New York Water Supply Lagged Behind Demand in Early Years
Present system deemed adequate for years to come
FRUSTRATION due to inadequate water supply often marked the first half-century of the New York professional fire department. Fires of near conflagration proportions were the inevitable result.
The old City of New York had no general water supply system until 1842, although a tank for fire protection had been constructed by the city at Broadway and 13th Street in 1830. This tank was filled by a 12-hp steam engine pumping from a well, the water being distributed through two lines of 12-inch cast iron pipe extending down the Bowery and through Broadway to Canal Street. The daily yield of the well was only 21,000 gallons, but the scheme was effective in a very limited way and may be considered the beginning of the public water works of New York City.
After considering numerous plans for a suitable source of supply it was decided to build an aqueduct from the Croton River, a stream which rises upstate in Dutchess County and flows through Putnam County to continue across Westchester to the Hudson. The aqueduct, opened in 1842, brought water from one storage reservoir to city distribution reservoirs at Central Park and at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue.
—photo courtesy Mack Fire Apparatus
As wonderful as Croton water was to the firemen of Old New York the distributing system and supply never quite kept up with the growth of the city. The supply was always inadequate and a considerable number of fires got out of control while steamers shut down for lack of water and firemen retreated from their positions.
Two conflagrations in 1879—one along Broadway and Grand Street, and the other in Worth, Duane, Thomas, Church and Leonard Streets, which destroyed or heavily damaged 17 buildings—were blamed on lack of water. The fire commissioners then initiated studies of means of augmenting the inadequate flow from the mains. Chief Eli Bates strongly urged the construction of underground storage cisterns at all street intersections throughout the commercial district, the cisterns to have connections to the mains to keep them filled during pumping operations. Chief Bates pointed out that a half-dozen steamers could take suction from each cistern, with consequent short hose stretches and conservation of engine pressures. Peter Cooper recommended the building of a number of elevated tanks throughout hazardous districts to provide adequate static pressure.
Portable water tank introduced
As no action was taken on the recommendations and the need was urgent Chief Bates asked for the construction of a unique piece of apparatus, the portable water tank. The tank was built in tbe department shops and placed in service March 17, 1884 at Engine 20, with an extra-size tender carrying 3 1/4-inch hose. The portable water tank was designed to utilize fireboat lines for supplying water at locations distant from the waterfronts. Steamers grouped around the tank took suction from this supply.
The department struggled along, losing building after building and, in the 1890’s, faced the problem of the “skyscrapers” which were then beginning to rise many stories above buildings already classified as out of reach of the department’s equipment. The first “skyscraper” fire, which burned like a torch high above the surrounding buildings at Broadway and Warren Street on December 4, 1898, helped greatly in speeding plans for a separate fire main system and brought about the adoption of the code requiring building standpipes.
In 1902 definite steps were taken to provide a large additional supply of water for the use of Greater New York. The engineers who had been commissioned to study the problem recommended that the city go to the Catskill mountains for additional water. In 1905 work was started on the monumental Catskill system, which was successfully completed and turned over to the city for operation in 1917. The second stage of the Catskill development, which involved the construction of the Schoharie reservoir and Shandaken tunnel, was finished and turned over to the Department of Water Supply on June 1, 1928.
High pressure system
It was deemed imperative that a separate high-pressure fire service system be provided for protection of the high-value areas of lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn. The construction of such a project was begun in 1903 and completed in 1908. The opening of the gates which admitted “low-service” Croton water to the intakes of the four high-pressure pumping stations—two in Manhattan and two in Brooklyn—ushered in a great new era in the history of fire fighting in the City of New York.
The connections to the Croton “lowservice” supply kept the systems primed at about 45-psi static pressure. The pumps in the high-pressure stations were started on receipt of box alarms in their areas and the pressure raised to 125 psi until ordered to increase, or shut down. The systems were designed for a maximum of 300 psi but were never called upon to deliver this pressure. In later years the maximum was fixed at 200 psi as a protection against breakage of aging mains.
The Manhattan and Brooklyn highpressure systems were extended during the years 1911 to 1914. The total Manhattan area protected is about 3400 acres, with 2800 hydrants. The Brooklyn system covers 2500 acres with 38 miles of 12, 16 and 20-inch pipe connected to 1250 hydrants. The average area served by a hydrant is only about 250 x 225 feet in Manhattan, and a maximum of 300 x 300 feet in some marginal areas of the Brooklyn zone. These hydrants are in addition to the closely .spaced hydrants of the domestic supply systems.
The question of modernization and rehabilitation of the high-pressure facilities came up after World War II and it was then decided to make tests to evaluate the advisability of abandoning the pumping stations without reducing the capacity and effectiveness of the distribution systems. Tests were made to determine whether Catskill water, at gravity pressure, could match the capacity of Croton water at pumped pressures. These tests indicated that the high-pressure mains, using supply from the Catskill tunnels at gravity pressure, would provide ample water and required pressures at all points in the areas, while maintaining adequate residual pressures throughout the systems.
There are now connections at four of the 22 shafts rising from Tunnels No. 1 and No. 2 in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Water which is at bursting pressures in the tunnels is admitted into the fire service systems at controlled pressures through reducing valves. The great tunnels of 15 and 17-foot diameters are 250 to 750 feet underground and connections to the fire service mains are by vertical shafts rising from the tunnels. The controlled pressure at which a practically inexhaustable supply is fed into the fire mains maintains a static head of 100 to 120 psi at the hydrants and provides flows for as many pumpers as the department might be called upon to operate in any combination of circumstances. On a test 40 pumpers operated at capacity within an area two blocks wide and three blocks long without reducing the residual pressures within 100 feet of the boundaries of the area below 57 psi.
The Coney Island high-pressure service was opened in 1905 and has more than 300 hydrants on the fire service mains. The original pumping station was replaced in 1937 with an entirely new plant, the Coney Island service being the only one ol the three high-pressure systems now depending on pumps. These are started on receipt of alarms in the area.
The water works plant of the former City of Brooklyn—the Ridgewood system—was first used in 1859. The supply was derived from streams in the then sparsely settled area east of the city on Long Island, and from driven wells. Reports ol the Brooklyn Fire Department indicate that supplies were chronically inadequate for controlling extensive fires, the history paralleling that of Old New York in this respect.
Completion of Tunnel No. 1 in 1917 brought Catskill water to the Brooklyn, Queens and Richmond distribution systems. From two terminal shafts in Brooklyn, steel and cast iron pipe lines were extended into Queens and Richmond boroughs. The lines to Richmond were two flexible cast iron conduits in trenches laid in the New York harbor bottom, across the Narrows to Richmond Borough, with lines extending to Silver Lake, the distribution reservoir. Upon its connection the five boroughs of New York were now served by a system planned for the city as a whole.
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New York Water Supply
Continued from page 39
In 1937 the $50-million Tunnel No. 2 was completed and linked with Tunnel No. 1 at two points in Brooklyn—a guarantee against any reasonable possibility of water supply failure or interruption. The story of the numerous town and village systems, and private water companies, which in the past served areas now completely integrated in the New York metropolis, cannot be told in this brief history, except to state they are now parts of the complex water supply plant of the greater city.