History of the Fire Department of the City of New York

Chapter 20, Part I

By Holice and Debbie

CHAPTER XX

NEW YORK'S WATER SUPPLY

Primitive New York Dependent on Wells and Cisterns.--the Famous and Fashionable Tea-water Pump. -- Love Stories and Tragedy. -- Establishment of the Manhattan Company. -- The Scheme of Christopher Colles. -- Plan to Utilize the Bronx River. -- Passage of the Bill For the Croton. -- The Celebration in 1842. -- The New Aqueduct.

Having in the preceding chapters placed before the reader a very full history of the fires under the Old Department, and the consequent heavy losses to the city, it is proper that we should now devote a chapter to the means by which the fire fiend is to be fought. Without a good supply of water the finest engines and the highest state of discipline are almost useless to stay the progress of a fire. The water supply of a city is as great an essential as its drainage and more so than its arrangement of streets or its lighting. To this subject the ancients have devoted their best energies, and the remains of the gigantic waterworks of old Rome attest the truth of the assertion. Hence, we propose to treat, as fully as the scope of this work will allow, the water supply of New York. It is a natural sequence of the history of fire and will properly precede a sketch of the Volunteer fire Department.

At a very early day the want of a sufficient supply of water and convenient distribution of good water was felt by citizens of New York. Before the Declaration of Independence considerable expenditures had been made in order to satisfy this want. At first wells wre the only source of supply. There were no public wells before the year 1658, the inhabitants previous to that time having been supplied by private wells within their own enclosures. The first public well constructed (1658) was in front of the Fort. It does not appear that any other wells were sunk in the streets until 1677, at which time an order was promulgated that "wells be made in the following places, by the inhabitants of thee streets where they are severally made," viz.:

One opposite Roelof Jansen, the butcher.
One in Broadway, opposite Van Dyck's.
One In the street, opposite Derrick Smith's.
One in the street, opposite John Cavalier's.
One in the yard of the City Hall.
One in the street, opposite Cornelis Van Boroum's.

In 1687 seven other public wells were ordered in different streets, for the purpose of defraying the expenses of which the respective premises were assessed; and in the same year the city government undertook to pay one-half the expense, and the neighbors the other half. Public wells, during the earlier part of the last century, were constructed by a contribution of eight pounds by the city government, and the remaining portion was defrayed by the inhabitants residing in the neighborhood. No person was allowed the use of a well until he had contributed a fair proportion of the cost. About the year 1750 pumps came into use, and a general act was afterwards passed to enable the city to raise taxes for the construction and keeping in repair of the public wells and pumps.

About the year 1690 there was, say, a dozen public wells in the city, standing all of them in the middle of the streets. In 1748 there were many wells, but a portion of the inhabitants preferred to send "out of town" to the Fresh-water Spring--then, and for a long period afterward, known as Tea-water Spring. This spring was situated near the present junction of Chatham and Roosevelt Streets. Shortly before the Revolution the neighborhood of the spring was made into a fashionable place of resort at which to procure beverages mixed with spring water. A pump was erected over the famous spring, ornamented grounds were laid out around it, and the "Tea-water Pump Garden" held forth its attractions under the most seductive influences. The water of all the other wells and pumps (and there were many scattered over the city) was almost unfit for use.

Before the introduction of the Croton, water was one of the chief commodities for barter in the city. It was delivered by contract as ice now is, or hawked through the streets at a cent or a cent and a half a pail. In some houses this was an important item of expense. Sixty years ago Mr. Davis, of the "Grapevine," in Greenwich Avenue, had an establishment at Beekman and South Streets. He was furnished with forty gallons of water a day from the old spring in Franklin Square, and his bill was thirty shillings a week, or one hundred and ninety-five dollars a year. But Knapp's tea-water, drawn from a spring close by the old White Fort, was the most popular in the olden time, and gave employment to a great many men who made a good living by it. Among these was Mr. Sweeny, the founder of Sweeny's Hotel, who was in former times a waterman. Knapp's famous spring was probably not over six hundred feet from high water mark, and was located on Tenth Avenue near Fourteenth Street. The Ninth Ward was favored with a number of good springs. Going through Thirteenth Street, there was a well where Tracy & Russell's brewery afterward stood. A little further up, at Christopher Street and Sixth Avenue, there was another tea-well which was largely patronized. There were large numbers of wells sunk by the city which were public, but Knapp's Spring and the spring in Christopher Street, having obtained a name, had a large patronage from those who could afford to pay for the water.

In 1790 the tea-water pumps became an important aid in extinguishing fires in the vicinity. The other wells in the lower part of the city furnished only a miserable and brackish substitute for water. But here night or day there bubbled up continuously a strong stream of pure cold water, alike the joy of the fireman and the traveler. Some struggling poet of that period, unknown to fortune or fame, wrote a song on the old pump, which the fire laddies of that day were wont to troll as they lounged in their engine house across the street. Two stanzas ran as follows:

In the cool of the day when the breezes are lightest,
I rest for awhile on the old oaken stump,
Whose roots nestle down in the weeds and the grasses
That reach to the curb of the Tea-water Pump.
When the fire is put out and the firemen returning.
How cheerily down the hillside they jump,
Forgetting the smoke, and the heat, and the burning,
To quench their hot thirst at the Tea-water Pump.

