. Not everyone agreed with this estimate. John L. Sullivan, who was promoting an artesian well plan using equipment from a company in which he had invested, believed that the city would not reach one million inhabitants for several hundred years and "urged that it was best to let posterity take care of its own water-supply."

Ignoring Sullivan and others for the self-serving charlatans they were, the Common Council applied to the state Legislature to have the Governor, with Senate approval, appoint a five person Water Commission, independent managers. In early 1833 Commission was appointed and given to the end of the year to come back to the Legislature with a detailed plan, which would confirm the best source and the best route into the city, specify the conduits (pipes or masonry channels) at each stage along with the locations and size of the reservoirs, and a myriad of other engineering details.

The Commission hired a professor of engineering from West Point, Major Douglas, to do the actual engineering surveys, estimates, and plans. In just six months, Douglas and his team created their detailed plan, which had the same general outlines as Clinton's such as using the Croton watershed but, with more extensive surveys, became the essential blueprints for the project. The Douglas plan was delivered to the Common Council in November of 1833. The Council studied and approved it and sent it to the Legislature in February of 1834.

Three months later the Legislature passed a law that gave the city the authority to construct the waterworks. It also established the Water Commission as a permanent agency to manage and raise the necessary funds for the project. They were thus responsible for the final "business plan", to be approved by the Common Council and voters of the city. The voters approved the plan in April 1835 and a loan of $2.5 million, as specified in the state law, was authorized.

Douglas was hired to be the Chief Engineer of the project initially but was replaced a year later when the Water Commission felt he was taking too much time in his preparations. To be fair to Douglas, the public meetings routinely held for this "eminent domain" project often turned into protests from the people whose land was to be taken, usually indignant families who did not want to leave their ancestral farms. There were also holdouts and speculators who wanted to get every cent they could for their property. It took over a year before the Commission could get clear title to the land required.

As the Croton system was being built between 1836 and 1842, there was an uncelebrated but significant transformation of the New York fire department itself. Hose companies, previously used as a supply-auxiliaries to the engines, now became an effective firefighting force in their own right. As the firemen in Philadelphia had discovered several decades before, with water pressure from a well-designed water works, a hose attached to a hydrant and run to a fire could in most instances be as effective as a fire engine.

The hoses with their carriages cost significantly less than an engine, were more nimble and required fewer people to get them to the fire quickly and operate them. The number of New York hose companies rapidly expanded from nine in 1836 to thirty-eight in 1842. The hose-men became about a third of all firemen in the city. And, of course, given the hose-intensive nature of this addition to the city‘s firefighting practices, the department inventory of hose increased to almost forty thousand feet, quadrupling that of just a dozen years before.

The construction of the Croton waterworks began in 1837. In 1839, with the success of the Reservoir/Pipe system and in anticipation of the Croton supply, the city began to dramatically expand the distribution of water by contracting for the fabrication and installation of over six thousand pipes. Water finally flowed into the reservoirs and pipes of New York City in July, 1842. At the celebration of the introduction of Croton water, the Sacred Music Society sang an ode composed for the occasion by George Morris, a popular song writer, included in its closing lines:

"Water leaps as if delighted, While her conquered foes retire!

Pale contagion flies affrighted With the baffled demon Fire!