Water made New York City possible, and its survival depends on it. Just steps out my door, the East River ebbs and flows in a rock bed carved by glaciers in the last Ice Age. Early European explorers mistook the underwater valley for river. It’s a major part of the story that explains how New York got to be New York.
By David Stone
Table of contents
- New York City, Water Everywhere
- From Farmland To Empire State
- How New York City Was Made From Water
- The Tides
- New York City, Water and the Future
New York City, Water Everywhere
What comes to mind when you think about New York City? Broadway? The Yankees? Donald Trump? Television networks? The United Nations?
All that, in fact, the city itself, depends and always has on water.
Hometown History Depends On Water
One of the first places settled in America, according to the 1820 census, New York was the first U.S. city with over 100,000 people. Almost all of it was cramped in the narrow streets and alleys south of what is now Canal Street.
That’s a meager figure, now that 8,600,000 of us crowd the streets and subways of our vertical city, but it made a foundation for the most powerful nation on Earth, just 200 years later.
(The New York Times looks at water from a present day perspective.)
In 1820, London, our sister city, was home to over 1,000,000 and was growing rapidly. New York caught up. Today, both cities have similar head counts in a mix with roots from around the world, making them energetic patchworks of culture. And both depend on water for their survival.
The fascinating story of how water, both fresh and salt varieties, built New York is as unique as any in history. With the city founded where a confluence of waters met to maximum advantage, location shaped New York State and our nation as a whole.
New York City Rivers That Are Not Rivers
New York City rivers and streams, the Bronx River and Newtown Creek, for examples, feeding the East River contributed little to the population explosion that powered New York.
Note: The East River is a tidal strait, a body of salt water that flows back and forth in rhythm with the Atlantic Ocean.
Neither the East River nor its westerly extension, the Harlem River, nor the Hudson River are rivers, at least not here. Except for the Hudson, which is a fjord where it forms the western border of the city, they don’t have sources and they don’t empty into anything. They flow, in both directions, controlled by ocean tides.
We know them as rivers, anyway. Let’s start with the oldest and best known, and how they play into the story of how New York City depends on the water that built and sustains it.
New York City Relies On The Hudson River
Originally known as the North River, the Hudson’s story is more complicated. As recently as 13,000 years ago, it was a river and, more than a hundred miles north of New York, it still is.
25,000 years ago, the Hudson was one of the longest rivers in North America (before it was North America, of course.) It flowed from its source in the Adirondacks down past present day Albany, through the still beautiful valleys. Just as it approached the Atlantic, it eased under the towering Palisades that still catch your attention on the Jersey side today.
In the next 10,000 years, as the last glacial maximum, a sheet of ice that extended from Montana to Manhattan, melted, the seas rose, extending the Atlantic Ocean far inland, swallowing most of the Hudson River and recreating it as a tidal estuary.
The Lenape Indians, who occupied Manhattan when European settlers arrived, called it, “the river that flows both ways.” Today, the tidal effect extends 150 miles, all the way to Troy.
The Hudson River is a tidal estuary with an ever bigger surprise. It’s the Hudson Fjord, its bed beneath the palisades carved out by retreating glaciers.
Sites along the way: Gantry Park in Long Island City
East River, the Watery Spine that Built New York City
The East River and the Harlem, a branch that continues to hug the Manhattan shore while its non fraternal twin swings east past LaGuardia Airport to join Long Island Sound, differ from the Hudson because neither ever was a river.
Both gorges eroded from solid rock that filled with sea water roughly 11,000 years ago when the last North American glaciers raised the oceans enough to drown them.
The East and the Harlem are tidal straits, narrow waterways that connect the ocean to itself, the East by way of Long Island Sound, and the Harlem as it makes a sharp easterly turn through Spuyten Duyvil, the “spitting devil” that once terrified navigators, to reach the Hudson.
Neither has ever had the geologic source that defines a true river.
Rivers or not, these oceanic extensions played critical roles in making New York the powerhouse it is today.
A Wider View of Water Shaping, Sustaining New York City
A number of good histories tell the story of how New York City came together from the time a deal was cut with the Lenape to today’s traffic jams.
Here are a couple of my favorites and some of the sources for this article.
It all started with the Dutch and the revolutionary city, New Amsterdam, they settled in the shelter of New York harbor.
I love reading history, but this book was one I couldn’t put down. It hooked me like a detective novel. I couldn’t wait to see what happened next.
From Farmland To Empire State
The Erie Canal
Mockingly called “Clinton’s Folly,” after Governor DeWitt Clinton, digging began in Rome, New York, in 1817. A dream powered the earliest American enthusiasm for a water connection between the Atlantic and the Great Lakes.
Completed in 1925, it did just that.
Rome is in the middle of upstate, south of the Adirondacks, and there canal building took off in two directions.