A Mr. Thompson was the occupant of a house in Chatham Street opposite the "Old Tea-water Pump." It appears that the construction of the pump occasioned some inconvenience to the neighbors, as a petition was presented to the Common Council asking that "the inconveniences arising from the spout of the Tea-water Pump projecting over the street" should be removed. The committee appointed to consider the matter declared that the petition had just cause of complaint, and the water spout was voted a nuisance. The committee sagely concluded that "if the water carts were ordered to draw up abreast of the spout, near the gutter, and receive the water in rotation, it would remove the obstruction in the street."

This, however, is not the origin of the story of a tempest in a teapot; it is only suggestive of it.

In 1799 a company was incorporated, styled the "New York Manhattan Water Works," with a view to supply the city with pure and wholesome water. The capital of the company was over two million dollars; the charter perpetual, grating the company control over streams and springs on the island of New York, and the county of Westchester. When the charter was granted the population of the city was a little over sixty thousand souls; and the previous tear he yellow fever had visited the city with all its horror and violence, and the minds of all were filled under this calamities with great dread.

The corporation of the city evidenced no disposition to embark in the work. It seems that Manhattan company were more intent in making money by their banking operations than accomplishing the avowed objects of their charter, and left the city totally unsupplied with water which could be called pure and wholesome, and over four-fifths of the paved parts of the city without any supply whatever. The works of the Manhattan Company consisted of a well in Cross Street, twenty-five feet in diameter, and two steam engines of eighteen horse-power each; a reservoir on chambers Street, and on or two small wooden reservoirs.

In 1806 an order was issued removing the old wells and pumps, several of which stood in the middle of Broadway, and establishing others in the sidewalks. These wells had been in existence for one hundred and thirty years.

For the better care of the wells and pumps, laws were passed at the beginning of the present century. The following is a specimen:

On the first Tuesday of May, annually, the Mayor, Recorder, and Aldermen, or any five of them, of whom the Mayor or Recorder shall always be one, are authorized to appoint one or more fit inhabitants for each ward of the city to be overseers of the wells and pumps in their respective wards for the ensuing year. Their duty is to cause the wells and pumps to be viewed, examined, cleansed, and put in good order and repair, and to maintain them so; and to keep regular accounts of the money expenses for the same. In case of neglect of duty, the overseers may be each fined five pounds, for the use of the city. They are to account with the Common Council once in three months. Persons willfully injuring the wells or pumps are, on conviction, to be fined forty shillings, or, on refusal or inability to pay the same, they are to be committed to Bridewell for one month, or until the forfeiture and costs are paid. When servants or apprentices do damage to the pumps or wells, the fine shall be paid by the Master or owner; and in default thereof the offender shall be sent to Bridewell.

The largest cisterns were built in the vicinity of the churches, as for instance, as follows: At St. Stephen's Church, Broome and Christie Streets; St. Thomas's Church, on Broadway; the Bowery Church, between Hester and Walker Streets, and at the Mott Street Church.

Both romance and tragedy are associated with those old city wells. They were the rendezvous of many a tender assignation, and many a love match was arranged while the family paid or kettle was being replenished from the spring. A tragedy which for a long time filled old New Yorkers with sorrow, not unmixed with horror, was enacted at one of those wells, the remembrance of which still lingers in many an old New York family. Juliana Elmore Sands, a beautiful and accomplished your girl, lived with her uncle on the southwest corner of Greenwich and Old Provost (now Franklin) Streets. Her youth and beauty, and the mysterious nature of her disappearance, had combined to give to her fate a thrilling, romantic interest. She was described by a "neighbor" in a letter to the papers at the time of the sad disappearance as "uniformly cheerful and serene, and on the day previous to the murder was remarkably so. Her expectation of becoming a bride on the morrow was the natural cause of her liveliness. Her temper was mild and tranquil; her manners artless and tender; her conversation ever chaste and innocent. She was one of those virtuous characters against whom the tongue of slander never moves."

Miss Sands left the house of her uncle on the evening of Sunday, December 29, 1799, to go sleigh-riding. Nothing more was heard of her until the afternoon of Thursday, the second of January, 1800, when her body was found in a well dug by the Manhattan Company. The well was located in spring Street near Greene. A coroner's jury rendered a verdict of wilful murder "by some person or persons unknown." On the evening of her disappearance she, as some of her relatives had supposed, left the house with a young man named Levi Weeks, to whom Miss Sands was engaged to be married. Suspicion at once rested on him. He was arrested and brought to trial. His trial came on before the Court of Oyer and Terminer, Chief Justice Lansing presiding, march 31, 1800. The prosecution was conducted by Assistant Attorney General Colden, and the prisoner was defended by Messrs. Alexander Hamilton, Brockholst, Livingston, Aaron burr, Abram Skinner, James Wood, Charles Baldwin, and George Lynch. During the trial the chambers of justice, the avenues of the City hall and the streets adjacent were thronged with an eager multitude, anxious to witness the trial. The court room was so crowded that it became necessary to direct the officers "to clear it of all superfluous spectators" before the court could proceed to business. The prisoner pleaded not guilty. The Attorney General opened the prosecution and introduced the witnesses for the people, some fifty in number, the tenor of whose testimony was to connect circumstances of a presumptive nature which might establish proof of the prisoner's guilt. Two witnesses, a man and his wife, who resided in the vicinity, of the Manhattan Well, declared that at about the time of the alleged murder they heard exclamations of a female in distress, and distinguished the words, "O, Lord! Have mercy, do help me!" Witnesses deposed to having seen the tracks of a one-horse sleigh on the morning following the murder.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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