Poisoning the Well: The Exploitation of Collect Pond and Its Impact on Social Formation in Early Industrial Manhattan

By Michael Salama

Published on July 5, 2024
Volume 9, Issue 2

On Leonard Street in downtown Manhattan between Lafayette and Centre, nestled tightly between New York City’s municipal courthouses and the Sanitation Department, there is a small freshwater pond fully enclosed by concrete. Just a few inches deep in the one-acre green space called Collect Pond Park, the pool brings good fortune to passersby who toss pennies into its water in the summer months when it is filled. Overshadowed by the traffic cones, skyscrapers, yellow cabs, and pedestrian crowds that surround it, today the pond is inconspicuously located along the bustling route between the Canal Street subway station and New York City Hall. Accompanying the plaza are five informative signs that briefly tell the story of the ground on which the park was built in 1960. For those who know to look, it also serves as a lasting marker of a long and turbulent history of what was once a teeming giver of life to the island of Manhattan: Collect Pond. Situated in what is today the belly of the city’s administrative Civic Center, the ground beneath Collect Pond Park played a vital role during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in shaping the bustling metropolis around it, and as such embodies the adage that New York City’s history is far better known than truly understood.[1]

Collect Pond’s impact on early Manhattan is widely mentioned across the natural and economic histories written about the city, but the scholarship still lacks significant analysis of the exploitation of the pond’s resources as a driver of social history in the existing literature. Authors of broad and popular histories, such as Edwin Burrows and Michael Wallace, Gerard Koeppel, and Eric Sanderson, describe the pond as a geological feature that impacted the development of the city at various points in the urbanization process; historians commonly write about the pond’s role as a main water source during early settlement, an epicenter for deadly viral outbreaks as city populations increased, a focal point of engineering, economic, and political activity that eventually led to the formation of a private bank during the post-Revolution era, and a landfill site that later catalyzed the development of the Five Points slum in the late nineteenth century, the earliest urban concentration of poverty, crime, and abysmal living conditions in the nation’s history.[2] Collect Pond, in the existing historiography, is considered for its expositional contribution to each of these periods on a notably disjointed basis. This article seeks to invert the common historiographical perspective—not to consider snapshots of Collect Pond at varying moments in the city’s history merely as context surrounding socioeconomic development, but rather to view the growth of New York’s social and economic systems through the continuous lens of the freshwater pond’s exploitation. Although class disparity and income inequality are now integral to the historical understanding of nineteenth-century New York, comprehensive synthesis of the environmental factors that contributed to these social relations is missing from the historiography. 

Interpreting these economic processes and their relationships to the natural environment as the central drivers of New York’s early history reveals the role of resource exploitation as a key societal constant in the formation of Manhattan’s early socioeconomic structures. Privatization of Collect Pond’s land and water resources in 1799 directly impacted public health and housing disparities and stalled access to clean domestic water for lower-class citizens, serving as the genesis of the city’s infamous class inequalities of the nineteenth century. With effects lasting long after the elimination of the pond in 1811, the Collect’s exploitation under the pressures of the city’s growth in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was vital for the city’s transition from a mercantile economy to an industrialized one. This linear analysis of the exploitation of the pond’s resources throughout the eighteenth century reveals that this body of freshwater, once a vital geological feature in the city, contributed to the formation of a landowning capitalist class and New York’s vastly expanding working class, without which the immensely significant industrial transition of New York City could not have occurred. 

The maritime proximity that made early New Amsterdam a prosperous port was also the root of its inhabitants’ long-term dependence on inland water sources such as Collect Pond. The pond, along with a handful of much smaller, similarly formed glacial kettle ponds, was one of very few freshwater bodies scattered across the lower part of the island; Manhattan is flanked by a system of riverine inlets once carved by the receding glacial sheet—now the Hudson and East Rivers—whose connections to the New York Bay, and transitively, the Atlantic Ocean, resulted in tidal maritime currents that made the river water brackish. This tidal nature of the Hudson, East, and Harlem Rivers strongly influenced the currents and hydrology of smaller inland streams, bringing brackish water and massive quantities of sediment into the New York Bay, the river’s upstream reaches, and even into central Mannahatta.[3] Reflected in the indigenous naming of what is now the Hudson River, the Algonquin-language words for the river west of the island of Mannahatta before the arrival of European settlers were “Muhheakantuck” and “Shatemuk,” coined by Algonquin-speaking Lenape inhabitants to mean “the river that flows both ways.”[4] The wetland-littoral complex that surrounded Collect Pond spanned the full breadth of the island, subjecting its hydrologic regimes to the tidal effects of the rivers as well. However, wetland ecosystems fortuitously filter sediments and, in the case of Collect Pond’s extensive wetland surroundings, this prevented brackish water from reaching the spring-fed freshwater pond.[5] Consequently, the Collect’s ecological and hydrological surroundings made it an opportune source of potable fresh water for early inhabitants of the island of Mannahatta.

While little is understood about the Lenape peoples’ interactions with Collect Pond before the arrival of Dutch colonists, the body of water likely served as a significant source of drinking water, fish, and oysters for inhabitants of the pond’s banks. Historian and archaeologist Reginald Pelham Bolton postulated that a Lenape settlement called “Werpoes” was located on the southern shore of the pond, whose population subsided off the shellfish from the Collect and arable land that abutted the wetland ecosystems.[6] Few other freshwater sources existed on the island then called Mannahatta: Little Collect Pond, part of the immediate Collect lake system, Sun-fish Pond, Rose Hill Duck-Pond and Stuyvesant Skating Pond were the settler names for other substantial bodies of freshwater, though none came close in scale to the large Collect Pond, whose area just a mile north of the island’s southern tip has been estimated to be between 50 and 70 acres.[7] These ponds held considerable economic and cultural value to early Dutch and, later, English settlements, with Collect Pond at the helm. Initially called “kalch,” the Old Dutch word for “pond,” the Collect served a similar purpose for the Dutch as for the Lenape: its waters were a source of key resources and the land around it was used for small-holding subsistence agriculture and public cattle grazing.[8] Following the area’s transition to English control, kalch was anglicized to “collect,” and the pond was thereafter known as Collect Pond.[9] A popular city waterworks project called the Tea Water Pump was established to draw water from the ground adjacent to the pond’s southern shores and supplied the population of Manhattan with higher-quality water than what individuals could source from private wells.[10] By 1734, fishing had become so popular in Collect Pond that the city government placed conservation-minded regulations on permissible fishing methods, restricting the pond to angling and prohibiting nets. In the winter, the pond was frequented for ice skating, and it was rumored that a large, Loch Ness–style lake monster lurked in its depths, which purportedly feasted upon Hessian soldiers occupying the region with British forces during the American Revolution, and which threatened all vessels that entered its waters.[11]

