An underground explorer discovers his city’s lost lifeblood.
On a cold day in the Bronx last winter, I descend underground and splash into the freezing water of Tibbetts Brook. Tearing the tough rubber of my hip-high wader boots, I half-climb, half-fall along the stone wall where excess pond water flows into this dark tunnel. Immediately, my soaked legs begin to go numb from the cold. I’m excited nonetheless: this waterway that I had seen only on century-old maps now seems fully real, glinting in the light of my headlamp as it swirls through the eight-foot-wide brick tunnel.
While few modern-day New Yorkers have heard of Tibbetts Brook, it is one of the city’s great lost streams—one of dozens of trickling waterways, both named and anonymous, that were once the lifeblood of a burgeoning metropolis. As New York grew in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries to become the world’s greatest port and its most famous city, it depended not only on the dominant Hudson River with its undrinkable saline water, but also on freshwater streams like Tibbetts, the Minetta Brook in Manhattan, Sunswick Creek in Queens, and the Wallabout Brook in Brooklyn.
In the early days of the towns and villages that would eventually merge into New York City, it was often these smaller watercourses that were the most vital; manageable streams provided not only transportation routes, but also water power for grain mills and sawmills, a bounty of fish, and drinking water. They were also a ready source for water-intensive industries ranging from the breweries of Bushwick to the tanneries upstate. In many cases—like Yonkers, for instance—these smaller watercourses were the original reason for a settlement’s existence in the first place.
Over time, though, many of these small streams became inadequate for the growing populations that had sprouted up on their banks, and instead of supplying freshwater they became polluted nuisances. As modern industrialization developed in the nineteenth century, railroad lines eclipsed waterways as transportation routes, and first steam and then electrical power replaced the water power of earlier days. With further development came the burial of Tibbetts Brook, and many of the other streams. In some cases, putting them underground was merely a way to create more buildable land above. In others, the streams that once supplied drinking water or fish were converted into sewers and drains. Today, the lineage of many of the major sewer lines in New York City can be traced back to streams and rivers that flowed unfettered for centuries and even millennia before the city matured around them. Today, their past is all but forgotten.
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After an interminable few minutes of wading, the cold biting into my feet, the water and I both emerge into a new tunnel underneath one of the major roads in the Bronx. It’s a beautiful double-arched brick channel constructed in 1899, with two parallel channels about three meters high and four wide. Inside this tunnel everything is different. Suddenly, the air is humid, and the water is warm, though it’s also become brown, opaque, and fetid, only slightly diluted by the Tibbetts’ flow. I’m now in the sewer, and I try hard not to think about what is actually sloshing around inside my boots; I’m tracing history—cleaning up can wait.
You might say my exploration begins with a landowner and mayor of New York named Jacobus Van Cortlandt, who dammed Tibbetts Brook in 1699. There, in a section of northeastern Bronx where his namesake park would be realized two hundred years later, Van Cortlandt installed both a sawmill and a gristmill, and they continued to operate until 1889, when the city purchased the land for its park. Van Cortlandt’s old millpond became a decorative pond.
Downstream of the pond, Tibbetts Brook was re-channeled into an underground tunnel, eventually merging into a massive, double-arched brick sewer beneath Broadway that is the main sewer line for much of the northern Bronx. This sewer tunnel actually extends the brook’s reach much farther south than its original outlet, carrying it into the Spuyten Duyvil channel and then on through twentieth-century interceptor sewers to the Hunts Point treatment plant.
The old course of the brook is still memorialized above ground by the tree-lined Tibbett Avenue, home to both Tudors and drab apartment complexes. The street dead-ends at approximately the point where the original Tibbetts Brook flowed into the old Spuyten Duyvil Creek, after completing its journey through a series of marshy meadows.
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New York City’s first underground sewer, which ran beneath Canal Street, is a remnant of water sources that were once fundamental to New York City’s origins.
Originally a meandering and marshy waterway, the Canal Street sewer was bookended by the Hudson River, with its saline water and its four-and-a-half-foot tides, and a deep pond fed by underground springs. The overflow from the spring-fed pond flowed slowly westward into the Hudson along this route, forming a wetland that extended deep into what is now SoHo and TriBeCa.
When the tide was high in the Hudson, the waterway was deep enough to float a canoe. Native Americans living in the area brought catches of oysters in through this route, and over the years the discarded oyster shells formed a hill beside what would the Europeans would call the “Collect Pond.”
Cattle that set out in the surrounding fields were sometimes lost in the “pestilential quagmires” around them. One nineteenth-century writer told of a man, lost in the dark, who drowned in deep water at what is now the intersection of Grand and Greene Streets—smack in the heart of SoHo.
The marshland was unusable for the earliest settlers, so in the 1730s the King of England granted ownership of the area to a landowner named Anthony Rutgers on the condition that he drain it. Over the next few decades, Rutgers and his son-in-law dug a drainage ditch through the middle of the marsh, and this ditch became the predecessor of present-day Canal Street.
