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Water for Gotham: A History

Posted By: robin-bobin
Water for Gotham: A History

Water for Gotham: A History By Gerard T. Koeppel
Publisher: Princeton University Press 2000 | 376 Pages | ISBN: 0691011397 | PDF | 3.9 MB

Water for Gotham tells the spirited story of New York's evolution as a great city by examining its struggle for that vital and basic element–clean water. Drawing on primary sources, personal narratives, and anecdotes, Gerard Koeppel demonstrates how quickly the shallow wells of Dutch New Amsterdam were overwhelmed, leaving the English and American city beleaguered by filth, epidemics, and fires. This situation changed only when an outside water source was finally secured in 1842–the Croton Aqueduct, a model for urban water supplies in the United States.

As the fertile wilderness enjoyed by the first Europeans in Manhattan vanishes and the magnitude of New York's water problem grows, the reader is introduced to the plans of Christopher Colles, builder of the first American steam engine, and of Joseph Browne, the first to call for a mainland water source for this island-city. In this vividly written true-life fable of the "Fools of Gotham," the chief obstacle to the aqueduct is the Manhattan Company. Masterminded by Aaron Burr, with the complicity of Alexander Hamilton and other leading New Yorkers, the company was a ruse, serving as the charter for a bank–today's Chase Manhattan. The cholera epidemic of 1832 and the great fire three years later were instrumental in forcing the city's leaders to finally unite and regain New York's water rights.

Koeppel's account of the developments leading up to the Croton Aqueduct reveals it as a triumph not only of inspired technology but of political will. With over forty archival photographs and drawings, Water for Gotham demonstrates the deep interconnections between natural resource management, urban planning, and civic leadership. As New York today retakes its waterfront and boasts famous tap water, this book is a valuable reminder of how much vision and fortitude are required to make a great city function and thrive.

"The chief disadvantage of New York," observed the Swedish botanist Peter Kalm in the mid-18th century, "is the want of good water." The Dutch farmers who settled on Manhattan in the 1600s found the island, which is fronted by a salty inlet of the Atlantic Ocean, to have only small quantities of surface water. Hampered by the hard rock that underlay the island, subsequent generations of Manhattanites had difficulty sinking wells, and many had to make do with polluted, dangerous sources of drinking water.

In Water for Gotham, Gerard T. Koeppel relates the complex history of how the metropolis came to acquire dependable sources of water for an ever-expanding population. Those sources lay far from the city, but engineering problems were much less difficult to overcome than was the political opposition to this reliance on the world beyond Manhattan Island. Even after a cholera outbreak killed scores of New Yorkers in 1832, some of the city's leading financiers insisted that the old wells would do just fine. Finally, Koeppel writes, through the efforts of DeWitt Clinton and other farsighted civic leaders, New York raised money to build a system of canals and aqueducts leading up the Hudson and Croton river valleys into the water-rich Catskill Mountains, getting the funds for the construction from European banks and private bondholders. Nearly a century later, all five boroughs were finally well served by pipes that brought in nearly 400 million gallons of fresh water a day–scarcely a third of the present metropolis's demands.

Water for Gotham is, well, dry at times, but it does a fine job overall of making sense of an overlooked aspect of New York's history. –Gregory McNamee


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