The Mercantile Period: Collect Pond’s Early Deterioration

The deterioration of Collect Pond at the hands of European settlers began in the mid-eighteenth century when the ecosystem saw perhaps the most blatant and direct environmental consequences of the growth of manufacturing. During this time, the development of tanneries, slaughterhouses, and breweries led to unparalleled contamination of Collect Pond’s freshwater resources. In the decades prior, following England’s capture of Manhattan during the Second Anglo-Dutch War and the competitive urban development that ensued, a growing population and economic traffic in the island’s downtown slips forced some businesses to the peripheries of the young city, in particular tanyards that were established in the populous ports of Manhattan and relocated to the shores of Collect Pond near the turn of the eighteenth century.[12] Tanning is the water-intensive chemical process of dying and preparing animal hides for clothing and other consumer uses, and it requires immediate access to both stagnant and running water sources for soaking and washing hides. As such, while Manhattan’s tanyards had historically relied on its groundwater wells and coastal wetlands, Collect Pond and its surrounding swampy wetlands proved an optimal alternative to the increasingly populous docks of the developing city. Owing to the strong odors that accompanied animal-processing factories and the fire risks associated with rope-making materials such as hemp fiber and tar, both categories of industry were also prohibited from continuing in the main city center. As tanyards consequently situated themselves on the wetlands north of the town, so did other industries, including slaughterhouses, breweries, potteries, and ropewalks, all of which altered the lacustrine ecosystem of Collect Pond.[13] 

Accounts of the contamination of Collect Pond and the depreciation of its viability as a water source were plentiful even before the onset of the American Revolution. Polemical public debates about the future of water sourcing increased during the 1780s and 1790s. Shortly after the liberation of the city from British occupation during the war, an anonymous contributor to the New York Journal wrote of the “shocking” impurity and filth of the pond, citing its daily use as a means for disposing of animal carcasses, human excrement, trash, and domestic materials.[14] More substantially contributing to the pollution of the pond’s waters were the factories that had set up shop on its banks, producing large quantities of animal waste, offal, blood, carcasses, resins, tars, and chemicals that were eventually dumped into Collect Pond and the surrounding wetland systems. While disposal of these materials into the city’s water sources was ubiquitously frowned upon by the public—especially as the water pumped from the nearby Tea Water Pump consistently decreased in quality—the district’s mercantile factory operators, early industrialists, and speculative investors in the real estate and industry around the pond were able to stall government restriction and retain full control over land use in the region by way of their positions on the Board of Aldermen or otherwise-imposed influence on the city’s Common Council.[15]

The relocation of animal-product manufacturers and other industries to the shores of Collect Pond in the early decades of the eighteenth century also led to the creation of an industrial neighborhood of water-using businesses and their workers in the immediate vicinity of the pond. Early on, investors saw opportunities to capitalize on the undeveloped property for both commercial and residential real estate. The Lorillard brothers, for instance, expanded their tannery business to build a substantial complex of tanyards and residences at the immediate southern tip of the pond, and along with other landowning families advertised the real estate as “situated behind the Tea Water Pump, between that and the Fresh Water Pond . . . an excellent stand for a still-house, or sugar-house, as there is the best water all around it.”[16] Real estate investment was by no means limited to commercial purposes. As the number of factories lining the pond’s southern shore increased, so did the number of workers required to staff these factories; moreover, as population and rent increased in the developed areas of Manhattan, workers and landless artisans were driven to the outskirts of the city, where landowning families offered low-cost leases on their Collect Pond–adjacent lots.[17] Even before the immigration influx from Ireland and eastern Europe in the nineteenth century, the exploitation of the pond’s waters for manufacturing processes was already directly connected to the development of early working-class communities in peripheral, geographically constrained neighborhoods. These neighborhoods laid the groundwork for the tenement housing of industrial laborers in the decades to follow.

 By the late eighteenth century, large landholders were repurposing their industrial buildings into residential subdivisions, selling and leasing property to the city’s artisans and subletting to manufacturing workers. Following the Revolution, a substantial degree of property division for real estate attracted speculative investors who sought to capitalize on the demand for low-cost living on the outskirts of the city. Rebecca Yamin, a leading archaeologist and historian of this process, wrote that “the city’s elite maneuvered, manipulated, and conveyed land amongst themselves as the population of the city began to swell with migrants from overseas and the surrounding countryside.”[18] New York City’s population nearly doubled between 1790 and 1800, leading to the arrival of many working-class renters to the Collect Pond industrial neighborhood. The Lorillard, Schermerhorn, Bolmer, Hoffman, and Coulthardt families were among the principal landowners who began to subdivide their properties for worker residences in the late eighteenth century, and who would decades later capitalize on a much larger influx of laborers in search of affordable housing.[19]

Although not nearly as densely populated as the growing city of Manhattan, the region surrounding the Collect Pond concentrated low-income immigrant workers in the industrial neighborhood and created a community that was vulnerable to the effects of pollution and disease—both externalities of the industries that attracted workers to the area initially. Contamination of the water source of Collect Pond and the Tea Water Pump, which drew from the same spring that fed the pond, made it increasingly difficult for local residents to access clean, potable water. This even became the case for Manhattan property owners who dug wells to tap into subterraneous water sources themselves, with reports in the late eighteenth century of independent well operators digging up to forty feet without encountering potable spring water.[20] As much as the subterraneous water posed an issue because of the exploitative use of Collect Pond’s freshwater resources, surface-level transfiguration of the hydrologic regime of Collect Pond and its wetland surroundings proved a substantial risk for neighboring communities. Development of manufacturing plants on the shores of the pond led to the obstruction of its naturally shifting shoreline; as the pond’s natural processes of erosion and sedimentation were disrupted, its waters were forced to expand into the wetlands that previously drained the body of water to the north, west, and east. Filled with high, standing water and effectively transformed from wetlands to swamps, these ecosystems became optimal breeding grounds for the island’s mosquito populations. More than a mere nuisance, these insects proved devastating to the working-class neighborhood surrounding the pond and the rest of Manhattan as a whole.

Collect Pond and Yellow Fever

In the late eighteenth century, yellow fever was responsible for mass casualties in New York City and led to significant economic depression. Yellow fever is a tropical virus that causes a disease of the same name, often involving high fever, organ failure, and jaundice, or yellowing of the skin in infected individuals.[21] Originating in the tropics and transmitted primarily by mosquitoes, the yellow fever virus ravaged the population of New York City and Philadelphia in the eighteenth century, when outbreaks occurred on an annual basis. In 1793, a yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia proved one of the most catastrophic viral outbreaks in the nation’s history, with death counts reaching a rate of one in ten residents and leading to an exodus of nearly half of the city’s inhabitants.[22] New York City experienced similarly disastrous outbreaks in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.[23] There, the rapid spread of yellow fever was directly connected to Collect Pond as its stagnant water and adjacent swampy wetlands provided ideal breeding environments for mosquitoes.

