New York City tap water. Winner of many awards. Secret ingredient of Joe’s pizza crust. We take it for granted when we turn on the tap, and we are annoyed when an underground water main ruptures, disrupting traffic for days. But what is the story behind the New York City water supply system?
There was a time when the young but growing New York City did not have a reliable source of clean drinking water. There were a few fresh water streams, such as Minetta Brook, and many private wells. When we look at those beautiful Federal era townhouses in Greenwich Village that, thankfully, are still with us today, we see the dormer window and pitched roof, and understand that often the servants would sleep in these quarters (dormer, from the French dormer – “to sleep”.) But that pitched roof served a purpose – to collect rain water. (You can read more about Federal houses here and here.)
According to the website of the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, “In 1800 the Manhattan Company (now The Chase Manhattan Bank, N.A.) sank a well at Reade and Centre Streets, pumped water into reservoir on Chambers Street and distributed it through wooden mains to a portion of the community. In 1830 a tank for fire protection was constructed by the City at 13th Street and Broadway as was filled from a well. The water was distributed through 12-inch cast iron pipes. As the population of the City increased, the well water became polluted and supply was insufficient. The supply was supplemented by cisterns and water drawn from a few springs in upper Manhattan.”
Clearly the city needed to do more to ensure a safe and reliable source of clean drinking water for the growing population. The Croton River in Westchester County was selected as the source for a new reservoir and aqueduct to supply water to the city and this system began operation in 1842. New reservoirs and aqueducts were added to the system in the 1880’s, and in 1905 a larger water supply from the Catskill Mountains was brought into the system. The Ashoken reservoir, with water from the Esopus Creek, began supplying water in 1915.
The municipal water supply changed many things about life in New York, and especially in Greenwich Village. One change was to the architecture. With the need to collect rain water eliminated, pitched roofs were replaced by flat ones. But since the population was growing in great numbers, the need for small, single-family homes was replaced by the need for larger, multi-family buildings. Tenements could rise as high as natural water pressure would go, about 5 floors up. (You can read more about tenements here, here, and here.)
Next Tuesday, GVSHP will present a program about the history of the NYC water supply and how it affected life in Greenwich Village. Our speaker is Gina Pollara, co-editor of the book Water-Works: The Architecture and Engineering of the New York City Water Supply. Gina has a treasure trove of images and information to share, but there are only a very few seats available. If you aren’t able to attend, check our website’s Past Programs page later next week, when video of the program will be available.
You should also visit our friends at the Queens Museum (home of the Panorama) to see their exhibit on the New York City watershed. I was there recently and it’s certainly worth a visit if you’re interested in learning more about our water supply.