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date: 24 February 2024

What Is Public and What Is Private in Water Provision: Insights from 19th-Century Philadelphia, Boston, and New Yorkfree

What Is Public and What Is Private in Water Provision: Insights from 19th-Century Philadelphia, Boston, and New Yorkfree

  • Gwynneth C. MalinGwynneth C. MalinNew York University


Water became the first public utility in the United States. Before public transportation and public regulation of utilities like electricity and gas, North American cities adopted public water, but this transition is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until the 1830s, both water supply and sewerage were seen as private entities to be managed by private companies and private individuals with nominal assistance from local governments. Water provision was often a blend of public and private efforts, and if residents wanted a well or a sewer built in their neighborhood, they had to help pay for it. Until the mid-19th century, residents of Northeast U.S. cities drew water for domestic uses from local ponds, rivers, and groundwater sources. At this time, procuring water was a daily activity for residents that was linked to economic class.

The 19th century was a key period in the redefinition of water as a public-sector responsibility in the United States. The cities of Philadelphia, Boston, and New York illustrate this change. City officials made the gradual transition from relying on private water companies to implementing public management of the water supply. As increasing urbanization and growing immigrant populations rendered local and privately managed water sources undersupplied, elected officials began to search for new sources of water located beyond city limits. Philadelphia was the first to transition to public water management in 1801, followed by New York in 1842, and Boston in 1848. While each city’s history is unique, city officials took similar approaches to defining public and private with regard to water provision by gradually eliminating private water companies and by increasing funding for public works. Common themes included water pollution, the need to tap new water supplies further from the city centers, disease prevention, fire protection, and financial corruption, within both private water companies and municipal efforts to supply water. While most cities of the Northeast United States transitioned to municipal operation of water supply during the 19th century, the shift was not without its challenges and complexities. Funding shortages often prevented change, but crises, such as fire, drought, and infectious disease outbreaks, forced the hands of municipal officials. Timelines to public water varied. While Boston and Philadelphia achieved permanent public water in the early 19th century, New York experienced a longer trajectory. In each case, public management of water definitively triumphed over private. By the early 20th century, urban Americans conceptualized public and private differently than they had during the 19th century. Water management was at the center of this profound shift.


  • Management and Planning

Before public transportation and public regulation of utilities like electricity and gas, North American cities adopted public water. In the colonial era, fledgling local governing bodies partnered with private citizens of means to supply water and to build sewers. Poor neighborhoods relied on undersupplied public wells. In the 19th century, city governments, prompted by fires, disease, and the increased pollution of local water sources, began to tackle the challenges of water provision, drawing on water sources outside city centers.

Cities often lacked the funding and bureaucratic structures needed to make the idea of public water a reality. Elite support was required in Philadelphia. Wealthy politicians and civic leaders spurred the public water initiative and helped to pay for its realization in 1801. In Boston, the wealthy were opposed to public water, but reformers and working people advocated for it, and they ultimately triumphed when the new public system was brought on line in 1848. In New York, in 1835 the public voted to allow the city to borrow funds for public water infrastructure, although the wealthy and some of the poor voted against the act. New Yorkers celebrated when public water arrived in New York in 1842; however, an institutional structure for public water in New York did not fully take hold until the Progressive Era. In 1905, after defusing a private water company’s attempt to take over the water system, New York State passed legislation granting the Board of Water Supply the power to construct the public water system and the Department of Water Supply, Gas, and Electric the responsibility for managing it.

Why highlight the water history of these three cities? Because Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, when compared with each other, provide a window into the long and bumpy road to public water management in the Northeast. It is instructive to include the city that established the first public system, Philadelphia, the city that delayed significantly, Boston, and the city that took the longest of the three to establish public water, New York. All three cities brought water from new external sources into the city center—from a river via steam pumps in Philadelphia; from a river via a dam, reservoirs, and an aqueduct in New York; and from a pond via an aqueduct and reservoirs in Boston (Galusha, 2002; Smith, 2013). Cities witnessed increasing support for the idea of public health, the development of a more complex water bureaucracy, and exacerbated tensions between city and state governments. In many ways, the history of water supports the traditional narrative of the weak state of the Gilded Age (circa 1870–1900) followed by the stronger state of the Progressive Era (circa 1890–1920s), but it also complicates the story. While Boston and Philadelphia were able to achieve permanent public water in the early 19th century, establishing New York’s water supply had a longer trajectory with more contingency. In New York, the idea of public water preceded the bureaucracy, the funding, and the legal authority to make it possible and permanent. Securing a lasting structure to guarantee New York’s long-term public water required the rise of a stronger state and the elimination of smaller private water companies during the Progressive Era.

Colonial Context

Proximity to water sources determined the location of colonial settlements on Indigenous People’s land. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony originally settled in Charlestown in the 1600s, but they then moved across the Charles River to build the city of Boston. Before his visit in 1682, William Penn had already selected the land between the Delaware River and the Schuylkill River as the site for the metropolitan center of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In his will and upon his death in 1790, Benjamin Franklin allocated an endowment of 1,000 pounds sterling to both Boston and Philadelphia to be made as loans to young craftsmen. Franklin intended that this original endowment plus the interest earned from the loans would generate additional funds, which were to be used to build water systems in each city (Smith, 2013).

Colonial settlements in the Northeast did not provide for the arrival of fresh, clean drinking water or the removal of sewage and garbage from homes and streets. Rather, supplying drinking water and removing waste were, for the most part, left to private companies and individuals. During the colonial period, residents drew water for domestic uses from local ponds, rivers, and ground water sources and collected rainwater in rooftop cisterns. In these early settlements, procuring water was a daily activity that was linked to economic class, gender, and race (Goldman, 1997; Koeppel, 2000).

The pollution of nearby water sources, the inability to enforce sanitary regulations, and the problems caused by granting charters to private water companies were three patterns that began in Dutch New Amsterdam in 1626 and continued in English New York after 1664 (McCully, 2014). Residents of New Amsterdam relied on a 48-acre freshwater pond called Kalch-Hook in Dutch, later known by the English as the Collect (Weidner, 1974). After 1664, workers in New York dug public wells, but local officials struggled to implement sanitation practices. The streets, dubbed “nasty & unregarded” (Koeppel, 2000, p. 21) by a physician visiting from Boston in 1697, were overrun with rubbish, manure, and refuse of all sorts (Koeppel, 2000).

Water supply was a public–private partnership between the Common Council, which was New York’s governing body, and local homeowners. In 1686, when the Common Council ordered that nine more public wells be built, it stipulated that, “one halfe of the Charge of them to be borne by the inhabitants of every Streete proportionately and the other halfe by the Citty” (Hall, 1993, p. 18). If residents wanted a well or a sewer built in their neighborhood, they had to help pay for it. This system meant that poor neighborhoods remained underserved.

New Yorkers drew water from wells sourced by the Collect. Water from the Collect was initially renowned for its good quality and for making tea. The construction of the Tea Water Pump in the 1730s provided greater access to “tea water”, water ideal for making tea, for those who could afford to pay for it. Households subscribed by paying an annual flat fee for the water (Koeppel, 2000). Patrons could also buy this tea water from private sellers, called Tea Water Men, who sold it throughout the city by transporting it in buckets on carts (Hall, 1993; Koeppel, 2000). At the Tea Water Pump, the entrepreneurs filled their “130-gallon hogsheads with water at a cost of six cents and peddled it by the bucketful in the city for about one cent a gallon” (Weidner, 1974, p. 16). While water was not a stand-alone beverage until the mid to late 19th century, water for making tea became a commodity for purchase during the 18th century.

Procuring water daily for domestic use was the work of poor and working class women, servants, and enslaved people. As historian Leslie Harris has shown, whereas in New Amsterdam, the Dutch West India Company owned the majority of the enslaved people, in British New York, slave ownership was widely spread among White residents (Harris, 2002 ). After 1664, many wealthy White New Yorkers ordered enslaved people to draw water from a private well located near Wall Street and to carry it back to the houses. Their well of choice, known for its high-quality water, called Comfort’s Tea Water, was run by a White man named Gerardus Comfort, who owned at least one enslaved Black man, referred to as Jack, who managed the well. In 1740, rumors spread through New York that enslaved Black men were plotting to poison the public wells. After 10 fires burned in February of 1741, some White New Yorkers panicked about an unconfirmed uprising, which became called “the Great Negro Plot” (Koeppel, 2000, p. 29; Lepore, 2006). Almost 200 enslaved people were suspected of plotting arson and planning the murders of White people. There were arrests and trials during the summer of 1741, and afterward four White people and 30 Black people were put to death. This was a higher death count than that of the witch trials of 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, when 20 people were killed. It remains unclear in the historical record whether enslaved people conspired in 1741 in New York (Lepore, 2006). In 1742, however, the city passed a law that mandated that enslaved people draw water from the nearest neighborhood well (Koeppel, 2000).