Many outbreaks began with foreign traders and travelers who carried the virus from the Caribbean, which created localized transmission hotspots in the ports, or slips, of Manhattan’s riparian coasts. Yet once the virus became endemic to the island’s native mosquito population, the insect breeding grounds in the city’s wetland ecosystems—particularly those surrounding Collect Pond—also became breeding grounds for yellow fever in the summer months, when temperature and humidity conditions resembled the tropical climate in which the virus thrived.[24] Collect Pond and its adjacent freshwater ecosystems, therefore, posed a substantial threat to the citizens of New York City, particularly those who resided in the pond’s manufacturing neighborhoods. Unsurprisingly, the yearly outbreaks of the yellow fever virus disproportionately affected the impoverished immigrants of the city whose locations and living conditions increased vulnerability to the virus. Collect Pond was one annual epicenter of the disease, and although the most populous regions of Manhattan were inhabited by well-off residents of English descent at this time, outbreaks disproportionately affected poor residents of the city. This is well documented by contemporary medical accounts, one of which stated that “most of the cases occurred among the laboring poor, from their being employed in the district, or obstinately continuing to reside there after it was abandoned,” and due to their close living quarters.[25] While this account cites obstinacy as a reason for working-class people to remain in disease-threatened neighborhoods, the secondary literature suggests it was an issue of means: while wealthier residents were able to escape to less crowded and less exposed living conditions, impoverished laborers were not.[26]

As yellow fever outbreaks increased in both frequency and severity in the final decade of the eighteenth century, the City Council and the medical community began to take preventative measures to reduce the likelihood of future epidemics. Although the role of mosquitoes in transmitting the disease was unknown in the eighteenth century, the clear spatial correlation between the pond and infected individuals led medical professionals and, in turn, the Common Council, to seek to phase out the city’s dependence on the body of water. Although they had claimed to be accepting contract proposals for private and public waterworks projects since before the Revolution, no action was taken until the end of the century. In a 1798 treatise, published the same year as one of Manhattan’s deadliest yellow fever outbreaks, Dr. Joseph Browne applied the miasma theory of “bad air” and contaminated water to yellow fever transmission, proposing a clean water source as a solution to the perennial disease. “A plentiful supply of good fresh water,” Browne wrote, “would, in an eminent degree, secure the health and wealth of the city: it would, in fact, be its protector against those two great scourges of cities—fire and pestilence.”[27] Citing the filth and pollution of the “open air sewer” that had become of Collect Pond, Browne went on to pen a memorandum that was presented to the Common Council in December of the same year, proposing a waterworks project to divert the flow of the Bronx River to lower Manhattan as a new source of the city’s water.[28] After years of government inaction and public frustration at the decreasing quality of water sources within the city—primarily the deterioration of the Tea Water Pump’s output—the Common Council finally made headway in their mission to find a waterworks contractor willing to implement Browne’s Bronx River project. The solution would come from the city government itself, with Republican state representative Aaron Burr offering an answer to the Common Council’s water troubles.

New York Water’s Saving Grace: The Manhattan Company

Aaron Burr successfully took advantage on a social, economic, and political landscape that was desperate for a reformed water system and proposed to fulfill the city’s request for proposals for a private water supply system through the incorporation of his newly formed Manhattan Company.[29] Following the city’s catastrophic 1798 yellow fever epidemic, and amidst a political environment eager to enact even costly changes to address annual outbreaks, Burr encountered an optimal opportunity to capitalize on the previously stagnated process for contracting a private corporation to establish a new water supply system in the city.[30] Joseph Browne’s memorandum had primed this political environment.[31] Browne’s recurring involvement in the story of Manhattan’s freshwater resources as both a physician and engineer may best be explained by his relation to Burr himself—the two men were brothers-in-law—but there is only speculative debate within the historiography as to whether Browne’s tenacious advocacy for an improved water supply system was pre-coordinated with Burr to facilitate the lucrative development of the Manhattan Company.[32] On April 2, 1779, the New York State Legislature passed “an act for supplying the city of New York with pure and wholesome water,” which simultaneously chartered the Manhattan Company and granted it virtually free reign over the island’s resources in order to supply water to its inhabitants.[33] 

Several contentious exemptions permitting the Manhattan Company to act of its own accord were included in the charter and worked to separate the corporation from the control of the state. First, the Manhattan Company was incorporated with a very large capital authorization of two million dollars, an authorization exceeded only by two other corporations to date, the Bank of Pennsylvania and the Bank of the United States.[34] For a company of its purported nature—a water company—this was an unprecedented authorization, with the average capitalization of industrial corporations before 1811 being just one hundred thousand dollars.[35] The company was granted the right to declare eminent domain, and “to enter into and upon and freely to make use of any land which they shall deem necessary for the purpose of conducting a plentiful supply of pure and wholesome water to the said city.”[36] The Manhattan Company itself was responsible for appraising the value of private land that was “entered upon.”[37] Despite the existence of various bipartisan committees of the Common Council of New York City to determine the ideal strategies for water provision, the company’s charter was deliberately engineered by Burr to place the vast majority of decision-making authority in the hands of the company itself, removing city involvement from the process of determining reasonable water supply solutions after the company was incorporated. Absent from the bill were any requirements for the Manhattan Company, a water supplier first and foremost, to assist the city with firefighting in any capacity. In a town as imperiled by fire as it was by pestilence in the late eighteenth century, this was a glaring omission that later proved costly in capital and lives.[38] Similarly missing from the charter were any obligations or conditions for renewal to effectively affirm the charter in perpetuity, which unmoored the corporation from state control over its continuity as well. These omissions and stipulations in the charter actively intended to separate the corporation from state oversight, but in fact were dually the result of a highly complex and inextricable entanglement between the Manhattan Company’s corporate structure and the leadership of New York City’s Common Council, a relationship that will be further analyzed later in this article.

Among various unregulated freedoms granted to the Manhattan Company in its charter, one sentence later known infamously as the “surplus capital clause” was the single most impactful provision in the company’s incorporation, and undoubtedly shaped the social and political structures of the city. Slipped into the bill by Aaron Burr at the eleventh hour of its deliberation in late March and early April of 1799, the clause stated that the company could legally “employ all such surplus capital [. . .] in the purchase of public or other stock, or in any other monied transactions [. . .] for the sole benefit of the said company.”[39]This clause was a lethal weapon in the corporate arsenal of the Manhattan Company, allowing its board of directors to use any and all surplus left from its two-million dollar capitalization after devising a water supply system at its discretion. As is widely known in the scholarly and popular literature alike, Burr and the trustees of the Manhattan Company exploited this clause—which they, as influential figures in the state and city legislatures, themselves penned—to establish a bank in late April of 1799, just a few weeks after the incorporation of the Manhattan Company as New York’s private water supplier.[40] 

With a series of political sleights of hand, Burr, a Republican operating in the deeply Federalist New York government, was able to finagle bipartisan support for what almost immediately became the nation’s first Republican bank, untethered in typical antifederalist fashion from the command of the state. The historiographical literature has directly connected the machinations of Burr and his bank to the explicit shift toward partisan, polarized banking in the early republic, a popularization of Republicanism nationally, and, in turn, the election of Thomas Jefferson as Democratic-Republican for the presidency.[41] Later in its lifespan, the Manhattan Company merged with Chase National Bank, eventually becoming JPMorgan Chase & Co., the New York–based banking behemoth that still holds substantial influence over global economics today.[42] With this clause and the aforementioned freedoms granted to the Manhattan Company, its charter was a “radical departure from previous corporate charters,” part of a scheme to maximize surplus capital, and in turn, its initial banking capital in order to achieve Burr’s true goals of bank formation and capital accumulation on a much larger scale than that of a water company in a city of sixty thousand inhabitants.[43]

