Lost in History, Vol. 32 

Water, Water Everywhere, and Not a Drop to Drink

For a city completely and totally surrounded by water, one would expect that the ability to drink the stuff shouldn’t cause much of a problem. We are, in fact, one of the few cities in the world with a natural deep-water harbor. Critical problem is, all that wash-up around us is salt water, and therefore not too tasty. New York City gets its drinking water from the Croton Reservoir upstate. The Reservoir gets filled by rainwater and snow melt-off that runs down the Adirondack Mountains, into strategically placed basins and upstate reservoirs, then through an intricate series of pipework, down through the Bronx and into your sink. This works fine and dandy for the modern-day metropolis region. But what about back in the day? Specifically, what about Brooklyn, pre-1898? Back then it was a whole different story.

Those of you with a modicum of knowledge regarding the various municipalities of the Greater New York City of Five Boroughs know that Brooklyn was its own city, as was the City of New York (now Manhattan Island). They were twin cities, like Minneapolis and St. Paul, or San Francisco and Oakland. New York was the burgeoning economic and financial powerhouse, and Brooklyn, although not small by any means (the fourth largest city in the country, at the end of the 19th century), was split down the middle, in parts a sleepy farming community with churches (therefore the nickname “City of Spires”), and in other parts a hectic bustling industrial and shipping powerhouse for the Northeastern seaboard. In fact, more shipping came from Brooklyn than from New York in the 1880s and 1890s.

But what comes with municipal independence is the financial necessity to keep the city up to date: paved streets, bridges, tunnels, railways, electricity, and clean water, to bathe in, to drink, to wash, to do all the lovely things necessary to run a functioning society. And with 86 square miles, Brooklyn just didn’t have enough money to maintain its city-ship, and especially didn’t have enough money to bring in water for its constituents to use. While New York had water coming down through the Croton Aqueduct, Brooklyn had to get water from a different location — namely Long Island. So the city of Brooklyn built a series of expensive and not terribly useful water-pumping stations and reservoirs out on Long Island to bring water to the city. Why were they so useless? Well, a group of intrepid bicyclists set out on Sunday to figure that out firsthand.

The ride was called Explore Brooklyn’s Water Works System, and was cohosted by the Five Borough Bicycle Club and Michael Miscione, Manhattan Borough Historian. The concept was a 35-mile leisurely bicycle ride from the easternmost reservoir, in Massapequa, vaguely tracing the line of the old Waterway Supply system back to the abandoned reservoir in Ridgewood, Queens. It was a lovely day for a bike ride, and the 25 history geeks and bicycle enthusiasts that attended were in concurrence. We met at Penn Station, jumped a 9am train out to Massapequa, and hoofed it back, stopping en route at the assorted water pumping stations and what was left of the reservoir systems between Nassau and Kings counties, from the Massapequa reservoir to the Old Brooklyn Water System Pumping Station at Milburn Pond to the Baisley Pond Park in Rosedale, Queens, all the way back to Ridgewood. We learned that the critical problem of transporting water from Long Island lies in its flatness — whereas all the water coming down from upstate is powered by gravity, not a single drop of H2O coming from Long Island moves downwards — it all has to be pumped, and running those steam-powered pumps 24/7 to bring water to the city is an expensive endeavor, and not one that solves any long term problems. That was the downfall of Brooklyn’s independence and eventual consolidation into the municipality of New York City. In a 1896 non-binding referendum, the for/or against vote for Brooklyn to join the Greater New York City of Five Boroughs had a majority for it of 277, out of 129,000 ballots cast. It was about the water back then. Clearly, there was more to it, but for that story, you’ll have to ask Mr. Miscione at his upcoming lecture. All in all, a wonderful day, a glorious bike ride, some pretty geeky and fascinating history, and exercise! What more could one ask for? How about a glass of delicious New York City tap water? Ahhh.


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