In 1774, concerned about the economic disparity in access to water, Christopher Colles, an Irish engineer and inventor, proposed a plan for the city’s first public water system, the New-York Water Works. It would include a reservoir near the Collect and a pump house. Water would be distributed through wooden pipes underground. The Common Council, after 3 months of deliberation, approved Colles’s plan and funded it with promissory notes, an early example of city financing for water supply in the United States. Construction began, only to be interrupted by the events of the American Revolution in 1776, wherein the British destroyed the reservoir and Colles fled the city. That was the untimely end of the New-York Water Works (Bone et al., 2006; Hall, 1993; Popper, 2005). Public water would not be attempted again in earnest in New York until the 1830s. Boston’s and Philadelphia’s early attempts at public water would yield greater success than New York’s initial trial with Colles’s plan.

The First Public Water System in the Northeast

In the yellow fever outbreak of 1793 in Philadelphia, one in 12 residents died. In 1797, yellow fever struck Philadelphia again, killing 3,000 people, and in 1798, the fever made another deadly appearance in the city. These yellow fever outbreaks forced public officials toward creating a public water system. Although the cause of the fever was unknown, there was consensus that street cleaning, removal of filth, and a more abundant supply of fresh drinking water would mitigate the spread of the disease. Since a private water company had been building a canal for transportation that would connect the Schuylkill and the Delaware Rivers, the city asked if the company could build an additional canal to supply water to the city center. Before an agreement could be reached, the private canal company went bankrupt. The municipal corporation attempted negotiations again with another private company in 1797, but to no avail (Warner, 1987).

English architect and engineer Benjamin Latrobe visited Philadelphia in 1799. The purpose of his trip was to establish the Bank of Pennsylvania, but when Latrobe learned of the city’s plan to build a public waterworks system of canals and dams, he suggested a shortcut that would involve steam pumps and a culvert from the Schuylkill River to the city center. Latrobe quickly published a pamphlet to this effect. Water would be distributed through wooden pipes and at street hydrants, where it would be available free of charge to the poor. The waterworks would be paid for by water rents charged to residences and businesses that were connected to the system (Warner, 1987). Latrobe’s plan became the blueprint for the public water system of Philadelphia, although as historian Sam Bass Warner has shown, the city did not maintain Latrobe’s commitment to raise “the level of living of the poor” (Warner, 1987, p. 109). The elites of the Watering Committee and the city councils took it upon themselves to raise funds, and they built the system along Latrobe’s plans without any financial aid from the state. When funding ran short as the construction progressed, the elites contributed money from their own pockets. The new system came on line in 1801. It soon required several adjustments, including repairing pumps, replacing wooden pipes, and managing the hydrants. Latrobe’s plan to pay for the works with water rents also did not come to fruition. In 1811, only 2,127 Philadelphians had subscribed to pay for water, leaving 54,000 residents dependent on private wells and street hydrants. In 1819, the City Council approved the funding and plans for building a dam across the Schuylkill that would use water-powered pumps to send the water to Fairmount Hill, where reservoirs would be built to service a gravity-fed system. By using water-powered pumps, the works would have the benefit of being less expensive than the steam pumps. Yet, financial challenges continued throughout the 1830s. Since few residences and businesses subscribed to pay for water, this first public water system operated at a deficit for 30 years. Unsurprisingly, at this time, many cities chose not to follow Philadelphia’s example due to fiscal concerns (Rawson, 2010; Warner, 1987).

Philadelphia’s establishment of its public water system in 1801 marked the first time that an American municipality took full responsibility for building, managing, and financing a citywide municipal water system that was entirely city-run (Smith, 2013). It took an aggressive “merchant-led committee system of government” (Warner, 1987, p. 104) and some initial funding support from elites to establish public water in Philadelphia (Warner, 1987). Historian Carl Smith has shown that while there had been a long tradition of public wells and public pumps in Philadelphia, the notion of building and managing a massive water system to serve all the city’s residents was a radical undertaking on a much larger scale that would require the expansion of urban government. In City Water, City Life, Smith examined how water intersected with ideas of citizenship, the natural world, and the city as a body politic during urbanization from 1790 to 1870. He invoked an “infrastructure of ideas” and he argued that “cities are built out of ideas as much as they are of timber, bricks, and stone” (Smith, 2013, p. 2).

Unreliable Private Water Companies

During the 19th century, it was common practice to rely on private companies to provide goods and services, and private business was seen as integral to North American economic growth (Smith, 2013). City officials often engaged private water companies out of fears about the large initial expense and the continued fiduciary responsibility that managing a public water system would entail. However, the general unreliability of private water companies, combined with catastrophes, such as fire, drought, and disease outbreaks, prompted an increased demand for water and ultimately drove city officials to undertake the public management of water.

Private water companies, which were utilized in American cities throughout the 18th century and into the 19th century, developed modest water infrastructures and sold water to customers. States chartered these companies to provide water to the residents of their cities, and the practice continued well into the 19th century as the most frequent process for water supply. Yet, there were limitations on what types of services private companies were willing and able to provide. Since private water companies sought to make a profit, managers were reluctant to make significant financial investments in infrastructure. Furthermore, cities often required private companies to fix streets after pipes had been laid and to supply water for firefighting free of charge. Private companies resented these requirements (Rawson, 2004).

One argument supporting private water in the 19th century was that private companies could build water systems at a lower cost than municipalities could. Additionally, engaging multiple private companies to supply one city would create competition, which would result in lower costs for the water consumer. In the 19th century, American proponents of private water often cited London, England as an example, highlighting that London’s citizens depended solely on private water companies. However, in a system that created private company advantage, London’s eight private water companies each managed a distinct region of the city, creating, in effect, eight mini-monopolies competing with each other, instead of one unified system (Rawson, 2004). Despite this major shortcoming, London’s system established a strong precedent for chartering private water companies, although prices were high and water quality was often substandard (Smith, 2013).

From London to Boston to New York to Philadelphia, private water companies shared a common reputation for being unreliable. The private Boston Aqueduct Corporation, which drew water from Jamaica Pond in Roxbury, had been in the business of supplying water to parts of Boston since 1798. Complaints by customers indicated insufficient supply of water and a complete lack of water at times. The company did well by its stockholders, however, paying out annual dividends of 10%, after an upgrade of its infrastructure (Rawson, 2004). Sometimes private wells took on a public function, as was the case with the Waltham Company of Boston, which did not limit access to its water, often leaving its private wells open to the public, free of charge. Independent vendors sold water collected from country lakes door to door for a high price, and residents collected water in rooftop cisterns. Private water companies did not lay pipes in poor neighborhoods because managers feared that neither landlords nor tenants would be willing to pay for water (Rawson, 2010). Those who could afford water could purchase it, and everyone else had to depend on the insufficient supply from public wells.

Relying on one private company and a network of public wells and cisterns proved inadequate for Bostonians. A destructive fire in 1825 decimated 53 houses and stores. Firefighters struggled to control the fire and were forced to rely on saltwater, since the well water supply was insufficient. After the fire, Mayor Josiah Quincy advocated to the City Council that they locate a new source of water. The Council was hesitant due to concerns about the high cost of such a venture. The quality of well water was also substandard, and physicians insisted that a new, clean supply of water was essential for health and well-being. The poorest neighborhoods suffered the most from a severe lack of water supply. Landlords undertook no efforts to provide water, and local wells in poor areas offered low-quality water. During the 1830s, Boston was wrestling with the economic growth and social changes caused by the market revolution and the influx of immigrants, predominately from Ireland. A central pillar of the urban reform agenda in 19th-century Boston was public water (Rawson, 2004, 2010).

