Monday, January 14, 2013

The Lost 13th Street Reservoir -- 13th Street at 4th Avenue

The reservoir building in 1831.  A three-story, cast iron tank was fitted inside -- NYPL Collection

In the 1820s water had become a problem in New York City.  The expanding population taxed the supply of clean, safe drinking water.  Local wells were often polluted and the water from the public pumps was often brackish and undrinkable.   Compounding the problem was the threat of fires.  Firefighters were frustrated by a serious lack of water.

In 1821 Mayor Allen proposed diverting the Bronx River into a public reservoir to be used for fighting fires.  Four years later the State chartered a private company to transport water from Westchester, yet nothing was done.

At 6:00 p.m. on May 27, 1828 actors and other employees of the fashionable Bowery Theatre were preparing for a benefit performance.  A full house was expected.    Fifteen minutes later a fire broke out nearby in Chambers & Underhill’s Livery Stables on Bayard Street.  The hay-filled wooden structure was quickly engulfed, destroying several carriages.  The flames spread so quickly that the stable hands were unable to save seven horses which were burned alive.

The Delaware Weekly Advertiser and Farmers Journal reported the following day that the fire “communicated with great rapidity to the adjoining buildings, no less than six or seven being enveloped in flames in the course of a few minutes.  On the arrival of the engines, the flames had gained such ascendency as to baffle for a long time the efforts of the firemen, and extended to the Theatre in the rear on Elizabeth street, and to the front on the Bowery, totally destroyed the intervening buildings in each direction."

Within only minutes the theater was consumed and the rear wall collapsed.   Those inside escaped onto the street where panicked citizens watched the entire block of buildings burn.  Around five hours later the inferno was finally controlled.  The financial loss was estimated at around $200,000—nearly $5 million today.

The conflagration and the terrifying thought of what could have been set the movement for a reservoir into high gear.    Mayor Allen’s proposal would not only provide for a massive reservoir, but a system of iron distributing pipes and hydrants.  In January 1829 the mayor’s fire committee met and two months later published a report suggesting wells and an iron tank reservoir at the northern fringe of the city, near 13th Street and the Bowery.

By June 1829 the city council had spent $12,250 on eleven vacant lots on 13th Street between 3rd Avenue and the Bowery (later renamed 4th Avenue) for a reservoir.   Although the reservoir would be for firefighting purposes only, the committee recognized the larger possibility of drinking water, saying “laying down permanent iron pipes through the two main entrances into the City, does contemplate the time as not far distant, when the City will be ready to meet the expense of introducing good and wholesome water, sufficient for all purposes into the City.”

The estimated cost of the reservoir at $26,000.   When a city council member question whether there was water enough under the site to fill a reservoir, Stevens promised “Give us the tank and pipes, and we engage to fill them, if we have to carry the water in quart bottles.”

By July of that year Thomas Howe of Philadelphia had begun work on the gigantic iron tank that would serve as the reservoir.  Four months later a test excavation fifty feet down found enough water to fight fires and the council approved the erection of a wooden building to enclose the works.

Construction of the new 13th Street water works proceeded rapidly; although the excavation of the well tragically cost three lives.  The city spent $89.46 on their funerals.  By April 1830 an octagonal stone tower 31-feet high was completed and the 20-foot high iron tank, 44-feet across, was being hoisted into position.  The tank could hold 231,000 gallons of water.  Beneath the structure a well had been dug that supplied 100,000 gallons of water, raised by a horse-driven pump.

From the reservoir three and a half miles of 12-inch iron pipes ran south below Broadway and the Bowery feeding 30 fire hydrants and six stop cocks.   The pressure was such that a stream of water could reach 60 feet in the air.  The council was so elated with the results that it authorized another $5,000 to relieve the horses with “one of Mr. James’ steam engines of eight horse power, which with his improved boiler, can be worked, for the small expense of sixty-two and a half cents, for twelve hours,” according to an alderman report.

The works were officially opened in April 1831.  The handsome stone building around the reservoir featured fan lights over the entrances and multi-paned windows on the second floor.  Here inset panels and shallow pilasters dignified the utilitarian structure.  The Family Magazine commented on the quaint stone building with its cupola.  “It forms a very picturesque object to boats passing through both the East and North Rivers.”
Thirteenth Street and the Bowery (4th Avenue) was still rural in 1835 -- American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge (copyright expired)
The American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge commented on the location.  “Though within the city, as surveyed and laid out, it is just out of the present compact and populous part of it; and thus combines the advantages of a vicinity to the city with pure air and a fine prospect of the surrounding country.”

The New York Mirror called it a “valuable work” and said that the pipes carrying water to the lower parts of the city “would be possible, in cases of fire, to throw streams over the tops of buildings.”

The “valuable work” would be proved within only a few weeks.  In early May a fire was squelched using the water from the 13th Street Reservoir, most likely saving thousands of dollars in lost property.

The reservoir had cost $42,233 and the entire project had led to appropriations of $100,000.  By January 1, 1833 six miles of pipe were laid under 13th Street, Third Avenue, the Bowery, Chatham, Pearl and Williams Streets, most of them branching off to Broadway hydrants.

But there was still the problem of drinking water.  The Mirror anticipated that the single reservoir was not enough.  “As to the extend to which it is calculated to meet the city’s wants, should this island be inhabited, say by 1,000,000 people, more than 1,000 similar wells would be required, even supposing that some would not drain the others at all.  It is, in fact, doubtful whether this kind of provision for the most necessary article of domestic use is not limited to a small scale.”

The Mirror was advocating the concept of bringing water in from upstate to a gigantic reservoir to serve the city’s drinking and firefighting needs.   For some years the idea of a Croton Reservoir had been bandied about.  “The present experiment of the city reservoir will tend considerably toward putting at rest all doubts on a matter which has so much agitated the public and determining, one way or the other, whether or not we have adequate resources at home or must go abroad to get that great desideratum, abundance of wholesome water.”

The Engineering New-Record would recall decades later, in 1881, “The artesian well …in Thirteenth street was the most prolific of any, but it supplied only 20,000 gallons in a day.  It was conceded on all hands that water must come from the country north of us or from New Jersey.”

And so one of the greatest engineering projects in America to date was initiated and in 1843 the great Croton Reservoir north on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street was completed.    On July 4 that year Mayor Robert Morris became concerned about the threat of fire from Independence Day fireworks and requested that water be sent from the Croton to the 13th Street Reservoir.  The valves at 42nd Street were opened and the rush of water headed south to the great cast iron tank.

When the force of the stream hit the reservoir, it almost immediately overflowed the three-story tank, spraying out of the windows onto the neighboring houses.   The Commercial Advertiser reported “this was no pleasant affair and looked like satisfying an old grudge.”

If the 13th Street Reservoir held a grudge against its upstart competitor to the north, it would not be satisfied.  With the Croton Reservoir supplying the entire city, there was no need for the small, local tanks.  The death-knoll was sounded when on January 16, 1844 the New-York Tribune ran an advertisement:  “For Sale—One 12 horse power Engine, 91 inch cylinder, with fly-wheel 16 feet diameter and boilers, made by the West Point Founders Association, and formerly used at the Reservoir in Thirteenth-street.”  As a final insult it added that sealed proposals will be received “at the office of the Croton Aqueduct Works.”

The innovative and attractive 13th Street Reservoir and waterworks structure stood for less than two decades.  But in that time it furthered the process of New York City’s water system by generations.

The once-pastoral site of the reservoir is, today, anything but rural.  photo by Alice Lum

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