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 Hudson River.

Gregg Smith


beer in america
[ Order ]

beer drinkers bible
[ Order ]

beer enthusiasts guide
[ Order ]

More stories
by Gregg Smith