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Lower Manhattan, New York City, the Financial District

Digging Into New York City’s Past

By Stanley Cloud

     Take a look at the photograph above.

    It shows, of course, Lower Manhattan and New York’s financial district, lying between the Hudson and East rivers. But, minus the skyscrapers (and a bit of landfill around the edges), the photo also happens to conform pretty closely to the limits of New York City as the 18th century turned into the 19th -- i.e. the time of  The Manhattan Well’s story.

    In 1799, the huge part of Manhattan Island not shown in the photo -- midtown, uptown, Central Park, Harlem, the Bronx and the rest -- was forest, farmland, hills, great granite outcroppings, and an occasional rural estate of the kind Aaron Burr had on Richmond Hill just north of the old city and that Alexander Hamilton built in 1802 way up on the Harlem Heights.

    As the author of a historical novel about Hamilton and Burr and their involvement in a scandalous murder case, I am fascinated not only by New York’s past, but also by the physical traces of that past which, with a little digging, one can still uncover in the midst of the big, tall, noisy, concrete-glass-and-steel metropolis that New York is today.

    There are many examples. Let me, for now anyway, give you just one:

    In Lower Manhattan, between Lafayette Street and Centre Street (there are a couple of names from our revolutionary and colonial past!), and squeezed in behind the New York City Supreme Court Building, is a one-acre
Collect Pond Park
patch of uneven land and rock called Collect Pond Park. Currently under much-needed renovation, the park, which in recent years has been dubbed “a rat zoo,” marks a spot whose history, it seems safe to say, is known to relatively few of the New 

                            Collect Pond Park

Yorkers who daily use and pass by and through it.

    In the 19th century, the area incorporated in today’s park marked the location of the infamous Five Points, a place where grinding poverty and gang warfare prevailed (as dramatized in Martin Scorsese’s film The Gangs of New York). It was also the location of the notorious prison called The Tombs. But a century earlier, the same area was a bucolic, suburban body of fresh water called The Collect Pond. Various streams and springs fed into it, and it, in turn, drained into a creek that flowed to the Hudson.
New York City, 1803
(On the map to the left, the Collect Pond is that heart-shaped object at the top center marked “Sixth Ward.”)

    During the mid-1700s, picnics were held on the banks of the pond. In winter people ice skated on it. And in 1796, the first test of a small boat with a steam engine and a screw propeller took

                New York City, early 19th century

place on it. (See the illustration below. For more pictures of New York in those days: manhattan-well-pictures.)

The Collect Pond

    In addition to its boating and recreational uses, the Collect Pond and its watershed were the main sources of fresh water for New Yorkers until near the end of the 18th century when, after several years of abuse -- trash and garbage

                                The Collect Pond

dumping, pollutants from nearby tanneries, breweries, glue factories and the like -- the water became more or less undrinkable. This problem gained urgency as people were persuaded that polluted drinking water (instead of the real culprits, mosquitoes) carried the scourge of Yellow Fever that annually killed so many in New York and elsewhere.

    Thus, in 1799, Aaron Burr, the leader of New York State’s Republican Party who was then serving as a state assemblyman (he would be elected Vice-President of the United States under Thomas Jefferson the following year), proposed to the Common Council that a company he was forming, called The Manhattan Company, be awarded a contract to use steam pumps to bring fresh water from the unpolluted Bronx River down to lower Manhattan. He was initially supported in this, oddly enough, by his arch-enemy, Alexander Hamilton, and after considerable debate, the Council adopted Burr’s plan.

    But, as Hamilton soon discovered to his deep chagrin, Burr never really intended to live up to the promises he’d made to the council. Once he had its approval, he traveled to Albany and introduced articles of incorporation for his “water company” that authorized the creation of what Burr really wanted: a bank to compete with Alexander Hamilton’s Bank of New York.

    In the meantime, far from going ahead with his plan to pump water from the Bronx River at the north end of the island, Burr instead ordered the old
Lispenard's Meadow
Manhattan Well, in Lispenard’s Meadow, adjacent to the Collect Pond, redug and reopened. And later that same year, coincidentally or

                                    Lispenard’s Meadow

not, the Manhattan Well figured prominently in the murder of a young woman named Gulielma Sands, whose alleged killer, Levi Weeks, was defended by Burr and Hamilton. (The illustration to the left is of Lispenard’s Meadow; the Collect Pond is in the center distance, beyond the large farm house. For more on the murder: manhattan-well-welcome and manhattan-well-story and manhattan-well-excerpts.)

    In order to retain its charter, the Manhattan Company did provide some well water to some New Yorkers, though it was probably no cleaner than the water in the Collect Pond. At the same time, however, the company began doing what Burr had intended all along, operating as a bank -- a bank known as the Manhattan Bank (or, more formally, the Bank of the Manhattan Company), which in 1955 became Chase Manhattan Bank, and more recently JPMorgan Chase. (For a comprehensive, non-fiction account see Gerard T. Koeppel’s book Water for Gotham.)

    All this and more are what lie behind a small sign in Lower Manhattan identifying a rat-infested area of trees, rocks, benches and grass as “Collect Pond Park.”