New Yorkers, like Philadelphians, were struck hard by the devastating yellow fever outbreak during the summer of 1798. By this time, water from the Collect was extremely polluted, unfit for drinking, and deemed “less and less wholesome everyday” (Koeppel, 2000, p. 64). In July of 1798, physician Joseph Browne proposed a plan to city officials to import water from the Bronx River and to charter a private company to construct and manage the system. The Common Council was strongly opposed to hiring a private water company. In an interesting twist of fate, the leader of the New York Assembly delegation at this time was Joseph Browne’s brother-in-law, Aaron Burr. (Burr, the long-time rival of statesman Alexander Hamilton, became a U.S. Senator and then Vice President to Thomas Jefferson in 1800 and famously killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804.) In 1799, Burr managed to convince key members of New York’s elite and merchant class, including Alexander Hamilton, that a private water company was the best choice for New York (Koeppel, 2000). On April 2, 1799, state lawmakers passed “An act for supplying the city of New-York with pure and wholesome water” (Koeppel, 2000, p. 85), and the act granted a perpetual charter to Burr’s Manhattan Company, giving it the exclusive right to transport water to the city. Then, without Hamilton’s or any lawmakers’ knowledge or approval, Burr proceeded to arrange the finances and the directorships of the Manhattan Company to benefit the company and shareholders financially and to limit any influence of city officials (Koeppel, 2000).

On September 1, 1799, Burr purchased a house at 40 Wall Street in order to open “an office of discount and deposit” (Hall, 1993, p. 48). Burr was more interested in building a banking business that would compete with the Federalist’s Bank of New York, founded by Alexander Hamilton in 1784, than on providing water to New York (Galusha, 2002). Under Burr’s direction, the Manhattan Company dug wells near the Collect, built a reservoir on Chambers Street that visually resembled a bank (with grand, classical columns and a statue of the god Oceanus at the top), and laid six miles of wooden pipes to convey water to 400 houses (Koeppel, 2000; McCully, 2014). Customers paid to connect to the system and also paid an annual fee for the water. By 1802, the Manhattan Company supplied only 2,000 families, out of a population of 60,000 people, through just 21 miles of pipe (McCully, 2014). As the years passed, the Manhattan Company became known for uneven distribution and low-quality water. Customers complained that the water was often shut off due to roots clogging the wooden pipes, and when the water was delivered, it was unfit for drinking (Galusha, 2002). The Manhattan Company did not import water from outside the city limits, as originally intended. Furthermore, the company was in violation of its charter, since it had not provided sufficient water. Burr was ousted from the company in 1802 and yellow fever struck in 1803, causing the company to shut down. In 1804, the city tried to buy the company’s waterworks from the bank. Mayor Dewitt Clinton appointed a committee to convince the Manhattan Company to cede its water supply rights to the city. Both efforts were unsuccessful. In 1808, the New York State Legislature renewed the company’s charter, allowing it to exist for 30 more years with a monopoly on the right to provide piped water services (Galusha, 2002; McCully, 2014). The Manhattan Company became an infamous example of private water company corruption, inadequacy, and unreliability.

Disease, Public Water, Sanitation, and Sewers

Sanitation services, although essential in urban environments, were not originally considered to be the responsibility of local governments in the Northeast. Taking a national perspective, historian Martin Melosi’s sweeping tome, The Sanitary City, examined how American cities tackled the work of sanitary services, such as water supply, sewerage, and solid-waste disposal, from colonial times to the year 2000. Melosi analyzed the development of sanitary services and their influence on urban growth and the environment (Melosi, 2008).

In the colonial United States, local ordinances regarding sanitation were common but rarely effective. In 1634, in perhaps the first such ordinance, Bostonians were forbidden from tossing fish or garbage onto the common landing (Duffy, 1990). In 1657, a law in New Amsterdam sought to stop people from throwing waste into the streets (Melosi, 2005). Residents of New Amsterdam and later New York relied on chamber pots and privies, which, once full of human waste, needed to be emptied. It was a common practice to toss the contents of chamber pots, called “Tubbs of Odour” (Koeppel, 2000, p. 21), out of the windows into the streets (Koeppel, 2000). Homeowners hired workers to remove filth from privies; the workers placed the privies’ contents in piles in the streets. Local authorities engaged “scavengers” to cart the waste away (Goldman, 1997). In 1652, a Boston law forbade privy construction within 20 feet of a street or private house unless it had a 6-foot-deep privy vault. To a large extent, the work of digging wells, building privies, and laying drains was left to individual citizens (Duffy, 1990). Many sanitary ordinances targeted nuisance industries, such as “butchers and blubber boilers” (Duffy, 1990, p. 12), in an effort to dictate how they were to dispose of their waste. But enforcing regulations against businesses proved difficult, resulting in court orders, such as one in Boston in 1684 that demanded that Boston butchers keep their shops clean or face a fine of 20 shillings. In an effort to clean the neighborhoods, local officials in Boston hired scavengers to remove dead animals from the street and to wrangle stray cows and horses (Duffy, 1990).

Most of the early sanitation laws in America were based on nuisance laws from English common law, which came from court cases related to land use. In legal cases concerning public nuisances, an action could be brought against a private individual, an industry, or a municipality whose actions were seen as infringing upon the public’s common rights, thereby putting an end to specific instances of pollution. Before the Industrial Revolution, American courts tended to protect the economic interests of cities and towns in public nuisance cases and to prevent lawsuits against local governments (Melosi, 2008).

English sanitary practices of the 19th century greatly influenced emerging ideas of sanitation in the American context. Sir Edwin Chadwick, an English sanitarian and lawyer, published his Report on the sanitary conditions of the labouring population of Great Britain in 1842, and the report called for a single system for sanitation. Chadwick advocated for the establishment of an “arterial system of pressurized water” (Melosi, 2008, p. 4) to manage house drainage, main drainage, paving, and street cleaning. Although this proposed hydraulic system never came to fruition, English sanitarians and engineers became thought leaders for planning wastewater services across Europe and North America. North American public health officials and engineers depended on their English counterparts for their expertise in sanitation technology (Melosi, 2008).

Disease outbreaks raised the stakes regarding sanitary services and water supply across the globe. In Paris, the 1832 cholera epidemic killed 20,000 people and sparked an insurrection against doctors, the wealthy, and city officials (Reid, 1991). In July of 1832, a cholera epidemic struck New York City. At its peak, on July 21, 1832, 104 people died in one day (Blake, 1956). At this time, the cause of cholera was unknown. Moralists blamed the poor for the spread of the illness. Anti-contagionists believed the English miasma theory, which held that filth or noxious smells caused illness, and thus they advocated for cleaning and expanding sewer systems. Contagionists maintained that diseases spread between people. Cholera was a global epidemic that struck New York in 1832, 1849, and 1866 (Reid, 1991; Rosenberg, 1962). The actual cause of cholera was not determined until 1854, in London, England, when Dr. John Snow traced a cholera outbreak to polluted water from the drinking water pump at Broad Street. This discovery led to the understanding that cholera outbreaks were caused by sewage-contaminated water supplies. In 1883, German scientist Robert Koch was conducting research in Egypt when he isolated Vibrio cholerae, “a motile, comma-shaped bacterium” (Rosenberg, 1962, p. 3), thereby further supporting the germ theory of disease (Johnson, 2006; Morris, 2007; Rosenberg, 1962). Italian scientist Filippo Pacini was later credited with an earlier discovery of Vibrio cholerae in Florence, Italy, in 1854, which had been ignored by scientists at the time (Frerichs, n.d.).

Disease outbreaks prompted city officials to action about the water supply, but their strategies were often short-term and rarely resulted in lasting change after the initial threat had passed. Belief in miasma theory, although scientifically inaccurate, provided the environmental context that led to innovations in technology for wastewater and positive developments in water infrastructure in the United States and elsewhere (Melosi, 2011). Over the course of the 19th century, disease evolved from being considered a private matter—and one for which “the poor, the infirm, or members of nonwhite races” (Melosi, 2011, p. 41) were blamed—to becoming a broader social concern requiring government intervention (Rosenberg, 1962). “Cholera, a scourge of the sinful to many Americans in 1832, had by 1866, become the consequence of remediable faults in sanitation. . . . There could be no public virtue without public health” (Rosenberg, 1962, p. 5).

After the cholera epidemic of 1832, it was posited that Philadelphia had been less hard hit by that outbreak than New York because it had a municipal water system with an ample supply of water (Blake, 1956). Similar to how the yellow fever outbreaks of the 1790s brought about public water in Philadelphia in 1801, the cholera outbreak of 1832 prompted New York City officials to plan their first public water system, which would import water from afar. But unlike in Philadelphia, where elites funded the waterworks outright, in New York the Common Council needed state and local approval of the financing for the waterworks before construction could begin.