The Manhattan Company’s goal of maximizing surplus capital was achieved by cutting costs on its water supply project, even at the expense of the quality and quantity of the water provided. This was a primary reason for the continued use of pumps surrounding the Collect Pond as a source of water. Although the passage of the company’s incorporation through the legislature of the City Council was nominally contingent upon Manhattan Company following through on its adoption of the Browne proposal for building a canal to divert water from the Bronx River to lower Manhattan, it was not long before this costly endeavor was abandoned. Although Joseph Browne had initially estimated a cost of two hundred thousand dollars to finance the channeling of water from Westchester to lower Manhattan, it was later supposed by Browne, other engineering consultants, and the committee of the Common Council that the plan would require an expense of closer to one million dollars.[44] Civil engineer William Weston, hired as a third-party consultant by the Common Council to weigh the various water supply options for Manhattan in 1799, agreed with Browne that the optimal, albeit most costly, design would be diverting water from the Bronx River. Weston explicitly cautioned against retaining Collect Pond as a water source but he concluded that it would be the least costly and fastest mode of continuing to supply water to the city. Adequately supplying Manhattan with Collect Pond’s water, according to Weston, meant that a steam engine was absolutely necessary; it was the only way to effectively extract the three hundred thousand gallons of daily water needed to meet the needs of the growing metropolis.[45]

Browne and Burr, in correspondence with one another, discussed outright the goal of the Manhattan Company to choose the waterworks project that would minimize costs and maximize surplus capital—a divergence for Browne, who initially appeared motivated by the civic duty of solving the city’s water-related troubles.[46] Throughout numerous calls for proposals for waterworks designs from contractors, the Manhattan Company repeatedly turned down projects that they deemed too costly—even as those costs were less than one-fortieth of the company’s waterworks capital. Having already entirely rejected the idea of diverting water from the Bronx River and set on using the ready and cheap Collect Pond, the company received and subsequently turned down proposals to build pumps and a reservoir for costs of $100,000, $70,000, and $50,000. Instead of contracting a steam engine maker for the project, the Manhattan Company used horse-drawn pumps and a one-hundred-thousand-gallon reservoir intended to supply two hundred and fifty thousand gallons of water daily to conserve capital.[47] So as to avoid legal consequences, the company never articulated to the Common Council or the public how it intended to accomplish this task, which engineers had already deemed impossible. By 1802, the company had only spent a total of $132,000 on waterworks, funding the laying of wood pipes (seven times less expensive than metal pipes), labor, and the maintenance of facilities.

The company’s shift from an ambitious water supply strategy to a cost-effective but less functional one did not go unnoticed by the financial and political adversaries of the Manhattan Company. The company’s partisan nature became increasingly evident in the months before the 1799 state senate elections, as Burr’s involvement in the corporate enterprise came under intense scrutiny from Federalists. In a letter to the Daily Advertiser in late April 1799, just weeks after the passage of the Manhattan Company's charter, a contributor wrote: “The Bronx [River plan] is made a pretext for selling you the putrid waters of the Collect. . . . The Collect is made the foundation of a Bank—the Bank is to overflow you with a deluge of notes—to depreciate and discredit paper currency—to raise while it exists an anti-federal monied interest—then to break, and make the fortune of Mr. Burr.”[48] From the perspective of the public and the Common Council legislators, the company had broken the tacit promise to shift to the Bronx River plan or another major improvement by continuing the use of Collect Pond. The quality of the water supplied by the Manhattan Company was deteriorating still and did not offer any improvement compared to the Tea Water Pump.

Despite this fervent pushback from political adversaries and aggravated water consumers, the Manhattan Company expanded its financial and political influence over the city of New York. In a process fraught with an intertwining of politics and personal finance endeavors, Burr established the Manhattan Company with considerable overlap between corporate personnel and government officials, paving the way for conflicts of interest down the road. On the company’s initial board of directors sat Henry Brockholst Livingston, Samuel Osgood, John Broome, John Watts Jr., and Burr himself, all of whom held positions of political office in the New York or United States government. Joseph Browne, the city’s first street commissioner, was the first superintendent of the Manhattan Company, and his successor, DeWitt Clinton, served as superintendent of the corporation while simultaneously being mayor of New York City.

Though ostensibly a bipartisan corporation with prominent Federalists like Osgood and even Alexander Hamilton supporting it early on, the Manhattan Company soon became a vehicle of the Republican Party, politicizing New York’s banking structures and ensuring the company’s lasting ability to exist as a bank, issue loans, and accumulate capital without restriction. Alexander Hamilton, quickly enlightened to the company’s partisan banking intentions, wrote in 1801 that Burr had “by a trick established a Bank, a perfect monster in its principles; but a very convenient instrument of profit & influence.”[49] While there had previously been some partisan bias on behalf of the city’s two existing Federalist banks, they did not coerce political support through lending discrimination until 1799. The Manhattan Company, however, by intentionally building Republican majorities among its directors and shareholders, effectively melded the corporation’s leadership into the party’s, and for the first time unified its factions. This corporate connection to the Republican party meant that “political capital would mobilize on the heels of financial capital formation.”[50] Moreover, the new bank’s practices of lending to Republican middle-class merchants and tradesmen broadened access to credit for many members of society who could not receive loans and consequently could not purchase property under the solely Federalist banking system. In the late eighteenth century, property ownership was a requirement for voting eligibility, meaning that the Manhattan Company’s breaching of the status quo elevated middle-class Republican New Yorkers to the franchise by expanding their access to credit and thus assembled a new, widespread voter base for the Republican Party.[51]

The corporate strategy and banking practices of the Manhattan Company more directly influenced the formation of socioeconomic and political structures by shifting surplus capital, as it was not invested in improving New York’s water supply systems, toward middle-class merchants and manufacturers previously alienated by existing banking structures. Yet, just as this middle class of early New Yorkers had been left out of loan eligibility and by extension property purchasing power in years prior, the working class remained excluded from these financial opportunities even as they became expanded to the middle class. Murphy, in one of the few extensive analyses of the Manhattan Company’s early impact on social politics, claims that the Republican partisanship of the Bank of the Manhattan Company mended wealth inequality in early New York by broadening access to credit among merchants and tradesmen and “departing from the Federalists’ restrictive, and therefore increasingly elite, vision of banking.”[52] At the same time, however, this influx of capital to a stratum of the middle class that had previously been denied social mobility only allowed for the creation of a larger capitalist industrial class; these merchants and tradesmen were now able to scale their mercantile businesses, invest in property, and accumulate capital while the laboring class remained economically immobile. Although the Bank of the Manhattan Company, siphoning surplus capital through Collect Pond by neglecting to invest in its water resources, profitably used its surplus to expand access to credit among the middle class, this led to increased disparities in opportunities and living conditions between the working class and the upper and middle capitalist classes.

