Our daily routines can be so static and unthinking that we pass through them without noticing the world around us. Even at those moments when we can pause and take in our surroundings, so much of it is so ubiquitous that we ignore it. The things around us can escape not just our thoughts but our very sight. So it is with New York City’s water tanks.
New Yorkers are very lucky to have a worry-free, abundant source of clean drinking water. But it has not always been so. In the early years of the 1800s, the city had polluted the natural pond calledThe Collect, located under today’s court buildings on Centre Street. Most residents had to rely on wellwater and there were frequent outbreaks of cholera, typhoid, and yellow fever. There were 3500 deathsfrom cholera in 1835 alone. In addition, fire companies had to constantly worry about water shortages and were unable to fight the fire of 1835 due to frozen water supplies (1835 wasn’t a good year). Something had to be done.
That year, voters approved construction of an aqueduct system, drawing water from dams andreservoirs built on the Croton River in Westchester County. When it opened in 1842, it set off a wave of parades and celebrations in the city. The system was expanded numerous times in the 19th century until it was eventually dwarfed by the construction of a whole new aqueduct system drawing waterfrom the Catskill Mountains which was completed in 1917.
The system is a marvel of engineering. It brings more than a billion gallons of water a day to New York City’s 8.5 million residents, and it’s almost entirely powered by gravity. The problem is that shallow pipes and gravity-fed system can only force water up to the 6th floor of any building. This was no problem in the early years of the system but the advent of skyscrapers in the 1880s changed the face of the city, and the city’s ability to provide water to its buildings. The solution is a tank on the building itself. In the 1890s, barrel makers began plying their trade on the tops of buildings and built enormous barrels fed by large pumps in the basement. At the time, there were dozens of manufacturers. Now there are only two: Isseks Brothers, founded in 1890, and Rosenwach Tank Company, founded in 1896. Amazingly, these two companies still make their tanks in much the same way as when the companies were founded. Each tank is built using no adhesives or glue. They are made with wood dowels, metal hoops, and hammer and nails. Each tank is made of cedar and the wood actually expands once water is placed into a new tank. This means the tank leaks for a few days and then seals up tight, all the while acting as a perfect insulator so that New York’s freezing winters don’t mean freezing water. Each company continues to make hundreds every year and repair even more.
It’s amazing to think that one of those archaic looking barrels on our rooftops could have been made last week. You can walk by Rosenwach’s construction yard in Williamsburg, Brooklyn at 87 North 9th St (the intersection of Berry Street). You can also see Rosenwach highlighted on Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe. The full 30-minute video is available at Rosenwach’s website http://www.rosenwachtank.com/.
If you think the photos of workers on tops of skyscrapers with no harnesses and wielding sledgehammers is a thing of the past, think again! But if you’re pressed for time, and who in New York isn’t, just take a moment and look to the roofs of our great buildings. Rosenwach and Issek Brother’s handiwork will be everywhere, and it always has been, even if you never noticed it before.