Photo: Joan H. Geismar

... Wooden water pipes?

By Stanley Cloud


    After 9/11, when working crews were still digging through -- and deep beneath -- the terrible wreckage of the World Trade Center, among the things they uncovered were what appeared to be two hollowed-out logs, each about 10 feet long. But what were they? What were they for? When experts inspected them closely, they determined that the logs were, in fact, old wooden water pipes, dating from around 1800.

    Once that was established, it was relatively easy to fit some more pieces of the puzzle into place. Almost certainly, the wooden pipes were originally buried under the cobblestone streets of old Manhattan by workers employed by Aaron Burr’s Manhattan Company. Burr had initially vowed that the company would use cast-iron pipes to supply water for the city’s residents. But, as with his promise to pump fresh water from the Bronx River, he almost immediately shelved the cast-iron-pipe plan in favor of cheaper hollowed-out logs, two of which are shown in the post-9/11 photo above.

    And, equally interesting (to me, at least), we know who made those wooden pipes for Burr’s company. His name was Ezra Weeks. A successful local carpenter and builder -- what we would call today a general contractor -- Weeks had only recently completed building a mansion on the northern end of Manhattan Island for a shipping magnate named Archibald Gracie -- a mansion that some 130-odd years later would become the official residence of New York City’s mayors. Moreover, this same Ezra Weeks was soon to embark on building a house for Alexander Hamilton on the Harlem Heights.

    And as if these things weren’t coincidence enough, Ezra Weeks had a younger brother, Levi Weeks, who, in January, 1800, was arrested and charged with the murder of his fiancée, Gulielma Sands, whose body had just been found at the bottom of The Manhattan Well, the main source of water -- such as it was -- that flowed through the wooden pipes laid by of Aaron Burr’s Manhattan Company.

    See what I mean about digging into New York City’s past?    



History and Hurricanes

By Stanley Cloud

    In Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, he showed a series of computer simulations of what would happen to various places on earth if Greenland’s ice pack continues to melt and sea levels continue to rise. One of those places is New York City. Gore’s simulation showed the former World Trade Center site and much of the surrounding neighborhoods -- indeed, much of Lower Manhattan and Staten Island -- under water. Many conservatives and other global warming deniers, have belittled Gore ever since for what they consider to be his hysterical, liberal nonsense.

    And then, a few days ago, hurricane Sandy threw a monstrous tantrum on the eastern seaboard, during which parts of Lower Manhattan -- from
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Staten Island to that self-same former site of the World Trade Center -- were indeed inundated, so much so that New Jersey governor Chris Christie was moved (belatedly) to become bipartisan and New York’s mayor Michael Bloomberg was moved (belatedly) to endorse Barack Obama for president and (belatedly) to cancel the New York City Marathon.
    Afterward, the flood waters began slowly to recede. And at some point in the future, once all the power has been restored and all the sand cleared away and all the homes and piers and boardwalks have been rebuilt and all the cars and boats and ships moved back to where they belong and all the surviving lives have begun returning to some semblance of normalcy -- once all that has happened (a year from now? two years? three?), there will doubtless still be know-nothing fools who will continue to call global warming a “hoax”

Gore in An Inconvenient Truth

and green technology “a luxury we can’t afford.”

    Another prediction by Gore and most of the scientific community has been that the warmer the atmosphere and the oceans become, the more we can expect violent, unprecedented extremes of weather like hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. Oh, well, say the skeptics, even if that is true, rather than try to deal with the natural and man-made causes of global warming, we’ll just, you know, have to adapt: build house on stilts, say, or erect more dikes and plow and plant the earth of the newly thawed and fertile Arctic Circle.

    And what would we lose in this brave new world of “adaptation?” Many things, of course. But one of them would be huge hunks of our own history.

    In the case of lower Manhattan, permanent flooding by the rising Atlantic would, among many far worse things, mean that archeologists would lose a chance to learn more about our colonial and immediate post-colonial past. For buried beneath much of the earth and pavement that would then have become the ocean floor are countless artifacts of the days when New York was a Dutch or English colony, or when it was the first capital of the United States after the Articles of Confederation gave way to the U.S. Constitution and
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (not to mention the other historical characters in The Manhattan Well) walked its sidewalks and streets.
    Such artifacts -- clothing, pottery, whiskey bottles, china, glassware, the remains of buildings, even the occasional 18th century ship and wooden pipes buried by Aaron Burr’s Manhattan Company -- are regularly found whenever workers and their machines have to dig deep into the ground of Manhattan Island. Seen in photographs and in museums, these

Wall Street, late 18th century

objects help us connect with our forebears, help us understand who they were and who we are.

    To the extent that we continue to deny or even just ignore global warming and its dramatic, earth-changing effects, to that same extent each of us is responsible for the consequences -- including allowing our history to sink beneath the ocean like the lost city of Atlantis.



                                                                     Photo :Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic


  1. 1.Digging into New York City’s Past

  2. 2....Wooden Water Pipes?

  3. 3.History and Hurricanes