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A Struggle For Water

Cities, like other living things, need water to grow: water for drinking and bathing, water for industry, water for sanitation and fires. Towns often grow first and get thirsty later, but whenever the thirst becomes evident, it has to be quenched for the town to flourish.

This need is not new. Artificial water supplies go back 4,700 years to the first river-based civilizations of Mesopotamia, Arabia, and India. Ancient Jerusalem had a 1,700-foot canal from a nearby spring; Nineveh brought water by tunnel from fifty miles away; the Greeks built canals throughout their far-flung empire; and American Indians used irrigation to make their desert cities habitable.

“There is no good water to be met with in the town itself,” declared a visitor in 1748.

The Romans built eleven major aqueducts (including two that were more than 50 miles long) over five and a half centuries, beginning in 312 B.C. The Roman system eventually comprised 250 miles of conduit and had a capacity of 100 million gallons a day, though waste and theft cut the public supply to about 38 million.

Modern American city dwellers take water as a given, but it has not always been so. “When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water,” Ben Franklin wrote in 1746, and indeed, the well often did run dry or foul before it was replaced by a tap connected to a modern water supply.

Franklin’s Philadelphia was the first American city to seriously confront its water future, with Benjamin Latrobe’s Centre Square Water Works in 1801. The city soon outgrew Latrobe’s elegant but inadequate system, and another one after that, and new sources had to be found. In the end it was rival New York that first enduringly solved its water needs, with an engineering triumph befitting the world’s leading new city. It did not happen overnight.

Four decades after it took root, the Dutch outpost that was to become New York City clung uneasily to the southern tip of the island that its natives called Manahata: “the place encircled by many swift tides and joyous, sparkling waters.” Salt waters, that is. Manhattan in 1664 was a wild and fertile place. There were dense forests, thicketed hills, and fields that bloomed in a riot of vivid colors. Black bears roamed the woods; cougars and wolves stalked deer; bobcats ate hares. Wild turkeys and heath hens were thick in the forest fringes, and partridges and passenger pigeons filled the sky. Muskrats and beavers worked the marshes and ponds.

Brook trout, perch, and pickerel swam in countless spring-fed streams, running from the island’s sloping central spine of jagged schist to shores of sand, pebbles, and tidal flats. Saltwater fowl fed at plentiful shellfish beds, and the surrounding waters teemed with fish, the prey of otters and harbor seals. In this land of plenty, 1,500 Europeans were about to experience a water shortage.

New Amsterdam in its final days was a compact place. Its main industry was the fur trade, and the townspeople spoke eighteen languages. Three hundred and fifty houses made of brick and wood lined curving streets bounded on the north by a fortified wall, meant to keep the Indians out, where Wall Street would later be. Fort Amsterdam, at the island’s southern tip, was a short-walled affair made of wood, gravel, and sod on low ground. It contained the church, the prison, the governor’s house, the barracks, and a storehouse. What it didn’t have was water. This shortcoming would help undo the Dutch.

English warships, staking the Crown’s claim to all of Dutch America, arrived in the harbor in late August 1664, threatening fire or siege. Popular sentiment compelled Peter Stuyvesant, the colony’s troubled governor, to surrender promptly. He later defended his actions to his displeased Dutch West India Company employers. The “little fort,” Stuyvesant wrote, wasn’t built for a fight with Europeans and “was and is without well or cistern. Previous to this time it was hastily provided with 20 or 24 water barrels or pitched casks removed from ships and filled with water. Hence then, ‘tis to be deduced how easy ‘twould be to recover it back; how difficult, nay, impossible for us to defend it.”

“The … excuse … sounds very strange to the Company” was their reply. Stuyvesant and the burghers thought the fort was built on soil too sandy for a well, but their error was swiftly demonstrated by the new English governor. “I am very proud,” he wrote, “of a well in the fort which I caused to be made … beyond the imagination of the Dutch, who would [not] bleeve it till they saw it finisht, which produces very good water.” It was the first public well in New York. Dutch days were done, but the quest for good water was just beginning.

Wells and cisterns, public and private, within the fort and without, rapidly became the prime supply source. Systematic digging of public wells began in 1677, with the costs shared by the town and the inhabitants of each street that got one. But the water in the shallow wells, always a bit briny and never copious, soon showed the effects of the town’s growth. By the turn of the century there were 5,000 New Yorkers. By 1750 there were 13,000, placing colonial New York third in size behind Philadelphia and Boston and gaining. On the east, south, and west, landfill created streets where river used to be. To the north the wall was long gone, and development stretched inexorably uptown.