Inwood’s Long Forgotten Springs and Wells

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James Reuel Smith

Today, when a New Yorker wants a glass of water, feels like a shower or needs to wash the dishes; the act is as easy as turning on a tap.  But, before the turn of the twentieth century such simple tasks took a bit more effort—especially in the then undeveloped land of northern Manhattan, where the infrastructure simply didn’t exist.

Gathering even a pail full of water was a laborious task and typically involved a walk to the nearest spring or well.

Luckily, for early residents, Inwood was blessed with some of the freshest and coolest drinking water Mother Nature could provide—and for early settlers, those water sources were plentiful.

But, as time marched on, most of these naturally occurring water supplies were plugged up, paved over and simply forgotten.  If not for the writings and photographs of an obscure author named James Reuel Smith, even the memory of these springs and wells might have been forever lost.

Beginning in 1897, Smith began bicycling around the then rural areas of northern Manhattan and the Bronx, with a camera and a notebook in hand, interviewing old timers about ancient drinking holes and taking snapshots whenever possible.

Springs and Wells title page

Born in 1852 in Skaneateles, New York, Smith understood, as the dawn of a new century approached, that he would likely be the last person to photograph the bubbling springs before they disappeared completely—as had already happened in lower Manhattan.

While the image of a grown man on a bicycle photographing water sources, some no larger than a puddle, might seem eccentric, especially for a married man, Smith offered no apologies.  He had no children and a considerable amount of family money, so why not indulge in a hobby?

And write he did.  Sometimes he would spend an entire afternoon in the shade of a dying cherry tree writing about the sweet taste of the fruit while speculating about its origin.  Was it once part of a larger orchard?  Like so many amateur historians, his curiosity was as much endearing as informative.

While Smith would never live to see his work published—he died in 1935—he left his notes and photographs to the New York Historical Society, which, in turn, published his papers in 1938 in a rare book aptly titled The Springs and Wells of Manhattan and the Bronx, New York City, at the End of the Nineteenth Century.

In his notes, Smith would write, “A city spring frequently possesses all the beautiful surroundings of a rural one, and besides exciting that pathetic interest aroused by something pleasurable which will shortly cease to exist, it is, for the meditative, a link which connects the thoughts with the past.”

What follow are several photos and descriptions of the wells and springs once located in the Inwood are that were captured by Smith in 1897 as he rode around the neighborhood on his bicycle.

Dyckman Street Between Nagle and Post Avenues: Plate 47a

September 25, 1897.  Some three hundred feet north of Dyckman Street, there is a spring at the base of a vertical of rocky ground covered with a thick clump of trees. Dyckman Street was formerly called Inwood Lane.

Northeast of Dyckman Street and F Street (Payson Avenue) Plate 47b

September 25, 1897.  At a point about three hundred feet northeast of the intersection of F Street and Dyckman Street is located what is probably the most generally known spring in the city.  Its water has been demonstrated by numerous analyses to be the purest on Manhattan Island.  It is situated at the base of a perpendicular wall of rock sixty feet in height and as many in width.  A little brick coping has been built out from the face of the rock, making a basin some five feet long and two feet wide.  The water is about fifteen inches deep.  It is on the Gantz property and is called “the white stone spring.”

Cooper Street and West 204th Street: Plate 48 and 49a

May 18, 1898.  Hawthorne Street (West 204th Street) and Cooper Street were built up some twenty feet above the natural level of the land with many pieces of white marble from the quarry.  Cooper Street runs over the original site of this spring, but the owner of the ground insisted on having the spring preserved, so a semi-circular well of marble was built around the western half of the spring.  The water is very cool, although the sun, during the first half of the day, shines down full upon it.  The milkman, William Drennan, who lives on the Kingsbridge Road (Broadway) just above, and his brother, a plumber, made the connection to carry the spring’s water to its present location.  They disconnect the pipe in the winter to prevent freezing. To the right of the pipe is a culvert through which a brook runs through the meadows farther west, and joins the water flowing from the spring.  The two streams, united, run under the little dark red house below.  The Drennans never had a well built but used this spring when it stood in front of the French-roof house now facing Cooper Street and not far from it.  They still keep milk in the little house over the brook, in a large box through which the water runs. (They have Croton water at the house.)

Cooper Street is about two hundred and fifty feet west of, and parallel to, the Kingsbridge Road, from which the spring and the little house over the brook are plainly visible.  In the photograph (plate 48) the red wooden milk house may be seen in the lower left corner; in the center and left of the center are two houses on Cooper Street, and above, along the heights of Inwood, are several homes along Prescott (Payson) Avenue.

From James Reuel Smith's "Springs and Wells of Manhattan and the Bronx, New York City, at the End of the Nineteenth Century."
From James Reuel Smith’s “Springs and Wells of Manhattan and the Bronx, New York City, at the End of the Nineteenth Century.”

