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Water for Gotham: A History [Paperback]

Gerard T. Koeppel
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Aug. 26 2001

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.


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"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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

From its founding as New Amsterdam in 1624 until 1850, Manhattan was plagued by two disasters that killed thousands of residents and caused millions of dollars of damage: unrestrained outbreaks of infectious diseases, including small pox, yellow fever and cholera, and uncontrolled fires that destroyed blocks of stores and residences. The reason: no clean water supply. Koeppel, a former editor at CBS News, has written a vivid history of how Manhattan finally got reliable drinking water. Relying on primary documents, diaries, personal histories and maps, he charts the internecine schemes and failed business ventures to alleviate the island's water problems, from Christopher Colles's attempt to build a reservoir and a steam engine in 1774 to Aaron Burr's and Alexander Hamilton's fraudulent 1789 Manhattan Company (which never delivered promised water but did become the hugely successful Chase Manhattan bank), to John Jevis's successful 1850 project to divert the waters of the Croton River into the rapidly growing city using a complex set of aqueducts and waterworks. Each element in Koeppel's panoramic view of Manhattan's past--including the histories and medical records of families who died in epidemics and the brutal reaction to the Great Negro Plot of 1741, in which slaves sent to fetch spring water for their masters may have organized a series of thefts and fires--is intricately bound to the public's need for clean water. Though it lacks a strong narrative drive, Koeppel's graceful history is written with a wit and intelligence that will please fans of urban history. Agent: Russ Galen.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars a simple compound for a complex city Jan. 4 2004
Format:Paperback
Gerard Koeppel has done a remarkable job of ferretng out material and documents which demonstrate how long it took, how much cash it took, how much politicking it took to get the simple compound H2O to complex NYC. I don't mean to be glib about this. As one reviewer has noted, Manhattan without fresh supplies of water would've been another unliveable coastal town.
Just like DeWitt Clinton's Erie Canal brought goods in and out of the city, the many visionaries (Burr[for politicial and banking reasons] and Colden [for practical reasons]) gave the city an enormous insurance policy for its future which is difficult to ignore.
This book is a compelling dedication to the people who saw the need for the reservoir system and made it a reality. Sometimes the book gets bogged down with details, but that's to be expected. What wasn't expected, by this reader, was the author's perserverance and dedication to this important matter, and for that he deserves the highest accolades.
Rocco Dormarunno, author of THE FIVE POINTS, and THE FIVE POINTS CONCLUDED, A Novel
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Format:Hardcover
The book illustrates the folly of trusting our elected officials. How often did they use a public fear to enrich their own pockets? The sordid ancestory of the Chase Manahattan Bank is a case in point that Gerard Koepell, a person who I shared classrooms with when we were growing up, brings out particularly well. The point of history is for us to learn from our collective experiences and Gerard lays it all out for us. Gerard points out that at first no one knew about cholera and it's relationship to contaminated water. I had no idea that well into the 1800s people from New York had no running water or toilets and used the streets as their "trash" depositories. What else did the book teach me? Politicians in the past had no stomach for a long-term project or long-term thinking ... Politicians were/are corrupt and weak-minded and despite the huge legislative bodies, politicians are overwhelmed and the real laws and decisions are made by 1 or 2 people and everyone else is, at best, a yes-person. The status quo is often very comfortable. In old New York, beer was a relatively safe drink because of the brewing process (ie boiling) and New York had great economic incentive to keep people drinking beer instead of water. What are the present day unrecognized-evils? Air quality? I worry that the tremendous rise in urban asthma will eventually transform into an increased risk of lung cancer, even in the non-smokers. What interests are happy with the status quo of our air? Automobile manufacturers? Oil companies? The Advertising Industry? The Media? The Pharmaceutical Industry? Anyway the book is great food for thought. Gramatically some of the sentences, particularly in the early chapters are attention grabbing gems. And that is from someone who was hit with a tennis raquet by the author. Good work Gerard! END
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5.0 out of 5 stars Water For Gotham June 7 2000
Format:Hardcover
It is about time that an in-depth book on the subject of New York's water supply was completed. The author has done a fabulous job of putting a highly readable work together that brings to life a period we rarely think about and a topic hardly considered in our hurried modern lives. Reality, however, is that New York without water would be just another coastal town. Those interested in a photographic history of the same topic should seek The Croton Dams and Aqueduct which will be publihsed by Arcadia Press in August of 2000.
Was this review helpful to you?
5.0 out of 5 stars A new book tells the epic tale of Old New York March 27 2000
Format:Hardcover
When we turn on the tap we take it for granted that pure and wholesome water is supposed to come out. For Americans in the early 1800's, the supply of fresh water to New York City was an achievement on the order of the moon landing in our era -- carrying a river for 40 miles through hills and valleys and across rivers to a desperate island city.
The amazing story of New York's water supply has long been known to historians, infrastructure buffs and residents of the Westchester villages through which the beautiful Old Croton Aqueduct still passes. Gerard Koeppel's new book, Water for Gotham: a History, makes this story accessible to all.
Unlike previous works on the subject, which have emphasized the engineering accomplishments of the Croton Aqueduct, this book explores New York City's social and political history with a liveliness and wit that make the turbulent decades following the American Revolution come to life. Experience the terror of cholera and great fires, the antics of scoundrels and demagogues, and the heights of idealism, dedication and genius that are all intertwined in this epic tale.
Mr. Koeppel's book is impressively researched and is a true contribution to our understanding of New York history. That a work of non-fiction is so lively and engrossing is another reminder that truth is stranger than fiction.
Was this review helpful to you?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  11 reviews
32 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A new book tells the epic tale of Old New York March 27 2000
By Robert Kornfeld, Jr. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
When we turn on the tap we take it for granted that pure and wholesome water is supposed to come out. For Americans in the early 1800's, the supply of fresh water to New York City was an achievement on the order of the moon landing in our era -- carrying a river for 40 miles through hills and valleys and across rivers to a desperate island city.
The amazing story of New York's water supply has long been known to historians, infrastructure buffs and residents of the Westchester villages through which the beautiful Old Croton Aqueduct still passes. Gerard Koeppel's new book, Water for Gotham: a History, makes this story accessible to all.
Unlike previous works on the subject, which have emphasized the engineering accomplishments of the Croton Aqueduct, this book explores New York City's social and political history with a liveliness and wit that make the turbulent decades following the American Revolution come to life. Experience the terror of cholera and great fires, the antics of scoundrels and demagogues, and the heights of idealism, dedication and genius that are all intertwined in this epic tale.
Mr. Koeppel's book is impressively researched and is a true contribution to our understanding of New York history. That a work of non-fiction is so lively and engrossing is another reminder that truth is stranger than fiction.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a simple compound for a complex city Jan. 4 2004
By Rocco Dormarunno - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Gerard Koeppel has done a remarkable job of ferretng out material and documents which demonstrate how long it took, how much cash it took, how much politicking it took to get the simple compound H2O to complex NYC. I don't mean to be glib about this. As one reviewer has noted, Manhattan without fresh supplies of water would've been another unliveable coastal town.
Just like DeWitt Clinton's Erie Canal brought goods in and out of the city, the many visionaries (Burr[for politicial and banking reasons] and Colden [for practical reasons]) gave the city an enormous insurance policy for its future which is difficult to ignore.
This book is a compelling dedication to the people who saw the need for the reservoir system and made it a reality. Sometimes the book gets bogged down with details, but that's to be expected. What wasn't expected, by this reader, was the author's perserverance and dedication to this important matter, and for that he deserves the highest accolades.
Rocco Dormarunno, author of THE FIVE POINTS, and THE FIVE POINTS CONCLUDED, A Novel
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Water For Gotham June 7 2000
By Chris Tompkins-Mercersburg Academy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
It is about time that an in-depth book on the subject of New York's water supply was completed. The author has done a fabulous job of putting a highly readable work together that brings to life a period we rarely think about and a topic hardly considered in our hurried modern lives. Reality, however, is that New York without water would be just another coastal town. Those interested in a photographic history of the same topic should seek The Croton Dams and Aqueduct which will be publihsed by Arcadia Press in August of 2000.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A case study on New York politics Nov. 13 2006
By R. P. Firriolo - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
In "Water for Gotham," Gerard Koeppel tells in a compelling way what could have been--ahem--a dry story. Its focus is on the civic history of a nascent metropolis thirsty for water, the self-interested politicians who used that thirst for their own ends, and the few dedicated visionaries who labored against man and nature to bring cold, clean water to Manhattan. Koeppel paints a vivid picture of life in New York from colonial days through the early-1800s, when the Croton Aqueduct was opened.