Filling, Sinking, and the Development of Collect Pond

In March 1803, the Common Council first considered it a serious and favorable idea to fill up Collect Pond, but due to the multistep nature of the process––the cost of carting landfill and the inaction typical of the city government’s public works projects––it was nearly a decade before the pond was fully drained and covered.[53] The council had acknowledged the impending need to remove the body of water from the city, which was quickly expanding around the pond with working-class communities, in years prior with no action taken. Their reconsideration of and eventual action on this topic stemmed from that population growth: as the city crept north, the foulness of Collect Pond was no longer a problem of the periphery, but one that was becoming more central to the industrial neighborhood of Manhattan. A canal transecting the island was built to transport the mud and water from the pond and its wetlands to the Hudson and East Rivers, and when this process was completed in 1807, the canal was paved over, forming what is now Canal Street in Lower Manhattan. The dirt, rocks, and earth that made up the hills surrounding Collect Pond were removed and transported to fill the pond, leveling the landscape and creating a landfill where oysters, ice skaters, fishermen, and lake monsters once abounded.[54] As the City Comptroller and Street Commissioner, the latter of whom was Joseph Browne, organized the process of filling and leveling, landowners and potential investors were eager to have new lots available for development in the crucial industrializing sector of the city. 

The site of the Collect Pond landfill was a hopeful prospect for real estate investors and landowning families who saw the opportunity to capitalize on potentially high-value lots. In the early years of the Collect neighborhood, middle-class artisans, tailors, carpenters, masons, and bakers resided in the two-story homes quickly erected upon the landfill that had just a few years earlier been Collect Pond, as did some wealthier professionals, merchants, and business owners.[55] While tanneries and other water-reliant industries were no longer viable on the banks of a nonexistent body of water, many manufacturing families shifted to real estate development in the still-desirable Collect neighborhood. Families like the Lorillards, once prominent tanners, and the Schermerhorns, who had owned ropewalks, retained their properties after the closures of their factories and built rental houses on the lots.[56] With prominent investors also flocking to subdivide and develop in the newly-formed district, it appeared that a prosperous, up-and-coming extension of downtown Manhattan was on its way. Central to the neighborhood was Paradise Square, a plaza whose name reflected the optimism stakeholders felt about the project. Yet due to the lasting impacts of Collect Pond and the ongoing exploitation of its environment, the area would soon be derided for its gang-ridden streets, political corruption, and the working-class, low-income residents who would eventually be the driving labor force behind New York’s nineteenth-century industrialization.

The land subsidence and subsequent damage was a driving material cause of the exodus of wealthier residents from the developments on and around the site of the Collect Pond landfill. The private ownership of these developments led poor conditions to persist and a demographic of impoverished immigrants and free Blacks to enter the subpar buildings. The ground beneath the Collect neighborhood, composed of earth moved from the pond’s surrounding hills, was used to fill the pond in the first decade of the nineteenth century, in a drawn-out process of political misdirection and inaction. Subsequently, the land was hastily developed without allowing for proper processes of the wetlands’ decomposition, which in turn led to two major roadblocks for peaceful life in the Collect neighborhood: the foul odors of decomposing biota and the subsidence of the landfill ground itself. These were both results of the negligent and hurried landscape disturbance, and they were understandably undesirable developments for the neighborhood’s residents. The two-story homes built by landowners just a few years earlier became structurally unsound as the grounds on which their foundations were laid resettled several feet. Those who could afford to leave for more salubrious neighborhoods in northern suburbs did, driving prices down in the communities they left behind. The Collect neighborhood soon became the most affordable living that could be found in the explosively growing New York City.[57]

The Manhattan Company’s continued position as an official water supply company in the years following the pond’s drainage and filling likely impacted the land subsidence crucial to this socioeconomic shift in the Collect neighborhood. Though the pond had all but vanished by 1813, the continued active exploitation of its vestigial freshwater resources had prolonged impacts on the developing neighborhood in addition to the passive decomposition and resettlement of damp landfill materials. In order to continue functioning as a chartered bank, the Manhattan Company was required to verify its provision of clean water to customers in the city. Although this was knowingly accomplished as a formality, with fewer than 250 households serviced annually and mere hundreds of dollars in annual profit from water sales compared to hundreds of thousands of dollars of profit from its banking initiatives, the company continued pumping from its one-hundred-thousand-gallon Chambers Street reservoir and nearby water pumps.[58] These pumps, located near the site of a paved-over lake, were drawing water from the same subterraneous sources that once fed the sixty-foot-deep Collect Pond. Through a level of hydrologic connectivity that could only have been hypothesized by the environmental engineers, city government, or Manhattan Company leaders at the time, there is a non-negligible probability that the continued abstraction of this spring water was contributing to a process of land subsidence that later proved costly and disastrous to the private landowners who developed on the landfill of Collect Pond. William Weston, the civil engineer who consulted for the Common Council, predicted this very occurrence at the turn of the century, writing that the pumps surrounding the pond “would soon exhaust it, unless replenished with numerous and copious Springs,” and saying of the pond’s depletion that “[m]uch, and perhaps the greatest quantity, is also daily drawn off by the Tea Water Pump; from its vicinity, I have no doubt it is supplied from the same source.”[59] That the pumps and wells surrounding Collect Pond were drawing from the same source as the pond itself was inferred by water users, especially as the pumped water decreased in quality as Collect Pond became more contaminated. 

In this context, modern understandings of aquifer connectivity and the geological impacts of excessive groundwater pumping can enhance our understanding of the phenomenon of land subsidence in the Collect neighborhood in the decade between 1810 and 1820. Significant headway in hydrogeology, the study of groundwater, has firmly established the connection between the depletion of subterraneous water sources and localized subsidence of land. Moreover, when land is undercut by an aquifer connected hydrologically to the source of depletion, such as a pump, the impacts of subsidence can occur at considerable distances from the pump.[60] Thus, when considering the Manhattan Company pumps, whose connection to the Collect Pond aquifer system had been informally assumed and which were known to have been depleting that very aquifer system, it is reasonable to hypothesize further that the Manhattan Company’s insistent use of inland wells and pumps through the first three decades of the nineteenth century was yet another contributing factor to the land subsidence, and consequently the socioeconomic and demographic shifts, of the Collect neighborhood. This continued groundwater extraction would not have occurred if not for the Manhattan Company’s materially driven search for capital accumulation, a strategy intended to legitimate the standing of their charter and to permit the continuance of their increasingly successful banking endeavor.

