Water for Gotham

Most Americans today are able to take that vital ingredient of life—water—for granted. Even in colonial times along the eastern seaboard generally, water was not the problem that it became very early on the island of Manhattan. Both the Hudson River on the west and the East River are tidal near their mouths and therefore salty. Furthermore, the geology of Manhattan resisted attempts to furnish sufficient and reasonably pure well water. The seventeenth century Dutch settlers overcame the problem partly by drinking beer brewed from water that had been boiled.

Among the English settlers potable water was referred to as “tea water,” and as the population grew and spread northward from lower Manhattan, finding enough tea water proved to be an ever- greater challenge. Gerard T. Koeppel has chronicled in careful detail the efforts, frustrated over many decades, to supply the city adequately. Everyone complained about the water, but few people were concerned enough to do anything about it, and no one wanted to pay for it—despite periodic outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and yellow fever.

Of the handful of little-known heroes whose efforts resulted in the completion of the Croton Aqueduct, which conveyed sufficient wholesome water to New York for the first time in 1842 after two centuries of deprivation, probably the most important was Myndert Van Schaick, a city alderman and state senator who devised and championed the enabling legislation against the opposition of shortsighted economizers, entrenched interests, and supporters of dubious alternatives.

Water For Gotham: A History is an authoritative and readable narrative buttressed by over fifty illustrations which include maps, plans, and portraits of the main participants in this extended struggle to supply New York with the water its present inhabitants are able to take for granted.