One of the few significant criticisms I have about the book is that while it frequently discusses structures, equipment, and emerging technologies, little effort is made to clearly explain and describe them. While the book is not meant to be a technical or engineering review, better explanations (as opposed to cursory descriptions) of some of the methods of construction (e.g., dams, the aqueduct) would have been appreciated.

A second criticism is that the book ends too abruptly with the arrival of water through the Croton Aqueduct, with only passing mention of later developments to the City's extensive water supply system. An additional chapter on how the other reservoirs in the system were created--sometimes through contentious legal battles and property condemnation--and the disposition of some of the original Croton structures, would have been welcome.

Notwithstanding these minor quibbles, the book is enjoyable, informative and enlightening. Recommended.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Water for Gotham March 26 2009
By Michael Wald - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
It is a wonderful overview of the problems facing New York and its water supply from the time of the Dutch up through the creation of the Croton system. As with the best books, the reader not only learns about the ins and outs of creating a trustworthy water supply, but along the way, you learn a lot about the culture of post-Revolutionary War New York.

The book is a good reminder that political considerations are not a new situation facing decisions about science and public policy, but that people were wrestling with these same issues 200 years ago.

As a nice addition to the book, the maps scattered througout the book are very helpful in understanding the natural landscape of the island before New Yorkers so visibly changed this landscape to make it unrecognizable to someone from the 18th Century.

It would be interesting to know how current water activists who oppose any modifications to natural watersheds would react to the wholesale changes which New York undertook in reshaping the natural landscape and whether they would advocate undoing all of these changes, thus debilitating modern New York.

A small quibble is that this book only touches on the actual hydrology of the island. It is more of a social and political history rather than a scientific explanation of why New York struggled with water shortages as its population grew.

Highly recommend this book to anyone interested in how the facts of hydrology in an actual location interacts with the sociology, finance, and politics of that place, not to mention people who want a better picture of the U.S. in the early 19th Century.
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