As these environmental changes lowered lease prices and attracted working-class, immigrant renters into the slightly more affordable properties, efforts made by landowners to capitalize on increased demand resulted in the continued expansion of residential real estate into what soon became the Five Points district. In order to extract as much profit as possible from the growing Collect neighborhood, landowners soon began to subdivide their two-story properties into a maximum number of small apartments, each to be rented out to a different family. Due to the rapidly growing working-class population of New York City as industry began to take foot, there was no shortage of demand for affordable housing among workers. Moreover, there was no incentive for landlords to improve the unstable and unsafe living conditions of their rental properties, as good-condition structures were taxed at a higher rate than decrepit ones, and building owners were able to lease their properties to working-class immigrants in the Five Points neighborhood regardless of condition.[61] As these properties were expanded upward and subdivided further into small, working-class tenant apartments, the first tenement houses of the United States were established on the very grounds of the phantom Collect Pond, still reeling from the environmental and economic impacts of the pond’s exploitation. Landowning families who controlled tenement complexes in Five Points moved out of the neighborhood, as did industry operators, merchants, and other middle-class individuals. The result was the stark segregation of working-class neighborhoods, the pinnacle of which was Five Points, from more prosperous ones—a division for which the Gilded Age of industrial New York City is well known today in popular literature. As industry in Manhattan expanded, the working-class neighborhoods, whose developments were shaped by the city’s long-term reliance on Collect Pond, became increasingly concentrated, impoverished, and subject to poor living conditions.[62]

Just as communities of manufacturing workers who settled the Collect Pond outskirts in the 1780s became more vulnerable to the effects of yellow fever, brought upon by the pond’s mosquitoes, the densely populated laboring immigrant community in the same region was plagued by similar troubles half a century later. Disease returned in 1832, now in the form of cholera, a deadly bacterial illness triggered by the consumption of contaminated water.[63] In a cyclical fashion, the epicenter of New York City’s cholera epidemics was the Five Points district, as subsided land that exposed sewage in the streets to water sources caused the disease to flourish. Once again, the outbreak of the pestilence exacerbated class division, as financially able residents in the city were able to escape upstate while the impoverished workers of Five Points had no choice but to stay and brave the epidemic. Given the working-class and immigrant inhabitants’ location in the most central and populous area of Manhattan, their increased vulnerability and thus higher rates of cholera infection, and their inability to leave the area, middle- and upper-class residents of the city associated the laboring Five Points district with pestilence, further alienating it from the rest of the “respectable” island.[64] For a neighborhood whose roots lay in rent-based economic segregation, this alienation was more cultural than financial; the owning class in the city, which did not live in Five Points, continued to rely on the growing labor power of the working-class Five Points residents, capitalizing on the easy access to workers who were eager for employment, social mobility, and means to achieve better living conditions.[65]

The Five Points district was condemned by the outside public due to the crime, sex work, and living conditions for which it became known. This alienated its people, deepened the economic disparity between its residents and the rest of the city, and created a laboring class in desperate need of employment. The tenement system of small, consolidated housing units led to living arrangements previously unseen in New York City: strangers and foreigners, whites and Blacks, and, for the first time, single women, were living in close quarters with one another.[66] Drinking, gambling, and sex were commonplace in the district, lending to its reputation among outsiders as raucous, dangerous, and immoral. As landowning families moved out of the city, they designated control of their properties to agents and managers. Housing conditions were seldom improved, as the excess demand for tenement apartments meant that low-quality residences did not preclude the collection of rental income. The shunning of Five Points no less stemmed from its association with New York’s African American and Irish Catholic populations, which were discriminated against by white, American-born Protestants.[67] The Sixth Ward, a southern portion of the district inhabited by Irish and German immigrants as well as a significant population of free Blacks, was home to individuals who came to the city in search of work in the city’s growing industrial factories of the 1830s. Though their plight was ignored or condemned by higher-class citizens of the city, these residents were by no means forgotten; Black and Irish residents provided an astoundingly significant labor force to the developing industrial production of the city, which was greatly capitalized upon by industrialists.[68] Drawn in by low prices, this workforce would prove invaluable to the capitalist class as industrialization took over New York in the decades to come, depending heavily on the labor power of Five Points residents.

The demise of the Five Points district and the subsequent development of the modern downtown of Manhattan came as the consequence of public condemnation of the neighborhood’s living and cultural conditions. Danish-American photojournalist Jacob Riis dedicated several chapters of his highly influential How the Other Half Lives to documenting the state of the Five Points district in 1890; he identified the Mulberry Bend area as home to the worst living conditions in the city. Mulberry Street, central to the Five Points district, had been built with a substantial northward bend to avoid the Collect Pond and surrounding wetlands when it was built in the eighteenth century.[69] In a chapter entitled “The Bend,” Riis wrote: “Like an elbow within hail of the old depravity of the Five Points, is ‘the Bend,’ foul core of New York’s slums,” citing its “scores of back alleys, of stable lanes and hidden byways” that resulted from dilapidated buildings and the street’s physical bend as the cause of staggering crime, filth, and poverty.[70] Riis accounted for high mortality rates among the children of the neighborhood, and recorded murders, scams, prostitution, and flagrant violations of sanitation laws to such a degree that his depiction of “The Bend” incited public outcry.[71] Numerous letters to the New York Times and other influential city-wide newspapers called for the city’s acquisition and demolishment of tenement properties in “The Bend,” and by 1897, New York City had purchased the buildings of the neighborhood for $1.5 million, razed them, and opened a public greenspace called Mulberry Park; in 1911, the park was renamed to Columbus Park.[72] In the first decade of the twentieth century, many of Five Points’s and Mulberry Bend’s tenement buildings were purchased and razed by the city, and in their place the New York County Courthouse, Hall of Records, Criminal Court, and other municipal buildings were erected to form the Civic Center of Manhattan. The region once occupied by Collect Pond remained densely populated and poor, soon attracting primarily Chinese immigrants, who began to constitute the majority of the population in the 1930s and brought the rise of the borough’s Chinatown.

As New York City grew as a center of U.S. industrialization in the nineteenth century, it was powered chiefly by its extensive and concentrated working class. The Five Points neighborhood, the country’s first “slum” of tenement housing, effectively brought and cordoned the city’s industrial labor force into one area. The poor living conditions of the district were a direct consequence of Collect Pond’s exploitation as land subsidence and lasting pollution drove prices down and attracted low-income workers for whom landlords felt no need to improve their properties. As the century progressed, the dichotomy between the living conditions of the working class and those of the wealthier communities became better known, particularly due to the visual documentary work of Riis, who photographed life among factory laborers in the tenements. Though the industrial period is now widely known for its dramatic socioeconomic inequalities and segregation at the hands of exploitative capitalist industry, the long-term environmental origins of those inequalities have not been widely analyzed prior to now. Existing considerations of New York’s environmental history consider the exploitation of aquatic resources in Manhattan—specifically of Collect Pond’s freshwater assets—as a passive factor at each moment of Manhattan’s past. But hydrological degradation and political manipulation of Collect Pond remained constant throughout the two-century development of modern New York City. This analysis has traced that exploitation as a leading contributor to the distinct stratification of socioeconomic classes in the city. Examining its impact on disease, infrastructure, economics, and nearly every other aspect of urban life lends credence to the idea that fresh water was the critical environmental factor that contributed to this process of societal formation. 

At each era of New York’s early history, from its subsistence origins to its mercantile manufacturing and the age of industrialization, the use of Manhattan’s freshwater resources consistently centered around Collect Pond until the construction of the 1842 aqueduct that continues to channel water from the Croton Reservoir in Westchester to the urban center today. More than a billion gallons of fresh water are supplied daily to the ten million current residents of New York City and the surrounding counties of Westchester, Putnam, Orange, and Ulster—three thousand times the amount that the Manhattan Company promised to supply to the city in 1799.[73] Drawn from an extensive modern aqueduct system originating in the Catskill and Croton watersheds of upstate New York—just as had been suggested by Browne and Weston, the city engineers of Collect Pond’s time—the city now has a water supply lacking neither in quantity nor quality. Although the solutions to all of New York City’s water troubles came from external sources, there still remain substantial sections of Manhattan where the water table is no more than a few feet under the surface. The subterranean springs that once sourced Collect Pond and the Tea Water Pump still flow, unnoticed, beneath the thriving metropolis of residential, corporate, and government buildings laid above them.