Engineering challenges never before seen inspired one of a kind constructions. At Bushnell’s Basin, earth filled in to raise the canal across a natural low point.
The canal runs 363 miles from the Hudson River at Albany to Lake Erie at Buffalo. 36 locks move boats the entire length, alleviating an elevation differential of 565 feet.
Engineering marvel that it was, the Erie Canal changed New York beyond expectations.
What Did The Erie Canal Do?
Nearly two-hundred years later, highways, rail lines and airports connect us between long distances. In 1825, few people ventured more than 25 miles away from the place of their birth.
Only a decade after Lewis and Clark explored America from St. Louis to the Pacific Coast, the Great Lakes were only slightly closer than the moon to people in New York City.
Then, opening the Erie Canal made New York rich,. Both state and the city transformed
In 1817, an ancient forest, interrupted only isolated settlements defined Upstate New York. But the completion of the canal brought such lucrative opportunities, the forest was quickly clear-cut. The Canal and its riches brought on an environmental catastrophe.
Feeder canals brought produce to the mainline as the state became overwhelmingly agrarian.
Suddenly, the manufacturing rich East Coast was shipping equipment west, and the west was shipping abundant farm products east. Enormous quantities traveled by ocean to Europe.
And there was New York City. A hundred and fifty miles from the canal’s terminus, it became the axis for shipping. The Hudson made it the place where the most lucrative transactions took place.
New York became rich, not so much from making things, but from handling the transactions. Wall Street, anyone?
What initially builds cities is enough surplus to provide amenities that make them preferable to rural areas.
Safety and community came first, but for New York City, it’s immense wealth also brought entertainment, tourism, banking and education. Think Broadway, book publishing, our great universities and investment in businesses you’ve never laid eyes on.
How New York City Was Made From Water
And May Become Drowned By It
Were it not for its relationship to water, New York would never have been born at all.
Until the ethnic cleansing that European settlement brought across the Atlantic, the Lenape enjoyed their protected paradise.
But in the Age of Discovery, seagoing powers — the Dutch, the British, the Spanish and the Portuguese — the protected harbor held immense value. The natives didn’t.
The Hudson with its reach far into the interior was irresistible.
Before the Dutch finally left the city to the British, their mark was distinctive in the cultural and established governance. Dutch liberality was not overwhelmed by British influence, and it contributed considerably to democracy in the Americas.
After the Age of Discovery
When Europe’s superpowers stopped fighting, Manhattan began to grow. Trade floated in from the east as Europe began to saturate the New World. Again, everything benefited by passing through New York. A little bit of value was taken in every passage.
Wealth swelled poverty, as it often does.
New York was for a time overrun by feral and domestic pigs, polluted beyond imagination and the home of one of the world’s worst slums, the Five Corners.
But the metropolis surged, anyway, becoming the the first American city to pass the 100,000 in population in 1820. A divide between wealth and poverty that still scars the city was evident as the British carried over their traditional class divisions.
Also fed by water were docks lining lower Manhattan on the Hudson and East Rivers. Goods to and from Europe and the interior were loaded and unloaded daily.
Along the East River, manufacturing exploded. In times when little heed was paid to the environment, it became one of the most polluted places in the world. Waste, both human and manufacturing, was dumped without limits into what seemed like endless water.
We know about ocean tides, but the social tides in New York City were slower but not less dramatic.
Prosperity lifted human tides throughout the city. Immigrants came to build the subways, work the docks, man the police and fire forces. Establishing ethnic communities, newcomers chased dreams among others like themselves.
Even so, the abundance that water brought New York spills over enough that the city is still the place where few young people leave and to which many from all over the world hope to migrate.
It’s expensive as hell, but it’s also the safest big city in the nation and ripe with greater opportunities in many fields than anywhere else.
Water delivered New York City amenities like theater, music and education. Surplus brought parks and political clout. Living here, you believe you’re in the middle of everything.
New York City, Water and the Future
Here’s where things get tricky.
In 2012 came the surge from Super Storm Sandy, flooding the city far past anything before it.
I watched out my window as water quickly rose over the sea wall, flooded the small park behind our building and stopped at our doorstep. We’re lucky that the builders had the foresight not to include a foundation, placing all the vulnerable essential above the water line.
But Sandy was a harbinger.
Global warming will continue to raise sea levels worldwide, and unchecked, as our political gridlock suggests they will be, salt water will relentlessly take over New York as it once did the long river known as the Hudson.
A Legacy from Water
Eighty years ago, commerce by water brought jobs and wealth to New York. It’s done that since its ideal harbor drew explorers looking for ports to exploit the wealth of a new continent.
New York is an natural position to be built from water resources. They’ve been brilliantly used to create enormous wealth, wealth that brought the theater, art education and banking that makes it America’s most influential location today.
The same natural attribute, proximity to water, may also be what destroys it in the next century.