Since an 1833 legislative act allowing the city to appoint five water commissioners had expired, the Common Council appealed to the New York State Legislature to pass a new act that would authorize waterworks construction and the funding for it. Passage of this new act, titled “An Act to Provide for Supplying the City of New York with Pure and Wholesome Water” (King, 1843, p. 120), required a public vote. A majority of Yes votes on the ballot would make it

lawful for the Common Council to raise by loan, from time to time, and in such amounts as they may think fit, a sum not exceeding two million five hundred thousand dollars, by the creation of a public fund or stock, to be called ‘The Water Stock of the City of New-York,’ which shall bear an interest not exceeding five percent per annum, and shall be redeemable at a period of time not less than ten, nor more than fifty years, from and after the passage of this act (King, 1843, pp. 120–121).

In April 1835, the people of New York voted overwhelmingly to endorse the building of the city’s first public waterworks, which would draw on the Croton River in Westchester County, and they approved borrowing the funds to do so. There were 17,330 Yes votes and 5,963 No votes (King, 1843). The wealthy neighborhood of the Ninth Ward, which was well supplied by local wells, voted against the bill, as did, more surprisingly, some of the poorest neighborhoods, which had wells of low-quality water and which were not served by the Manhattan Company (Koeppel, 2000). With the funding secured, the city engaged engineer John B. Jervis (after firing David Douglass from the project in 1836) and a staff of 20 engineers to design and build the Croton Aqueduct. Work began in 1837. Jervis, who had served as a supervising engineer on the Erie Canal, later consulted on the public waterworks in Boston, after his work on the Croton system was completed (Galusha, 2002).

In the 19th century and into the early 20th century, city officials overseeing public water projects contracted with private individuals for manual labor. In the case of the Croton system in the 1830s and 1840s, Irish immigrants, many recruited upon their arrival in New York, built the aqueduct. Workers lived in camps that were constructed along the pathway of the aqueduct, and they worked 10-hour days for 68 cents per day. In 1838, workers went on strike for higher wages. According to an 1838 report of water commissioners, the laborers “quit the work in a body and proceeded along the line of the aqueduct in a tumultuous manner, from the Croton dam to Sing Sing” (Galusha, 2002, p. 23), adding several hundred workers until they were stopped by magistrates at Mount Pleasant (Galusha, 2002). Many of the strikers returned to work once contractors agreed to increase their wages to 87.5 cents per day. The workers who had organized the walkout were not hired back. In another work stoppage incident, on August 2, 1838, a private contractor, John McGregory, walked off the job on two sections of the Croton Aqueduct, taking the $2,880 he had been paid in advance for materials and workers’ wages with him. Journalist and local historian Diane Galusha has described the Croton Aqueduct as an “arched tube of brick and stone, buried fifteen to thirty feet beneath the surface of the earth on a line roughly parallel to the Hudson River” (Galusha, 2002, p. 24). All the work of building the Croton Aqueduct was done by hand with shovels (Galusha, 2002).

The Croton system consisted of a dam on the Croton River that held back a reservoir located 6 miles from the Hudson River. From that 400-acre reservoir, the water was siphoned into the Croton Aqueduct and was carried from Westchester to Manhattan. The water arrived at the Yorkville Receiving Reservoir, a 38-acre reservoir between 6th and 7th Avenues (located in what became Central Park after 1857), and then traveled underground to the Murray Hill Distributing Reservoir at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street (where the New York Public Library was built between 1895 and 1911). Built just below ground level and covered with earth, the aqueduct spanned 41.5 miles and transported water by gravity from the watershed to the city (Galusha, 2002). Completed in 1842, the Croton system was considered an engineering marvel. When it opened, the aqueduct delivered 36,000,000 gallons of water per day. The centralized approach to the planning and construction of the Croton Aqueduct and the city’s ability to use the emerging legal concept of eminent domain, allowing city officials to seize private property with compensation to the owners, marked a new era of public water (McCully, 2014).

In the 1830s and 1840s, residents of Boston debated vigorously about whether water should be public or private. While urban reformers and the working class advocated for a publicly managed water system, wealthy Bostonians, who were against tax increases, supported private water companies. Historian Michael Rawson illustrated the philosophical underpinnings of these two opinions. Proponents of public water believed water to be a human right and argued for the equitable distribution of an abundant supply. Supporters of private water held that water was a commodity to be sold at market rates to those who could afford it, that water supply should be limited, and that water should be considered a privilege rather than a right. A third contingent of urban reformers maintained that because water embodied “all the wholesome powers of the natural world” (Rawson, 2010, p. 19) it could serve as a vehicle for social reform. They believed that if the local government brought wholesome, abundant, and affordable water to the city, this water would elevate the health and moral standing of the urban working class (Rawson, 2010).

As the debates and ideas circulated, Boston city officials delayed any action on instituting public water for two decades. Boston commissioned reports on waterworks in 1825, 1834, 1836, and 1837 and took little initiative beyond that. One reason for the delay may have been that the yellow fever outbreak in Boston was not as acute as that in Philadelphia. A second rationale could have been that some residents believed they could manage with the current supply of water. Third, the economic downturn marked by the Panic of 1837 put a damper on any investments in infrastructure.

By the 1840s, there was finally consensus that Bostonians needed to act. City officials rejected a plan proposed by a private company to draw on Spot Pond near Stoneham and approved a publicly managed effort involving building an aqueduct to Long Pond, near Framingham and Natick. In preparation for the vote on the referendum for the Water Act to held on May 19, 1845, city officials drew water samples from Spot Pond, Jamaica Pond, Long Pond, and the Charles River to compare water quality. Water from Spot Pond and Long Pond that was deemed clear and odorless won the purity contest over that of the Charles River. All water, when examined under a microscope, shows the presence of tiny organisms (Smith, 2013). Frequent illustrations, including cartoons, of these magnified water critters appeared in the visual record from the period (Rawson, 2010). Boston physicians assured consumers that the “animalcules” were believed to be harmless. However, the Water Act did not garner enough votes to pass, due to concerns about the proposed unlimited powers and unregulated salaries of the water commissioners provided by the act. It took the organizing of a Union Water Convention and a new report written by engineer John B. Jervis, from New York’s Croton Aqueduct, and Walter R. Johnson, a chemistry professor from Philadelphia, to finalize the plan for public water from Long Pond. In the referendum held on April 13, 1846, Bostonians voted to approve a new Water Act by a margin of 4,637 to 348. On August 20, 1846, the city broke ground on the project at Long Pond, including the 14-mile aqueduct that would deliver the water to a reservoir located in Brookline (Smith, 2013). Just 2 years later, in October 1848, the system was operational. Water arrived in Boston from Long Pond (also known by its Native American name, the “Cochituate”) via the reservoir in Brookline. The reservoir retained 100,000,000 gallons of water, which was then piped to two additional reservoirs in Boston (Rawson, 2010).