Primary Sources

An Act of Incorporation of the Manhattan Company. New York: John Furman, 1799.

Browne, Joseph. Proceedings of the Corporation of New York on Supplying the City with Pure and Wholesome Water: with a Memoir of Joseph Browne, M.D. on the Same Subject. New York: John Furman, 1799.

———. Treatise on the Yellow Fever; Shewing Its Origin, Cure and Prevention. New York: Thomas Greenleaf, 1798.

Hamilton, Alexander. Letter to James A. Bayard, January 16, 1801. In Encyclopedia Virginia. “Letter from Alexander Hamilton to James Bayard (January 16, 1801).” Accessed June 7, 2024.

 City of New-York, in the Year 1822 to Which Is Prefixed a Brief Sketch of the Different Pestilential Diseases, with Which This City Was Afflicted, in the Years 1798, 1799, 1803 & 1805 . . . New York: S. Marks, 1822.

———. An Account of the Malignant Fever, Lalely [sic] Prevalent in the City of New-York. New York: Hurley and M’Farlane, 1799.

New York Common Council. Extracts from the Minutes of the Common Council in Relation to the Manhattan Company. New York: Childs & Devoe, 1835.

Weston, William. Report of William Weston, Esquire, on the Practicability of Introducing the Water of the River Bronx into the City of New-York. New York: John Furman., 1799.

Secondary Sources

Anbinder, Tyler. Five Points : The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum. London: Free Press, 2001.

Blackmar, Elizabeth. Manhattan for Rent, 1785-1850. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Blake, Nelson Manfred. Water for the Cities; a History of the Urban Water Supply Problem in the United States. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1956.

Bolton, Reginald Pelham. Indian Paths in the Great Metropolis. New York: Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, 1922.

Burrows, Edwin G., and Mike Wallace. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Carp, Benjamin L. “The Night the Yankees Burned Broadway: The New York City Fire of 1776.” Early American Studies 4, no. 2 (2006): 471–511.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Yellow Fever.” Accessed June 7, 2024.

Connolly, Colleen. “The True Native New Yorkers Can Never Truly Reclaim Their Homeland.” Smithsonian Magazine, October 5, 2018.

Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics. “The Yellow Fever Epidemic in Philadelphia, 1793,” March 26, 2020.

DNREC. “Wetlands Purify.” Accessed June 7, 2024.

Ferguson, Maura, and Sarah Poole. “Dirty Water.” Financial History, no. 133 (Spring 2020): 15–19.

Figueroa-Miranda, Sócrates, José Tuxpan-Vargas, José Alfredo Ramos-Leal, Víctor Manuel Hernández-Madrigal, and Cecilia Irene Villaseñor-Reyes. “Land Subsidence by Groundwater Over-Exploitation from Aquifers in Tectonic Valleys of Central Mexico: A Review.” Engineering Geology 246 (November 2018): 91–106.

Galloway, Devin L., and Thomas J. Burbey. "Regional land subsidence accompanying groundwater extraction." Hydrogeology Journal 19, no. 8 (2011): 1459.

Hunter, Gregory S. The Manhattan Company: Managing a Multi-Unit Corporation in New York. London: Routledge, 2018.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. “History of Our Firm.” Accessed June 7, 2024.

Koeppel, Gerard T. Water for Gotham : A History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Luhdorff and Scalmanini Consulting Engineers, James W. Borchers, Michael Carpenter, Vicki Kretsinger Grabert, Barbara Dalgish, and Debra Cannon. Land Subsidence from Groundwater Use in California. California: California Water Foundation, 2014.

Murphy, Brian Phillips. “‘A Very Convenient Instrument’: The Manhattan Company, Aaron Burr, and the Election of 1800.” The William and Mary Quarterly 65, no. 2 (April 2008): 233–66.

New York City Department of Environmental Protection. New York City Drinking Water Supply and Quality Report 2022. New York: 2022.

NYC Parks. “Collect Pond Park.” Accessed June 7, 2024.

———. “Columbus Park.” Accessed June 7, 2024.

Riis, Jacob A. How the Other Half Lives:  Studies Among the Tenements of New York. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1890.

Riverkeeper. “A Glimpse of the Lenape.” Accessed June 7, 2024.

Robinson, Lauren. “The Contentious History of Supplying Water to Manhattan.” Museum of the City of New York, July 16, 2013.

Sanderson, Eric W., and Markley Boyer. Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City. New York: Abrams, 2013.

Yamin, Rebecca. Tales of Five Points : Working-Class Life in Nineteenth-Century New York. West Chester, PA: John Milner Associates, 2000.

Zhang, Myles. “A Brief History of Mulberry Bend.” Myles Zhang (blog), October 21, 2018.


[1] “Collect Pond Park,” NYC Parks, accessed June 7, 2024; Brian Phillips Murphy, “‘A Very Convenient Instrument’: The Manhattan Company, Aaron Burr, and the Election of 1800,” The William and Mary Quarterly 65, no. 2 (April 1, 2008): 233.

[2] Eric W. Sanderson and Markley Boyer, Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City (New York: Abrams, 2013); Gerard T. Koeppel, Water for Gotham: A History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000); Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); Tyler Anbinder, Five Points: The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum (London: Free Press, 2001); Nelson Manfred Blake, Water for the Cities: a History of the Urban Water Supply Problem in the United States, (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1956); Gregory S Hunter, The Manhattan Company: Managing a Multi-Unit Corporation in New York (London: Routledge, 2018) is one of the most comprehensive corporate histories of the Manhattan Company; Rebecca Yamin, Tales of Five Points: Working-Class Life in Nineteenth-Century New York (West Chester, PA: John Milner Associates, 2000) is one of few detailed secondary sources documenting the socioeconomic transition from Collect Pond to the Five Points neighborhood.

[3] The East River is a tidal estuary connecting Upper New York Bay to the Long Island Sound. The Harlem River is a tidal strait connecting the Hudson and East Rivers, currently the island of Manhattan from the Bronx. Mannahatta is the Algonquin-language word used by the Lenape inhabitants of the island now called Manhattan. 

[4] Colleen Connolly, “The True Native New Yorkers Can Never Truly Reclaim Their Homeland,” Smithsonian Magazine, October 5, 2018; “A Glimpse of the Lenape,” Riverkeeper, accessed June 7, 2024.

[5] “Wetlands Purify,” DNREC, accessed June 7, 2024.

[6] There is speculation in the historiography about the term “Werpoes,” as well as its connection to Collect Pond. Burton (1922), basing his assertion on a 1651 Dutch land deed to Augustine Heermans, wrote that Lenape settlement was called “Werpoes.” Archaeological records of large shell mounds suggest settlement of the Pond’s banks prior to Dutch arrival. Other seventeenth-century documents, cited by Charles Gehring in 1980, suggest that this was located in Brooklyn. Bolton inferred in 1922 that the Werpoes relocated to Brooklyn in 1626 after the sale of Manhattan to the Dutch. Reginald Pelham Bolton, Indian Paths in the Great Metropolis (New York: Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, 1922).

