Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 20, Part III

By Holice and Debbie

In the following year the city authorities set themselves seriously to the task of making a radical change in the whole system. The Committee of the Board having the subject under consideration made a report in March of this year, and its report was adopted. It declared that, owing to the inferiority of the supply of water provided by the Manhattan Company, the inhabitants above Grand Street would not patronize that corporation, and hence there were no water pipes established in that quarter of the city. The report shows that there were in existence forty public cisterns, which cost about twenty-four thousand dollars, which usually contain one hundred gallons each; that to supply that portion of the city between Fourteenth Street and Grand Street would require at least sixty additional cisterns, at a cost of about thirty-six thousand dollars, which cisterns would not last longer than twenty to twenty-one years, besides the cost of repairs, etc. the report declared in favor of laying "one line of tubes" along third Avenue and the Bowery to Chatham Street from Fourteenth Street, and another along Broadway, from Fourteenth Street to Canal Street; the "tubes" to be twelve inches in diameter. The total expense was estimated (including "five hundred dollars for plugs or hydrants") to amount to twenty-four thousand dollars five hundred dollars.

The Committee declared that sufficient water for the purpose of extinguishing fires could be obtained "anywhere about the part of the city referred to," and that although such lines of pipes wre a considerable distance from the North and East Rivers, they would be sufficient "from the fact of the gradual descent of the ground toward each." As an additional security it was suggested that, if necessary, "small tubes of six inches diameter may be laid down to subdivide the sections referred to."

On the sixteenth of the following November the Committee on fire Department reported "that although they excavated only fifty feet in depth in Thirteenth Street, yet the supply of water was found to be sufficient to fill the reservoir, as it was estimated that seventy hogsheads were issued therefrom in a day." A cast iron tank was received from Philadelphia, and the same inclosed in a brick building.

On April 16 following (1830) the same Committee reported that they had erected "on the public ground" on the corner of Bowery and Thirteenth Street a stone tower forty-four feet in diameter and twenty-seven feed high, while there was in course of construction an iton tank of forty-three feet diameter and twenty feet high, and to contain three hundred and five thousand four hundred and twenty-two gallons of water. The pipe was laid on Broadway and nearly completed on Third Avenue and the Bowery.

The memorial of Francis B. Phelps, on the 17th of May, 1830, was the first definite proposal for the introduction of Croton water into the city. New York at that period, as she is today, was the commercial metropolis of the Union, furnishing nearly two-thirds of the general revenue. In the year 1800 the population of Philadelphia exceeded that of New York by fifteen thousand. But so steadily did New York begin to "increase and multiply" that before the subsequent decade had elapsed she had overtaken her rival, and by the year 1820 had outstripped her in the race for supremacy. To illustrate the remarkable property that had come upon this city the value of property increased in the year 1831-32 over twenty millions of dollars and the assessed valuation was set down at one hundred and forty-five millions of dollars. But at the same time it was a matter of surprise and regret that the city was almost completely destitute of a supply of good and wholesome water, and that there existed any hesitation in securing an abundance of that necessary element. Why was this important measure delayed so long? Because of a powerful, extraneous influence which not only exerted itself in the community, but in the halls of legislation; and because of the powers and immunities granted to the Manhattan Company. In modern parlance, the delay was ascribed to "lobbying" and "lobbyists."

But Mayor Walter Bowne, in his first message to the Common Council, under the new organization of the City government in 1831, did not lose sight of that most important matter. He said "permit me to press on your consideration, with the earnestness which the importance of the subject demands, the expediency of adopting prompt and energetic measures for procuring a copious supply of pure water. Of the practicability of the project no doubt rests on my mind. The ponds and lakes in the mountains of Westchester and Putnam offer in inexhaustible supply. The noble aqueducts which were the glory of ancient Rome are not he monuments of her greatness; and one of our sister cities points with pride and exultation to a work of this character which she has years since accomplished."

This question was referred to a committee on the supply of water and extinguishment of fire, and the board of Assistant Aldermen presented an ordinance appropriating five thousand dollars for the laying down of pipes and the further excavation of the well at Thirteenth Street. The diameter of the well was sixteen feet; its depth one hundred and twelve feet, ninety-seven of which had been excavated in solid rock; its bottom sixty-two feet below the common high tide. Its capacity was one hundred and seventy-five thousand one hundred and fifty gallons. From the well the water was raised by a steam engine of twelve horse power into an iron tank in a building of octagonal form. The tank was forty-four feet in diameter, twenty and one-half feet high, and contained two hundred and thirty three thousand one hundred and sixty nine gallons.

The advantages of the city reservoir in the extinguishment of fires are well demonstrated by the following facts. The destruction of property occurring by fire in New York City from 1825 to 1829 amounted to one million seven hundred and fifty-three thousand six hundred and thirty-three dollars, and the average for the fifty years was over three hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year. The expense of supporting the Fire Department by the city for the same period amounted to seventy-three thousand six hundred and twenty-seven dollars, or over a average of fourteen thousand seven hundred dollars per annum. During that period there had been four hundred and forty-three fires.

A report, signed by Messrs. Isaac Brown, Stevens, Benjamin M. Brown, Palmer, and Engs, Committee on the Fire Department, adopted on the sixteenth of March, 1829, in relation to the supply of water for the purpose of extinguishing fire, etc., states that, owing to the supply of water for culinary purposes being of a quality much superior to that supplied by the Manhattan Company, citizens residing in the upper part of the city were unwilling to take the Manhattan water, hence no water pipes were laid in all that part of the city lying above Grant Street, or Pearl Street on the east side of the city, and therefore no protection was afforded for the purpose of extinguishing fires.

The following resolution was presented and referred on the fourteenth of July, 1829:

Resolved, That it be referred to the committee on Supplying the City with Water to report upon the expediency of offering a premium of five hundred dollars for the best plan for supplying the city with pure and wholesome water, to be approved by the said committee.  In relation to procuring water for the extinguishment of fires, the following Resolution was presented and referred on the sixteenth of November:

Resolved, That a competent practical man be appointed and employed to act as a commissioner or agent for the Common Council, to procure information, and to make plans and estimates for supplying the city (abundantly) with pure and wholesome water, said commissioner, or his successor, to be continued as superintendent of this highly- important public business.

The Water Committee was also directed to explore the Croton and other rivers for procuring a supply of water. Nevertheless, assessments for sixteen more public cisterns were presented for confirmation to the Common Council on the seventh of December, 1829.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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