Waste of water also became an ongoing issue in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and across the country. In 1814, a member of the Philadelphia Watering Committee wrote a letter to Mayor Robert Wharton complaining about leaking hydrants, which created hazardous and icy conditions for walking in cold weather. He asked the mayor to resolve the problem without resorting to the all-too-frequent practice of allowing hydrants to run continuously through the winter to prevent freezing. Bostonians in wealthy neighborhoods, who enjoyed a fixed monthly or annual rate for water regardless of the volume used, as well as a functional sewer system, felt little need to conserve water usage or to repair leaks in sinks and toilets. Boston outlawed the hopper closet, a precursor to the more modern toilet, and began to license plumbers. Both efforts aimed to reduce waste of water. In general, sewer construction lagged the building of water supply infrastructure (Smith, 2013). In Philadelphia, piped water was rarely used for plumbing and the first tub connected to plumbing was said to have been installed 25 years after the arrival of public water in 1801. A sharp rise in demand for household plumbing began in 1840 and continued until 1890. (Ogle, 2000). Boston boasted a good sewer system compared to that in Philadelphia (Smith, 2013), but Boston’s poorer neighborhoods suffered from subpar sewerage (Rawson, 2010). As historian Joanne Goldman articulated, sewers and sanitation practices in urban settlements began on the local level and were often initially privately managed until the city began to hire engineers and laborers and to invest public funds. In New York, the earliest sewers were open trenches. In the 1830s, closed sewers were adopted. Since early sewer construction relied on financial subsidy from private residents, poor neighborhoods remained underserved. It was after the 1850s that city officials began to engage engineering professionals in the design of sanitary policy and sewer construction (Goldman, 1997). In New York, sewer construction lacked systematic planning and was completed in a haphazard fashion. The then independent City of Brooklyn, however, was an exception. Brooklyn engineers, including James P. Kirkwood and Julius W. Adams, planned the Brooklyn sewer construction as one unified system of storm drainage and sewerage beginning in 1857. In sewer design, size mattered. Brooklyn engineers opted for tunnels large enough “to admit of their being entered by men, and their accumulations cleaned out when they became offensive or otherwise objectionable” (Brooklyn Board of Water Commissioners ] & Ben, 1867, p. 73). New York was the first American city to implement a public health code in 1866, which was the year it established the Metropolitan Board of Health in response to the cholera epidemic of that same year (Melosi, 2008). In 1887, in another first, the City of Brooklyn built the first sewage treatment plant in the nation on Coney Island (Ascher, 2005; Rafter & Baker, 1893). Brooklyn engineers relied heavily on the work of English engineers in building the sewer system. The BBWC stated in their report: “It would be convenient to look back to the practice of English cities previous to 1850, for we have been largely enlightened and benefitted by their experience and by their disputes on the subject of city drainage” (BBWC & Ben, 1867, p. 73). Historian Joel Tarr argued that this sharing of knowledge about sewers illustrates the international exchange of key concepts about urban infrastructure (Tarr, 1996). One mode of knowledge dissemination was sewer tourism, which may date to Ancient Rome. Italian physician Bernadino Ramazzini, in his Diseases of Workers from 1713, noted that the Emperor Theodoric had praised the sewers of Rome, “which astounded strangers who came to see them, so that they easily surpassed the marvelous sights of all other cities” (Reid, 1991 , p. 15). Historian Donald Reid documented how sewer administrators in Paris, France, began to offer public tours of their sewer system during the Exposition of 1867, and the practice remains ongoing in the present day (Reid, 1991).

Sewers have a storied yet often invisible history. In antiquity, Pliny the Elder, wrote that the city sewers of Ancient Rome were “the most noteworthy achievement of all” (Reid, 1991, p. 15). Magistrates of Ancient Rome maintained the sewers via a series of ordinances used against any individual who impeded the sewers’ operation. Philosophes in 18th-century France interpreted Roman sewers as “an example of enlightened state action” (Reid, 1991, p. 15). In the 19th century, the French author Victor Hugo, who referenced sewers frequently in his work, wrote: “The sewer is the conscience of the city. All things converge and confront one another there” (Reid, 1991, p. 20).

Water as Public Spectacle and as Private Charity

During the 19th century, with the move toward municipally managed water in cities of the Northeast, aqueducts, reservoirs, and water fountains took on greater aesthetic significance as public signage for public water. After its completion in 1848, the visually arresting High Bridge in New York, with its elegant span of Ancient Roman-style arches, over which the Croton Aqueduct crossed the Harlem River from the Bronx to Manhattan, became a leisure and recreation destination for tourists and New Yorkers alike. When the water arrived from Croton in New York in 1842, elaborate public celebrations marked the momentous occasion. On June 27, 1842, at 4:30 p.m. in front of a crowd of thousands, workers raised the gate at the west end of the Yorkville Receiving Reservoir and in flowed the much-awaited Croton water for all to see. Next, remarkably, a boat, named The Croton Maid of Croton Lake, which had traveled the length of the aqueduct, descended into the Receiving Reservoir to much fanfare (Hall, 1993). At sunrise on July 4, 1842, Croton water arrived at the Murray Hill Distributing Reservoir, and the event was marked by a 45-cannon salute. By sunset that day, over 25,000 citizens had visited the reservoir, where they were given a glass of Croton water served over ice (Koeppel, 2000). Often, musical performances, parades, and dances accompanied the celebration of public water. On October 14, 1842, in New York, citywide festivities included cannons, fireworks, and a 5-mile parade of military, politicians, firemen, and temperance advocates that ended at City Hall Park (Galusha, 2002). New Yorkers listened to a performance of the Croton Ode and tapped their feet during the “Croton Jubilee Quick Step” (New York Public Library, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, 1842).

In 1848, Bostonians sang along with at least four different songs written to commemorate public water. Some songs were the work of temperance proponents and some songs took on religious themes of water. Citizens marched in a festive parade, which featured a full-size ship as one of the many floats, culminating at a new water fountain on the Boston Common (Rawson, 2010; Smith, 2013).

Decorative water fountains were part of the celebrations of public water and of the reformist impulse. In New York, the city built a massive fountain at City Hall Park. Public water fountains like this one represented the ample supply and high quality of public water and made visible the city’s role in its provision. Abolitionist and suffragist Lydia Maria Child described these events when she wrote on November 13, 1842, about the “clean, sweet, abundant water” from Croton, brought “thirty miles under-ground” and ushered “into the city with roaring cannon, sonorous bells, waving flags, floral canopies, and a loud chorus of song!” (Child, 1843, p. 224). Child described the aesthetically pleasing water fountain in City Hall Park:

The one in the park, opposite the Astor house, consists of a large central pipe, with eighteen subordinate jets in a basin a hundred feet broad. By shifting the plate on the conduit pipe, these fountains can be made to assume various shapes: the Maid of the Mist, the Croton Plume, the Dome, the Bouquet, the Sheaf of Wheat, and the Weeping-willow. (p. 225)

Like Child in New York, some reformers in Boston also advocated for citizens to spend time gazing at water fountains. They believed that public water held possibilities for moral reform, stating that the aesthetic appeal of decorative water fountains would “soften the hearts of the city’s citizens” (Rawson, 2010, p. 96). Among several religious figures in Boston, the Reverend Nehemiah Adams argued that observing water fountains could heal the troubled mind of the individual as well as nurture the community by encouraging “the social, kind feelings of the people” (Rawson, 2010, p. 97). Working-class Bostonians viewed water as a commons and hoped that a publicly managed water system would charge little for water. Urban reformers maintained that if the city supplied water to the working class at a reasonable cost, it would elevate the health and morality of the working class. Temperance enthusiasts insisted that drinking water could reduce the prevalence of alcohol. Other reformers supported the notion of providing piped water services as a common right because of water’s life-sustaining properties. Wealthy Bostonians, however, were opposed to public water. They believed that water was a commodity for purchase and that any attempt to subsidize it would lead to economic decline. A minority of reformers believed that water should be supplied by the municipal system free of charge to the poor as a charity, but most supporters of public water maintained that this would set a dangerous precedent (Rawson, 2004, 2010).

In New York, drinking water fountains became vehicles for religious charities and social reform movements. Churches, which were dedicated to serving the immigrant poor, and temperance advocates, who were determined to reduce beer and alcohol consumption, each began to provide drinking water free of charge. In the particularly hot summer of 1881, New York experienced a severe drought that caused low water pressure. Often, water did not rise above the first stories of the tenement buildings. In many tenements, a single faucet on the ground floor was the source of water for 50 to 100 residents (“No Water for Fountains,” 1896). In the 1880s and 1890s, churches across New York began to build and maintain drinking water fountains to serve newly arrived immigrants. As one example, in the summer of 1883, the Reverend Edward Judson built a drinking water fountain at the Berean Baptist Church on Bedford and Downing Streets in lower Manhattan to serve the local poor. Judson kept the fountain running with ice water even in the winter months and covered the cost of its operation (“Home News,” 1883). On September 20, 1891, before a large crowd, Judson unveiled another ice-water fountain attached to the newly built Judson Memorial Church in lower Manhattan (“Unveiling a Drinking Fountain,” 1891). Judson’s cool water offering served both as altruism and as advertising for the church’s mission, because it drew Catholic immigrants recently arrived from Southern Italy to this Baptist church. In 1897, a temperance organization called the Business Men’s Moderation Society ran a mobile water fountain, a water tank on wheels, which perambulated through the neighborhoods of the Five Points, delivering drinking water and ice to the immigrant communities free of cost (“Ice Water Perambulators,” 1897). In a fascinating combination of public and private, these private organizations managed their own used drinking fountains to provide free water to the poor, whose neighborhoods remained undersupplied by the municipal water system.

