NY beer history: II
By Gregg Smith
It's taken for granted. We use it and throw it away everyday, but nearly every business in
America would shutdown without it. It could be a limitless source of power but it's often
used as a dump. There would be no beer without it, let alone life on earth. It's water; the
single largest component of beer, and it was the most lacking ingredient in colonial New
York. For more than two hundred years a water shortage dictated the daily activities of the
colony's inhabitants and frustrated the city government. The brewing industry, with its
product in heavy demand, would be stunted until the problem was solved. Thus, the story
of water is inseparable from the history of beer.
The early dutch settlers had a problem even when the city had a population of under five
hundred. In those days lower Manhattan, with low lying marshes looked much like their
homeland. Promptly they set about planting crops and digging canals. They even set to
building a sturdy lock at the entrance of the biggest canal, which ran along what is today
Broad Street, trapping water at high tide to both limit offensive odor and ensure a supply
for fighting the town's frequent fires as the tidal level ebbed.
Unfortunately, there was no reliable source of drinking water. Fresh water springs were
well to the north in Indian controlled territory, and they hated the Dutch for their constant
cheating in trades. Making things worse, the Dutch, despite their propensity to dig canals,
never dug a well. So for want of water the breweries and citizens suffered.
By 1664 the English took over and within eleven years seven wells were sunk to supply
the growing town. Even this only temporarily eased the problem. The next solution was
installation of pumps to increase capacity and although it was a help the quality was still
less than adequate. At best the water was brackish and conditions around the wells
consisted of stagnant pools containing every variety of fragrant refuse and decaying waste.
Consumers were, thankfully, oblivious to the fact that this seeped back into the very wells
they drew upon. The most notorious of these festering pools was known as the "collect"
and beginning in 1732 brewer Anthony Rutgers, of the famous early-New York brewing
family, took it upon himself to fill it. Thus, a brewer took one of the first steps to change
the health and landscape of the city.
During the city's first two centuries a drinking supply was a constant problem. Through it
all people much preferred beer, but the brewers just couldn't obtain enough water for
production to follow demand.
The first large scale attempt to find relief from the water shortage was organized by Aaron
Burr in 1799 by means of a state chartered water company. Built amidst controversy over
possible misuse of funds (How very like New York) an improved pump from a deeper
well produced 691,000 gallons a day to a reservoir built above ground on Chambers Street,
just behind what is now City Hall. A distribution system constructed out of 25 miles of
wooden pipes eventually brought water to more than 2,000 houses. Once again, despite the
poor quality the inhabitants were happy; it didn't last.
By the 1830's the situation was impossible, but despite limitations the city had continued to
grow. If anything stifled the growth of brewing in New York it was the continued lack of
water, Philadelphia far out-distanced the city as a brewing center.
Finally, in 1837 the city and state were forced into seeking a more substantial, and
permanent means to end the draught. A request for proposals was issued inviting bids on
23 sections of an aqueduct to provide the city water from upstate. One of the most
ambitious construction projects of its era, the schedule called for completion of the system
within 3 years. Today that would prove insufficient time to fill out the required permits.
Meanwhile planners selected the Croton River as a adequate site for the reservoir. Even this
part of the project went forward in typical New York fashion, land appraised at $65,400
resulted in a final bill of $257,198 but within a few years this would look like a bargain.
Under the watchful eye of chief engineer John B. Jervis the aqueduct took shape.
Constructed of stone and buried, except where carried over 25 streams by stone bridges, it
was an elliptical pipe 7.5 ft wide and 8 ft high with a downward grade of 13 inches per
mile. It traversed 33 miles from Croton down to the Harlem River where it crossed by
means of the 1,450 feet stone arched 'High Bridge' which still stands today.
Entering Manhattan the rout continued on in a wide sweeping arc to the Yorkville
Receiving Reservoir located at what is now the Great Lawn in Central Park. From there it
traveled a final two and one fourth miles to its terminal reservoir at Murray Hill. In those
days the city's population was confined to the area below 14th street and the reservoir's
location between Fortieth and Forty-second streets was considered 'out in the boonies'.
Today it's the site of the New York public library, but then it was built upon a potters field
and constructed as an above ground, stone, fortress-like enclosure. The upper perimeter
was built as a promenade which, despite its northerly location, became quite popular as that
era's version of a hot date. These early reservoirs were built above ground, and on these
eights, to take advantage of gravity as the water flowed out and down through the system.
Finally, at 5 AM on June 22, 1842 Croton water was directed into the aqueduct, as it rose it
floated and then propelled a tiny boat christened "Croton Maid". Carrying four of the
commissioners it sailed along the waters of this new river, and when it emerged at
Yorkville it visibly demonstrated the water problems were over. On July 4th the waters
were admitted to the Murray Hill facilities to the salute of a hundred cannon and the thrill of
thousands of spectators. This was followed by a parade more than five miles long and
celebrated with a large "cold collation" (picnic). Philip Hone the famous diarist of New
York proudly observed "not a drunken person was to be seen" but this didn't mean beer
was absent nor did it mean only water was on peoples' minds.
How much of an impact did the completion of the aqueduct have on the brewing industry?
It was just in time. The new style of lager was just arriving from Germany along with
thousands of new Germans. Proof of the effect is easy to see when scanning the list of
brewers who began making beer immediately after construction was finished. It reads like
a who's who of New York beer. All that was still in the future, until then the city had to
rely on the production of upstate breweries and transportation by way of the reliable
© Gregg Smith