By the end of the eighteenth century, however, the natural springs that fed Collect Pond mixed with a fetid stew of sewage, dead animals, and the refuse from tanneries and breweries. Outbreaks of cholera forced the city to take action. The actual Collect Pond was filled in, diverting both the spring water and the city’s sewage through the Canal Street drainage ditch. In 1811, the city enlarged Rutgers’ ditch and lined it—first with planks, and later with stone—to better drain the area. This was effectively an open sewer; the slow-moving water stank, and in 1819 the ditch was capped with a brick arch and buried beneath the street.
Today, the arch and the stone walls of that original sewer remain underground, forming a tunnel sixteen feet wide and nine feet tall. Though seen by few people in the intervening two centuries, the structure is fascinating both as a historic artifact and for its present-day importance—it is still the main line for removing rain runoff and sewage from SoHo and TriBeCa, as well as Canal Street.
Entering a major sewer system under one of New York’s busiest streets is no cake walk, and wading through sewage is a nasty business at best. But I’m driven to explore such places because I love the insight they provide into how cities like ours have developed over time.
The infrastructure itself—the sewers or culverts that enclose old waterways, or the remnants of buildings constructed when the streams still ran above ground—are fascinating historical relics in their own right. But beyond the historical, they are still functional—carrying away the water or sewage that would otherwise flood city streets. Even more enthralling than the structures themselves is the actual water. Amid the foulness of the Canal Street sewer, there are side drains from which flow the crystal clear water of underground springs—like the one that gave Spring Street its name and that supplied drinking water through the eighteenth century.
Even though none of the actual droplets of water that flow by me are the same ones that passed by centuries before—and although the stones lining these streams, and their actual routes, have changed with time—the flow of the water continues, unabated. It’s a tangible connection to our past, directly beneath us, but entirely out of sight.
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Around 1646, before New York became New York, a Dutch landowner named Adriaen van der Donck built a water-powered sawmill on Nepperhan Creek near the Hudson River. That sawmill would serve as the center of a town that would become the village of Yonkers in 1855. Van der Donck’s mill also gave a new name to the creek that powered it—the waterway has ever since been known as the Sawmill River.
It flows into the Hudson at Yonkers, just north of the Bronx. Over time, though, the section of the Sawmill that passes through downtown Yonkers was slowly covered over in the quest for more space—first with individual bridges and then by a few industrial buildings that spanned the stream—until, finally, the city built concrete tunnels around what little of it remained exposed. Very recently, the city began to undo that process with a “daylighting” project that has opened a few hundred feet of the Sawmill, making that small section visible once again as an above-ground stream trickling through a park.
The Sawmill River, in late summer of 2004, is my first foray into an underground waterway. Finding the inlet is simple enough, as I’ve traced the route of the old stream along present-day maps and found where the line of above-ground water disappeared. I climb down into the streambed near Nepperhan Road—an homage to the original name for the river—and find myself about fifteen feet below street level, knee-deep in a fast-flowing stream with a rocky bottom. A few feet farther and it disappears into darkness. I follow it.
In the light of my headlamp, the tunnel around the stream is a cutaway view of Yonkers’ development during the modern period. The twentieth-century brick-and-concrete culvert abuts older buildings that were built over the river toward the end of the previous century. These, in turn, are accompanied by old bridge constructions whose rough-hewn beams still support jagged stone and mortar. Occasionally, I see ancient cellar windows that once looked out onto daylight.
The water in the stream in this season is low enough for me to wade through, but heavy debris is lodged in corners where the tunnel turns—shopping carts, wooden beams, even entire tree-trunks—illustrating how powerful the river can be when it is swelled by spring rains.
Eventually, the rough and varied tunnel gives way to an arched culvert of brick with a smooth concrete floor, and I know that I’m nearing the outlet into the Hudson. Here, on this first trip, I’m so fascinated by what I see around me that I don’t pay enough attention to my feet, and when the bottom disappears I suddenly find myself falling into deep water—very cold, very dark, deep water.
My head is only submerged for a moment but it’s disorienting and alarming. I fear for my camera, loosely tucked into a dry-bag in my backpack. As I come to the surface I feel nothing solid under my feet; the current is still pulling me out, and I realize that I’m being sucked farther and farther from the relative safety of the shallows behind me. I paddle frantically against the current, and after what seems like an eternity—but is probably just ten seconds—I again feel the lip of the concrete under my boots.
It’s a couple of years before I venture back into that tunnel, but eventually I do return—with a friend, and with inflatable inner tubes that will allow us to float the final portion into the Hudson. In the meantime I learn more about the Sawmill River’s history.
Near where I’d fallen, there had once been a natural cove at the Sawmill’s mouth. When Henry Hudson sailed up his namesake river in 1609, he found a native community living in bark huts at the same spot. This was the settlement of Nappeckemack, a name that referenced the rapid water at the river’s mouth.