The drought of 1881, the rising demand for water due to increased immigration, and a trend in which many New Yorkers wasted water prompted the city to begin building the New Croton Aqueduct in 1883. An 1882 magazine article commented on the lack of water conservation by saying that each New Yorker knew “that however careful he may be of the water, he has numerous neighbors who waste it wantonly and wickedly, even in times of severe drought, and that they go unpunished and unchecked” (Campbell, 1882). The Department of Public Works (DPW) had attempted to conserve water in the 1870s by installing water meters in shops, hotels, and public places. However, beginning in 1857, residents in private homes were charged a flat fee for water regardless of the volume consumed. Often called “frontage rates,” the fees were calculated based on the size of the property and the number of water fixtures in the home (Soll, 2013). The two-pronged fee structure, in which business paid for their actual consumption of water while “higher use (of water) did not result in higher bills” (Soll, 2013, p. 88) for residents and landlords, persisted in New York throughout the 20th century. Many official water reports, beginning with Engineer John Freeman’s investigation of 1900, called for metering of residences. By 1911, metering for water consumption had become a “political third rail” (Soll, 2013, p. 89), and heated debates about it continued throughout the 20th century. Between 1885 and 1890, New York’s population increased by 50,000 people each year, and each year there were an additional 30,000 buildings that needed to be supplied with water (Weidner, 1974). In 1890, the New Croton Aqueduct brought an increased supply of public water to city dwellers. Augmenting what then became called the Old Croton Aqueduct, the new system included a subterranean aqueduct dug under the Harlem River, far below the High Bridge that arched above it (Galusha, 2002). Not until the 1980s and 1990s did New York City finally commit to increased metering aimed at “monitoring and reducing its water consumption” (Soll, 2013, p, 149).

Consolidation of the Cities

As cities increased in size and population, supplying water to residents became a “continuous race with demand” (Smith, 2013, p. 230). In 1854, the entirety of Philadelphia County became part of the city of Philadelphia, thereby tripling the population to over 400,000 residents. What had been a settlement of 2.5 square miles became one of 140 square miles. This newly consolidated Philadelphia assumed central control for the many waterworks that had served the surrounding areas and also expanded the existing waterworks, including building a pumping station in West Philadelphia. Between 1870 and 1907, the city constructed four additional pumping stations, and in 1909, the Fairmount works were retired. At the start of the 21st century, the city relied on three pumping stations, the Belmont and the Queen Lane, which drew water from farther up the Schuylkill River (beyond where the Fairmount had been) and the Torresdale on the Delaware River (Smith, 2013).

Boston also faced increased demand for water. In 1862, the Cochituate Water Board called for a new reservoir to be built in Chestnut Hill, but the Civil War delayed construction, and the reservoir was not completed until 1870. Boston annexed Charlestown in 1870 and assumed responsibility for its Mystic Lakes system, but expanding Boston’s territory and increasing its population placed further strain on the water supply. Boston added several new reservoirs and a new aqueduct drawing on the Sudbury River in 1878. When these additions failed to quench the city’s thirst, administrative expansion was the next step forward, driving Boston and twelve nearby towns to unite to establish the Metropolitan Water Board in 1895. Chartered by the state legislature, the new water board oversaw two major expansions of the overall water system. The Wachusett Reservoir in Clinton, completed in 1905, preceded the much larger Quabbin Reservoir, located 80 miles to the west of Boston. The building of the massive Quabbin Reservoir reshaped the rural Massachusetts landscape in profound ways because it transformed the hinterland. Two dams were built at Quabbin beginning in 1936. It took from 1939 to 1946 to fill the 400,000,000,000-gallon Quabbin Reservoir. The system serves 2,500,000 people and more than 5,000 industries. The Cochituate Reservoir closed in 1951 (Smith, 2013).

Like Boston, New York required a larger water supply in the 1860s. In 1861, the city added a larger main to the High Bridge in order to provide additional gallons of water per day for New Yorkers (Galusha, 2002). In 1862, the city welcomed a new reservoir in Central Park that was called by three names—Lake Manahatta, the New Reservoir, and the Grand Reservoir (Hall, 1993). The interconnectedness of consolidation and water supply was perhaps more far-reaching in New York, than in Philadelphia or Boston. For example, before consolidation, Brooklyn’s water came mainly from the aquifers of Long Island. Brooklynites’ reliance on this underground source meant that water levels were drawn so low that they required extensive pumping, which resulted in lower water tables, often contaminated with seawater (Bone et al., 2006). The promise of access to fresh water sources, to new water infrastructure in the present and the future, and to the funding to pay for it played a persuasive role in the independent city of Brooklyn’s motivation to join Greater New York through consolidation in 1898 (Soll, 2013).

On December 31, 1897, New Yorkers celebrated the unification of their city with a dramatic fireworks display, a cannon salute, and a grand parade of wheelmen, soldiers, and firemen (“The New City Ushered In,” 1898). The next day, January 1, 1898, after a 10-year effort, the City of New York was officially consolidated into one urban area comprised of the five boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, and Richmond. Consolidation meant forging one government, placing the mayor at the top of city government, and granting the mayor an increasingly large role in public works. Elected for a 4-year term, the mayor had the executive power to appoint all departments heads, except for the comptroller. Consolidation brought in the borough president system and a citywide Board of Public Improvements to manage the Departments of Bridges, Buildings, Lighting, Sewers, Street Cleaning, and Water Supply as well as the unification of the Department of Water Supply (DWS). Section 457 of the Greater New York Charter provided for the merger of existing water agencies from Manhattan (the Bureau of the Chief Engineer of the Croton Aqueduct and the Bureau of the Water Register), from Brooklyn (the Department of City Works), and from Queens and Richmond, as well as any public property related to water supply to create one united DWS. Manhattan and the Bronx had shared a water system since 1873. After consolidation, all five boroughs were under the same umbrella water system, which was publicly managed (DWS, 1899).

Before New York could expand the water supply taken from upstate, it needed to consolidate power and government downstate. In Empire of Water, historian David Soll emphasized how the increased demand for water reflected demographic and political changes. Consolidation into Greater New York practically doubled the city’s population, further taxing the water supply. Manhattan inherited the waterworks of the communities that became the five boroughs and found they were unable to meet the insatiable demand for water. The city had to find new sources of water in order to fulfill its commitment to Brooklyn and other communities that were now part of Greater New York. A major expansion of New York’s water system in the 20th century followed (Soll, 2013). Soll examined this period of “urban dominance” (Soll, 2013, p. 5) from 1905 to the 1960s when the city continued to expand the water network. In 1905, New York State granted New York City permission to divert streams in the Catskills to build the massive Catskills water system. In the 1960s, New York finished building the final reservoir in the Catskills. While the efforts to expand the watersheds upstate were monitored by the state and federal government, often the “scales of power were rigged in favor of New York City” (Soll, 2013, p. 5).

Politics, Corruption, and Municipal Finance

Politics cannot be erased from water history; the two are interwoven. Furthermore, efforts to root out financial corruption, in both private water companies and municipal operations, spanned from the 19th into the 20th centuries. When the New York State Legislature passed the Laws of 1870, it created the DPW, which subsumed the Croton Aqueduct Department and the Street Improvements Department. The DPW became a larger, city-run bureaucracy possessing more comprehensive powers than its predecessors (Gandy, 2002; Wegmann, 1896). In an unfortunate move, Mayor A. Oakley Hall appointed Boss William M. Tweed as the first commissioner of the DPW, and Tweed set to work embezzling funds, accepting kickbacks from contractors, and proposing legislation that would grant him unlimited powers to purchase land upstate as part of the water system. Commissioner Tweed’s term was short-lived, since he was convicted of embezzlement in 1874, and he died in jail in 1878 (Galusha, 2002). In this case, political corruption and graft undermined early municipal authority in public water management in New York during the Gilded Age. Political machines often made it difficult to initiate and manage large-scale and expensive water projects. In addition to the corruption of the Tweed Ring in New York, graft also occurred in Philadelphia in the 1870s, when the Republican machine diverted for its own use funds from the water department intended for maintenance and expansion of waterworks (Melosi, 2008).

