Flushed? Must be the wine, fire and cholera

Water for Gotham

September 29, 2000

"Drought and deforestation played havoc with the groundwater." Sounds like a description of modern-day environmental degradation in Africa? Think again. It is the beginning of the story of New York. In 1783, when the community became an American city in the aftermath of war, its wells dried up. Soldiers dug 40 feet and failed to find a drop. Water carters appeared on its streets to bring in fresh water from outside. The city fathers began the search for a private company to supply it with sufficient water. It was a long search.

A decade later, there was an epidemic of yellow fever, which left New Yorkers in a panic over public health and the very survival of the city in doubt. In despair, they turned to one Aaron Burr and his Manhattan company, granting him unique powers to engage in almost any business he chose in return for opaque promises to bring water in by canal from the then rural river of Bronx. But, as Gerard Koeppel explains in his fluvial history of the city, Water for Gotham , Burr had other plans. "The Manhattan Company had no intention of spending its money on a historic but expensive water supply for New York" - certainly not from the faraway Bronx. Instead, it plumbed a local fetid pool, aptly named the Collect pond, and supplied the city from that. Burr had, says Koeppel, won "the power to turn water into wine". And he continued his water monopoly by using the influence of city-hall cronies to keep out competing water entrepreneurs.

The direct result of Burr's hydrological chicanery was an even worse epidemic - cholera - brought aboard the immigrant ships from Europe. It swept through the city in 1832, at a time when Burr had ensured there was insufficient water for proper sanitation. One in 50 of the city's inhabitants died. What became of Burr's Manhattan Company? It is today the Chase Manhattan Bank.

Koeppel's story is mainly about the first half of the 19th century. Its central engineering triumph is the creation of the Croton aqueduct, which at long last garnered the waters of rivers beyond the shores of Manhattan to slake the city's thirst. The aqueduct, constructed largely by Irish immigrant labourers, captured the freshwater flow of the River Croton north of the city before it emptied into the salty Hudson River. The 19-mile aqueduct first brought its waters to a billion-gallon reservoir constructed in Central Park in 1842. It was the making of the city, though not immediately. For a long time, few could afford its waters. Much of the city was engulfed in flames in 1845 for want of sufficient taps to put it out. A further 5,000 New Yorkers died in a second cholera outbreak in 1849. Only after that - and the confirmation provided by British doctor John Snow that polluted water was the cause of cholera epidemics - did piped Croton water became popular among the city's burgeoning middle class. With piped water came water closets. By the end of the 1850s, New Yorkers were digging a sewer system to flush away the WC waste. And in 1857, one Joseph Gayetty invented the first lavatory paper. Some New Yorkers were suspicious of this new-fangled plumbing, however. The local cockroaches got renamed "the Croton bugs" because popular legend had it that they reached the city down the Croton water pipes.

Nonetheless, New Yorkers can claim to have pioneered the modern world of plumbing and profligate water use. By the 1880s, per capita water consumption in Manhattan had soared to nearly 100 gallons a day, the highest in the world. Soon the Croton aqueduct was insufficient to keep the taps flowing. A new dam was constructed on the Croton. At 240 feet, it was the world's tallest. By 1907, the new Caskill aqueduct was bringing water from mountains more than 100 miles from the city. The story is well told by a good journalist. Personalities are well to the fore. In truth, perhaps the greatest water story from America is of how water won the West. (Read it in Marc Reisner's classic Cadillac Desert . See one of its central episodes, the winning of water for Los Angeles, in the film Chinatown.) But New York, too, has a good tale to tell of city-hall intrigue and corruption and fortunes made on the back of cruel epidemics - and of a heartening triumph for engineering.

Fred Pearce is a freelance writer on the environment and author of The Dammed .

Water for Gotham: A History

Author - Gerard T. Koeppel
ISBN - 0 691 01139 7
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £18.95
Pages - 355

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