[7] Lauren Robinson, “The Contentious History of Supplying Water to Manhattan,” Museum of the City of New York, July 16, 2013; Sanderson and Boyer, Mannahatta, 42.

[8] Yamin, Tales of Five Points, 17.

[9] It was also frequently called Fresh Water Pond. 

[10] Koeppel, Water for Gotham, 31.

[11] Sanderson and Boyer, Mannahatta, 96.

[12] Yamin, Tales of Five Points, 20

[13] Yamin20.

[14] Quoted in Koeppel, Water for Gotham, 45; Yamin, 24.

[15] Yamin, 22–25.

[16] Quoted in Yamin, 22.

[17] Yamin, 26.

[18] Yamin, 24.

[19] Anbinder, Five Points, 19.

[20] Koeppel, Water for Gotham, 29.

[21] “Yellow Fever,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed June 7, 2024.

[22] “The Yellow Fever Epidemic in Philadelphia, 1793,” Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics, March 26, 2020.

[23] James Hardie, An Account of the Yellow Fever, Which Occurred in the City of New-York, in the Year 1822 to Which Is Prefixed a Brief Sketch of the Different Pestilential Diseases, with Which This City Was Afflicted, in the Years 1798, 1799, 1803 & 1805 . . . (New York: S. Marks, 1822).

[24] Burrows and Wallace, Gotham, 100–225.

[25] James Hardie, An Account of the Malignant Fever, Lalely [sic] Prevalent in the City of New-York, (New York: Hurley and M’Farlane, 1799).

[26] Burrows and Wallace, Gotham.

[27] Joseph Browne, Treatise on the Yellow Fever; Shewing its Origin, Cure and Prevention (New York: Thomas Greenleaf, 1798), 27.

[28] Joseph Browne, Proceedings of the Corporation of New York on Supplying the City with Pure and Wholesome Water: with a Memoir of Joseph Browne, M.D. on the Same Subject (New York: John Furman, 1799), 9–29.

[29] The process by which the Manhattan Company was devised and selected as the water supplier for New York City in 1799 is well documented in widely primary sources and the historiography. Given that this article deals primarily with the hyperlocal environmental causes and impacts of resource exploitation, it is not necessary to include those details. Hunter, The Manhattan Company provides the most comprehensive history of the Manhattan Company, while Murphy, “‘A Very Convenient Instrument’” best lays out the broader political context and impact of the bank.

[30] Hunter, The Manhattan Company.

[31] Browne, Proceedings of the Corporation of New York.

[32] Hunter, The Manhattan Company, 86.

[33] Maura Ferguson and Sarah Poole, "Dirty Water," Financial History no. 133 (Spring, 2020): 15–19.

[34] Hunter, The Manhattan Company, 46.

[35] Hunter, The Manhattan Company, 47. The proportional spending power in the modern day of the company’s capital authorization is equal to that of fifty million dollars.

[36] An Act of Incorporation of the Manhattan Company (New York: John Furman, 1799).

[37] An Act of Incorporation of the Manhattan Company.

[38] Benjamin L. Carp, “The Night the Yankees Burned Broadway: The New York City Fire of 1776,” Early American Studies 4, no. 2 (2006): 471–511.

[39] An Act of Incorporation of the Manhattan Company, 11. 

[40] New York Common Council, Extracts from the Minutes of the Common Council in Relation to the Manhattan Company (New York: Childs & Devoe, 1835), 479.

[41] Murphy, “‘A Very Convenient Instrument,’” 233.

[42] “History of Our Firm,” JPMorgan Chase & Co., accessed June 7, 2024.

[43] Hunter, The Manhattan Company, 50

[44] Hunter, The Manhattan Company, 85.

[45] William Weston, Report of William Weston, Esquire, on the Practicability of Introducing the Water of the River Bronx into the City of New-York (New York: John Furman, 1799), 10–16.

[46] Hunter, The Manhattan Company, 83-90.

[47] Koeppel, Water for Gotham, 92.

[48] "For the Commercial Advertiser, The American," Commercial Advertiser, Apr. 26, 1799, quoted in Murphy, “‘A Very Convenient Instrument,’” 88.

[49] Alexander Hamilton to James A. Bayard, January 16, 1801, in “Letter from Alexander Hamilton to James Bayard (January 16, 1801),” Encyclopedia Virginia, accessed June 7, 2024. 

[50] Murphy, “‘A Very Convenient Instrument,’” 250.

[51] Murphy, “‘A Very Convenient Instrument,’” 244–50.

[52] Murphy, “‘A Very Convenient Instrument,’” 237.

[53] New York Common Council, Extracts from the Minutes, 593.

[54] New York Common Council, Extracts from the Minutes, 65.

[55] Anbinder, Five Points, 15.

[56] Anbinder, 15.

[57] Elizabeth Blackmar, Manhattan for Rent, 1785-1850 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), 93.

[58] Koeppel, Water for Gotham, 98.

[59] Weston, Report of William Weston, 10.

[60] Sócrates Figueroa-Miranda et al., “Land Subsidence by Groundwater Over-Exploitation from Aquifers in Tectonic Valleys of Central Mexico: A Review,” Engineering Geology 246 (November 2018): 91–106. There is no shortage of literature about land subsidence as a consequence of groundwater withdrawal. See: Devin Galloway and Thomas J. Burbey, "Regional land subsidence accompanying groundwater extraction," Hydrogeology Journal 19, no. 8 (2011); Luhdorff and Scalmanini Consulting Engineers et al., Land Subsidence from Groundwater Use in California (California: California Water Foundation, 2014).

[61] Anbinder, Five Points, 18

[62] Elizabeth Blackmar, Manhattan for Rent, 1785–1850 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989).

[63] Yamin, Tales of Five Points, 35; Blackmar, Manhattan for Rent, 98.

[64] Yamin, 35.

[65] Blackmar, Manhattan for Rent, 103–6.

[66] Yamin, Tales of Five Points, 33.

[67] Anbinder, Five Points, 23.

[68] Blackmar, Manhattan for Rent, 100.

[69] Myles Zhang, “A Brief History of Mulberry Bend,” Myles Zhang (blog), October 21, 2018.

[70] Jacob A. Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1890), 57.

[71] Anbinder, Five Points, 338. 

[72] New York Times, July 17, 1891, p. 8; October 7, 1892, p. 10; January 21, 1893, p. 9; January 28, p. 10; May 20, 1893, p. 9, quoted in Anbinder, Five Points, 338; “Columbus Park,” NYC Parks, accessed June 7, 2024.

[73] New York City Department of Environmental Protection, New York City Drinking Water Supply and Quality Report 2022 (New York: 2022).

Summer 2024 Vol. 9, Issue 2

Cover image courtesy of issue contributor Martin M. Mastnak.

About the Author

Michael Salama graduated from Princeton University in 2024 with a B.A. in history, focusing on the intersections of hydrology and politics in freshwater-scarce regions of the Americas. He now works as an independent filmmaker based in New York, working on several multimedia projects related to environment and culture.