Sometimes the financial interests of political machines and private water companies intersected. New York had eliminated the corrupt Manhattan Company in the 19th century, but it underwent another confrontation with another private water company in the early 20th century before pulling the plug on private water once and for all. In 1899, the city’s Comptroller, Bird Coler, found himself embroiled in a struggle to maintain public operation of water. In this multiyear struggle, in 1895 the state legislature had granted broad powers of eminent domain to the private Ramapo Water Company. In 1899, some Republicans in the state legislature and some Tammany Hall Democrats in the city government joined forces to try to convince the city to sign an expensive 40-year contract with the Ramapo company (Weidner, 1974). The Commissioner of Water Supply, William Dalton, and the President of the Board of Public Improvements, Francis Holahan, each stood to become very rich men, due to an elaborate scheme that provided kickbacks and company stock in exchange for Yes votes on pro-Ramapo legislation. As the scheme began to unravel due to Coler’s demands for more time and more information, the top officials of the two political machines, Republican Thomas C. Platt and Democrat Richard Croker, were exposed as the masterminds behind what came to be called “the Ramapo job” or “the Ramapo scheme” (Stradling, 2010 ; Weidner, 1974). Coler and his allies, both government officials and progressive reformers, halted the Ramapo takeover. The drama of this political scandal, which was covered thoroughly in the local newspapers, alerted the people to the need for vigilance around public water and allowed the city and state to solidify the power to manage water during the Progressive Era.

The mid-19th century witnessed important shifts in municipal finance. One of the central issues for cities was the ability to incur debt in order to pay for the construction of water infrastructure.

Once waterworks were built, their operation and management were financed by property taxes and user fees. New York, for instance, repaid “water bonds with revenue derived from water rates” (Soll, 2013, p. 90). Although formal federal income taxes did not exist until the early 20th century, collecting property tax became essential to city finances. Cities would also issue special assessments to pay for public works projects, but funds levied in this way were rarely sufficient. Throughout the 19th century, cities turned toward increasing the municipal debt. By 1870, city officials used the popular referendum to garner public support to issue municipal bonds. The patterns of municipal finance established by 1870 were foundational to city budgets for more than a century (Melosi, 2008).

In order for water to remain a public entity in New York, changes in municipal finance and a more centralized bureaucracy for overseeing water management were required. Urbanization, immigration, and innovations in engineering drove the shift from relying on local water sources to building more complex water supply systems. Although newly constructed public aqueducts were heralded as major achievements, access to clean water supplies remained uneven, with the poorer segments of the population left undersupplied, even by municipal systems. In New York, even as city government started to take control of water provision, many private companies remained in operation. Although New York welcomed public water from Croton in 1842, it took much longer, in fact until the Progressive Era, to secure the public management of water and to eliminate all of the many smaller private water companies operating in the boroughs. The values of the Progressive Era, such as a stronger state, belief in expert knowledge, and anti-monopolism, helped to ensure the permanence of public water in New York. Mayor George McClellan, a Tammany Hall Democrat, took office in 1904. On January 3, 1905, the mayor introduced the McClellan Act in the state legislature. This act established the centralized Board of Water Supply (BWS) and granted powers to the city to access water in several upstate counties. A second bill established the State Water Supply Commission (SWSC) to oversee how much water was taken from upstate counties. Both bills passed on May 4, 1905. These acts created a more complex and more powerful water bureaucracy (“Move to Beat Mayor’s City Water Measure,” 1905).

In addition to the new centralized water board, more flexible funding was needed. A major change in municipal finance that took place in the early 20th century was the exemption of water from the debt ceiling. On November 8, 1904, New Yorkers voted to ratify a constitutional amendment exempting bonds for water supply from the debt limit, allowing the city to borrow $200,000,000 for building the Catskills waterworks (Weidner, 1974). Although some bonds were issued in 1837 for the Old Croton Aqueduct, this was not common practice at that time. The Panic of 1873 brought about default in municipal bonds, whereas in the Panic of 1893, municipal governments fared better due to the relative security of municipal bonds. By 1905, waterworks represented the largest line item in municipal debt across the nation. In the 1920s, 70% of American waterworks were publicly owned, up from 43% in 1890 (Cutler & Miller, 2006). With regard to financing the Delaware system in the 1940s, historian David Soll has shown that bonds represented the “path of minimal financial resistance” (Soll, 2013, p. 124). Because bonds for water supply were exempt from a state regulation “limiting a city’s indebtedness to 10 percent of its real estate valuation,” (Soll, 2013, p. 124), issuing millions of dollars in bonds for waterworks posed “no immediate opportunity cost to the city” (Soll, 2013, p. 124).

The Urban and the Rural

The provision of public water to cities had a profound impact on the surrounding areas. Rural watersheds became battlegrounds between public and private interests. City government officials seized private lands owned by rural residents to build reservoirs that would furnish urbanites with public water. Scholars, most notably William Cronon in Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, have demonstrated how the history of the city cannot be told without including that of the countryside, and vice versa (Cronon, 1982). In the context of California, historian Norris Hundley Jr. argued that a new urban imperialism (Hundley, 2001, p. 121) surfaced around water management. Government entities, fueled by specific legislative powers and funds from the public treasury, drove the urban imperialism, which sought to control both local water sources and water reserves that were located increasingly far away from the cities (Hundley, 2001).

In New York, one vivid example of urban/rural tensions around water is found in the cholera prevention efforts of 1892. In 1892, cholera struck Hamburg, Germany. New York prepared to defend itself from the outbreak by instituting quarantines of recently arrived ships from Europe. In September 1892, the City Board of Estimate allocated monies to the Metropolitan Board of Health to fund Dr. Hermann Biggs’ laboratory. The new laboratory aimed to contain cholera in New York and was intended to be a permanent entity rather than a temporary one. At this time, New York had two boards of health, the city-run Metropolitan Board of Health established in 1866 and the State Board of Health created in 1880. The 1892 cholera outbreak prompted the New York State Legislature to pass the Webster Act in 1893 to protect the Croton watershed from pollution (Weidner, 1974).

Commissioner of Public Works Michael T. Daly then launched massive and extreme efforts to protect the watershed, which included burning privies, moving homes, and disinterring bodies from cemeteries adjacent to water sources (Galusha, 2002). Known as “Daly’s raids,” these decisive actions (some executed with brute force) fueled tensions about water supply and sanitation between upstate and downstate. In this instance, the effort to protect the quality of public water destined for the city centers resulted in the confiscation of private property outside the city. Urban imperialism facilitated both the continuous expansion of water supply systems and the effort to protect the quality of remote drinking water sources before the water was transported to the homes and businesses of city residents.

Some scholars have pushed back against the notion of empire within the context of water by claiming that it is not nuanced enough to argue that the urban conquered the rural. In Making Mountains: New York and the Catskills, David Stradling parsed how the history of the Catskills is interwoven with New York City history. While Stradling confirmed a clear power differential in the relationship between New York City and the Catskills, he was not willing to fully support the imperial model, claiming that it omits the nuances of the history. City elites and capitalist profit alone did not carve up the countryside, and it may be an oversimplification to reduce the key players to locals versus urbanites, since many people crossed back and forth. While New York City did transform the Catskills in many ways, a blend of influences, urban and rural, shaped the landscape and communities of the Catskills over 200 years. The building of the reservoirs in the Catskills was the “greatest imposition of the city in the mountains” (Stradling, 2010, p. 16), and there were many “conflicts, imbalances, and even injustices” (Stradling, 2010, p. 16) in that relationship between city and country. Built between 1907 and 1924, the reservoirs and aqueducts of the Catskills supplied New York City with 90% of its water by the middle of the 20th century. By the end of the 20th century, the upstate reservoirs were no longer seen merely as causes of dislocation. Rather, these “naturalized lakes” had become key elements of the rural landscape and were considered “worthy of local pride” (Stradling, 2010, p. 16).


The water history of Philadelphia, Boston, and New York traces a trajectory from relying on small, local water sources to pursuing an expanding search for external water supplies, with water being transported into the city from further and further afield. The overall trend throughout the 19th century was one of an increasing role of the city and state in managing water and disease prevention, along with a burgeoning idea of public health. An understanding of germ theory took a long time to reach the general public and the idea of miasma persisted. During the late 19th century, the city and state gained more power to implement sanitation practices, and the public sector began to take a more active role in managing disease prevention. In New York, protecting the watershed upstate for consumers downstate required increased city and state power and a more forceful role in sanitation practices for city officials.