European settlers widened the natural cove that Hudson had seen at the outlet of the river, and in the seventeenth century single-masted sloops sailed into the river’s mouth to load up on lumber or unload passengers. By 1830, this had become a twice-weekly service to New York City; the dock was the center of town and along its edge were a hotel, post office and general store. The sloops were the primary transport in and out of the city until the 1840s, when the first railroad along the Hudson connected the bucolic riverside town of Yonkers to New York City, spurring rapid growth and industrialization.
Since the time of van der Donck’s first mill in 1646, the river had also been altered with small dams that created millponds. But these ponds were all filled in during the late nineteenth century, having become stagnant and stinking eyesores to the growing city. The last dam was destroyed with dynamite in 1893. By 1914, a New York Times reporter wrote that “bulky buildings now hem [the Sawmill River] in, and it is not until you trace it into the open country further north that you will find it as the Mohicans once knew it, free and sparkling, open to the sun and winds of the summer world.” Perhaps that reporter would be delighted today to see that the city has once again begun to open the stream to sun and wind through the daylighting project; or maybe, like me, he was merely marveling at how this stream’s flow cuts through so many layers of history.
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Tibbetts Brook, the Sawmill River, and the Canal Street Sewer are all relatively simple to find. Though hidden underground, in each case there is at least a single main tunnel, big enough to walk through, following the old waterway’s flow. But I find a much more challenging project when I set out in 2010 to find the old Minetta Brook.
The Minetta originally flowed a little over two miles through forests, hills and marshes beginning in what is now Madison Square Park and ending in the Hudson River at Houston Street. The stream was fed all along its route by natural springs, overflow from marshes, and rainwater runoff. With excellent trout fishing, swimming holes, and water for irrigation and drinking, the Minetta was the lifeblood of Greenwich Village when it first developed as a farming community far north of the limits of eighteenth-century New York.
As the city expanded and laid out its grid in the following century, the Minetta disappeared from the surface as streets were graded, hills leveled, and marshes and natural drainage routes, like the Minetta’s, were filled in. In their place, the city installed a labyrinthine network of combined sewer lines that reproduces below ground the gridded network of streets above.
Most of these are too small to easily explore—only four feet high, and less than three feet wide—with significant flow even in dry weather. Just as the street grid offers a range of routes for cars traveling through the city, it seems that the network of sewer tunnels makes it equally impossible to determine precisely where—if anywhere—the old Minetta Brook still flows.
When I research, however, I find that many people have already “rediscovered” bits of the Minetta over the years—often to their chagrin, when its underground waterflow flooded their basements. In 1901, for example, during the construction of the Simpson, Crawford & Simpson Department Store Building at 641 Sixth Avenue, near West 20th Street, the contractor encountered a heavy flow of water while digging for the foundation at 27 feet below street level. He estimated that it was flowing in at 1,750 gallons per minute. A much smaller flow—perhaps five gallons per minute—is still bubbling up today in the sub-basement of the NYU School of Law Library at the southwest corner of Washington Square Park, where an electric pump works constantly to divert the clear spring water into a nearby sewer.
Some buildings made the water a point of pride, like the apartment building at 2 Fifth Avenue, which for many years had a small fountain in its lobby showing the water from an underground spring; and an earlier apartment building at 33 Washington Square West. (The fountain at Fifth Avenue, sadly, is now removed, and the entire building on Washington Square West was replaced by a fountain-less one in 1960.)
But the water is still down there. Eventually, with the aid of sewer maps and topographical modeling, I’m able to determine a little more about the ways the Minetta now flows through the tangled network of sewers beneath our streets. Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that, despite the vast changes that have taken place, its flow is still essentially the same; the man-made sewer system still reflects the topography that existed before New York City grew, and it still carries rainwater runoff and natural waterflow from the old springs that have frustrated builders over the years.
Today, its water is combined with wastewater and sewage, and, at least in dry weather, it is ultimately carried to a treatment plant in Brooklyn. But there are essential similarities, too, which have taught me something I should have realized long before: it is impossible to completely parse out the old “natural” Minetta Brook, or the Tibbetts or the Sawmill, from the urban landscape and sprawl of the modern-day “Big Apple”—but that doesn’t mean they’re gone. Far from it.
I’ve since found a new way to glimpse the original Minetta, simply by peering through the ventilation holes in nineteenth-century manhole covers. With a flashlight pointed in one hole and my eye pressed to another, I can see the flow far below and I know that part of it, somewhere down there, still belongs to the old waterway.
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Steve Duncan has explored sewers and tunnels in cities around the world from Antwerp to Yangon (though he hasn’t yet explored in a city beginning with “z.”) He is currently a graduate student in urban geography at the CUNY Graduate Center. His website is at www.undercity.org, and more information on NYC’s historic waterways can be found at watercourses.typepad.com.