Historians have argued that the growth of the state was a reaction to the excesses of the private markets. They argue that, under the weak state of the Gilded Age, public officials turned a blind eye to the machinations of private markets. During the Progressive Era that followed, the argument continues, the public sector sought to regulate the private marketplace as a corrective effort. Historian Joshua Salzmann showed that there is some truth to this narrative, illustrating how the state did grow larger following the Industrial Revolution and that the state did regulate private markets. But he added that the state promoted economic development well before the Progressive Era, and he argued for a new understanding of the complexity of the state’s role in fostering the market economy and industrial capitalism (Salzmann, 2017). Private water companies were gradually replaced by public water systems during the 19th century, and, in most cases, water provision required state intervention well before the Progressive Era. Whereas Philadelphia and Boston transitioned to public water in 1801 and 1848, respectively, and did not change course, New York made a move toward public water in 1842, but the city later required the reforms of the Progressive Era to ensure that there would be no return to private water management.

Water was the first public utility in American cities, and the history of public water highlights urban change (Melosi, 2011). Public water advocates supported the idea of water as a right, whereas those in favor of private water believed water to be a privilege. The two schools of thought coexisted (Rawson, 2010), and “water has long been a commodity—a resource—to be bought and sold” (Melosi, 2011, p. xii). In New York, water became a public issue because neither government nor private entities were solving the problem of water shortages and poor water quality. As the case of New York City illustrates, the idea of public water often preceded the necessary bureaucracy, finances, infrastructure, and legal authority to make it a permanent reality.

Further Reading

  • Browne, J. (1799). Proceedings of the Corporation of New-York, on supplying the city with pure and wholesome water, with a memoir of Joseph Browne, M. D. on the same subject. John Furman.
  • Duffy, J. (1968). A history of public health in New York City, 1625–1866. Russell Sage Foundation.
  • Finegold, K. (1995). Experts and politicians: Reform challenges to machine politics in New York, Cleveland, and Chicago. Princeton University Press.
  • Goubert, J. P. (1989). The conquest of water: The advent of health in the industrial age Princeton University Press.
  • Greenberg, S. (2003). Waterworks: A photographic journey through New York’s hidden water system. Princeton Architectural Press.
  • Hamlin, C. (1998). Public health and social justice in the age of Chadwick: Britain, 1800–1854. Cambridge University Press.
  • Snow, J. (1855). On the mode of communication of cholera. John Churchill.
  • Solis, J. (2004). New York underground: Anatomy of a city. Routledge.
  • Spar, D., & Bebenk, K. (2009). To the tap: Public versus private water provision at the turn of the twentieth century. Business History Review, 83(4), 675–702.
  • Tarr, J. A., & Dupuy, G. (Eds.). (1988). Technology and the rise of the networked city in Europe and America. Temple University Press.


  • Ascher, K. (2005). The works: Anatomy of a city. Penguin Group.
  • Bone, K., Pollara, G., & Appleton, A. F. (2006). Water-works: The architecture and engineering of the New York City water supply. Monacelli Press.
  • Brooklyn Board of Water Commissioners & Bien, J. (1867). The Brooklyn water works and sewers: A descriptive memoir. D. Van Nostrand.
  • Campbell, D. (1882). The past, the present, and the future of New York’s water supply. Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, 8(1), 1–16.
  • Child, L. M. (1843). Letters from New York. Charles S. Francis and Company.
  • Cronon, W. (1982). Nature’s metropolis: Chicago and the great west. W. W. Norton.
  • Cutler, D., & Miller, G. (2006). Water, water everywhere: Municipal finance and water supply in American cities. In E. L. Glaeser & C. Goldin (Eds.), Corruption and reform: Lessons from American economic history (pp. 153–184). National Bureau of Economic Research.
  • Department of Water Supply of the City of New York. (1899). First annual report, 1898. Martin B. Brown Company.
  • Duffy, J. (1990). The sanitarians: A history of American public health. University of Illinois Press.
  • Frerichs, R. R. (n.d.). Who first discovered Vibrio cholera? UCLA Department of Epidemiology, Fielding School of Public Health.
  • Galusha, D. (2002) Liquid assets: A history of New York City’s water system. Purple Mountain Press.
  • Gandy, M. (2002). Concrete and clay: Reworking nature in New York City. MIT Press.
  • Goldman, J. A. (1997). Building New York’s sewers: Developing mechanisms of urban management. Purdue University Press.
  • Hall, E. H. (1993). Water for New York City: A 300-year history of water sources for New York City culminating in the construction of the Ashokan reservoir and the Catskills aqueduct. Hope Farm Press.
  • Harris, L. M. (2002). In the shadow of slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626–1863. University of Chicago Press.
  • Home News. (1883, October 26). Prominent arrivals; What is going on to-day; New-York City; A dinner to Edward King; Ice-water outdoors in October. New-York Tribune, 8.
  • Hundley, N., Jr. (2001). The great thirst: Californians and water—A history. University of California Press.
  • Ice Water Perambulators. (1897, August 3). Charity work being done by the Moderation Society, thirty thousand people drink at one fountain during a hot day. New-York Tribune, 5.
  • Johnson, S. (2006). The ghost map: The story of London’s most terrifying epidemic and how it changed science, cities, and the modern world. Riverhead Books.
  • Koeppel, G. T. (2000). Water for Gotham: A history. Princeton University Press.
  • Lepore, J. (2006). New York burning: Liberty, slavery, and conspiracy in eighteenth-century Manhattan. Vintage Books.
  • McCully, B. (2014). New York: Water management and metropolitan development. In T. Tvedt & T. A. Oestigaard (Eds.), History of water, Volume 1 (pp. 357–383). I. B. Tauris.
  • Melosi, M. V. (2005). Garbage in the cities: Refuse, reform, and the environment, 1880–1980. University of Pittsburgh Press.
  • Melosi, M. V. (2008). The sanitary city: Urban infrastructure in America from colonial times to the present. University of Pittsburgh Press.
  • Melosi, M. V. (2011). Precious commodity: Providing water for America’s cities. University of Pittsburgh Press.
  • Morris, R. D. (2007). The blue death: Disease, disaster, and the water we drink. Harper Collins.
  • Move to Beat Mayor’s City Water Measure. (1905, February 23). Many prefer Adirondack to Catskill plan. Flaws in McClellan bill objectors think its results would lack permanence. New York Times, 6.
  • New York Public Library, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection. (1842). View of New York City Hall, with fountain playing in foreground.
  • No Water for Fountains. (1896, February 16). Dearth of water in tenement houses in New-York. What are we going to do about it, a rapidly diminishing pressure—a question of the Greater New-York—the limited watershed. New York Times, 23.
  • Ogle, M. (2000). All the modern conveniences: American household plumbing, 1840–1890. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Popper, D. (2005). Poor Christopher Colles: An innovator’s obstacles in early America. Journal of American Culture, 28(2), 178–190.
  • Rafter, G. W., & Baker, M. N. (1893). Sewage disposal in the United States. D. Van Nostrand.
  • Rawson, M. (2004). The nature of water: Reform and the antebellum crusade for municipal water in Boston. Environmental History, 9(3), 411–435.
  • Rawson, M. (2010). Eden on the Charles: The making of Boston. Harvard University Press.
  • Reid, D. (1991). Paris sewers and sewermen: Realities and representations. Harvard University Press.
  • Rosenberg, C. E. (1962). The cholera years: The US in 1832, 1849, and 1866. University of Chicago Press.
  • Salzmann, J. T. (2017). Liquid capital: Making the Chicago waterfront. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Smith, C. (2013). City water, city life: Water and the infrastructure of ideas in urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. University of Chicago Press.
  • Soll, D. (2013). Empire of water: An environmental and political history of the New York City water supply. Cornell University Press.
  • Stradling, D. (2010 ). Making mountains: New York City and the Catskills. University of Washington Press.
  • Tarr, J. A. (1996). The search for the ultimate sink: Urban pollution in historical perspective. University of Akron Press.
  • The New City Ushered In. (1898, January 1). Big parade and brilliant display at the birth of Greater New York. Bad weather disregarded, the city’s flag raised over the city hall upon signal from the mayor of San Francisco, 3,700 miles away. New York Times, 1.
  • Unveiling a Drinking Fountain. (1891, September 21). Interesting ceremonies at the Judson Memorial Church. New-York Tribune, 5.
  • Warner, S. B., Jr. (1987). The private city: Philadelphia in three periods of its growth. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Wegmann, E. (1896). The water supply of New York, 1658–1895. J. Wiley & Sons.
  • Weidner, C. H. (1974). Water for the city: A history of New York City’s problem from the beginning to the Delaware River system. Rutgers University Press.