On Line Of 213th Street East Of Line Of Ninth Avenue (The Nagle or Century House) Plate 49b

May 18, 1898.  In 1736 John Nagle built him a stone dwelling on the banks of the Harlem River at what is now 213th Street and he built so well that the house is standing and occupied today.  It is now resplendent in a new red roof and suit of clapboards given it by its owner.  The house is at present occupied by a man named White.  In 1861, it was a house of entertainment known as Post’s Century House.

From James Reuel Smith’s “Springs and Wells of Manhattan and the Bronx, New York City, at the End of the Nineteenth Century.”

The spring well of this house is about seventy-five feet west of it, and about three hundred feet east of the line of Ninth Avenue, which has been laid out this year.  The water is about six feet below the level of the ground and is three feet deep and not very clear.  There is no cover over the well, which is curved with loose stones at the top.  Down below it is some five feet across. The pail is one of tin; it is well rusted and leaks.

West of the well is an old graveyard with some forty graves in it.  The oldest decipherable date is 1825 and some of the names are Vermilye, Harris, Lockwood, and Smith.  Near the graveyard is an old orchard of considerable extent, with apple, plum, and other fruit trees.  It is the largest orchard left on Manhattan Island.

Isham Estate (Isham Park) Isham Stable Spring: Plate 50a

June 9, 1898.  Along the easterly border of a marshy meadow, which stretches to the Harlem Ship Canal, there is a fence on the Isham property, near the stable. Twelve feet east of the fence, sixty feet east of the back part of the meadow, and about 500 feet from the Canal, there is a spring.  It is at the foot of one of four little fruit trees, which, with two others a short distance away, are all that is left of what was perhaps long ago a flourishing orchard.  The tree behind the spring looks like a peach tree.  Buttercups grow around it.  Wild birds sing in the four fruit trees and drink at the spring.  Their piping song mingles with the whistling tugs on the Canal.  The Isham’s horses and three cows come to the spring about noon for their drink, the cows respectfully giving precedence when a thirsty horse approaches by rising lumberingly and moving away with dignified alacrity.

The spring rises at the base of a small rock.  It is eighteen inches deep and about twenty inches across.  Natural rock forms the back of its basin, and in the front a piece of white Kingsbridge marble, which has become slimy and yellowish-brown.  Bubbles rise from the bottom, which is somewhat sandy and over which a conical fungus grows.  The water is not cold but cool. Although exposed to the direct rays of the sun.  I drank from it, and found it a trifle salty.  The overflow runs into the marsh.

Isham Estate (Isham Park) Isham Meadow Spring: Plate 50b

June 29, 1898.  About twenty-five feet southeast of the Isham stable spring, and on the other (or west) side of the fence, there is a spring.  It bubbles up freely like champagne at the southwestern end of a small ledge of rock that crops out from nearly the lowest level of the marshy meadow by the Spuyten Duyvil Creek.  The rocky ledge forms one third of the basin, the rest being made of bricks laid in mortar. The spring is about three feet from side to side and two feet from back to front.  The water is about two feet deep; although the outlet pipes still projecting up, and some pieces of brickwork, show that it was once a foot deeper.  The curbing has probably been trampled down by the cows that pasture in this meadow.  The bottom is sandy, and the same brown fungus that grows in the stable spring grows in this one.  The water is cold and nice, although it is completely open to the sun.  There is a frog in the spring.  In the bottom there is a piece of iron pipe about two inches in diameter, which leads away in the shape of an “L” to the southwest.  The pipe perhaps follows the path of least resistance in the ground and supplies a pump in the barn, for there is no house on the meadow, nor would its boggy condition lead one to suppose that there was ever a house there.  The overflow from this spring runs away into the marsh, as does that of the stable spring.

From James Reuel Smith’s “Springs and Wells of Manhattan and the Bronx, New York City, at the End of the Nineteenth Century.”

This is, I think, one of the most pleasantly situated springs of all.  It is not only pretty in itself, but is picturesquely located.  From it there is a view across the meadow, through the opening where the Spuyten Duyvil Creek empties into the Hudson, of the Palisades on the opposite side of the River.  The surrounding scenery is dominated on the west by the towering cliff of Inwood, and enclosed on the south and east by the rolling slopes that run back to the Kingsbridge Road (Broadway).

Between Broadway And Spuyten Duyvil Creek, South of West 218th Street- The Seaman-Drake Estate: Plates 51 and 52

June 29, 1898.  West of the Kingsbridge Road (Broadway) and Northeast of the Isham estate, is the magnificent Seaman-Drake estate.  The property contains twenty-six acres, and as formerly owned by Valentine Seaman.  Its large white marble entrance arch (said to have cost $30,000) is within a few hundred yards of the northern end of Manhattan Island, opposite West 216th Street, and is just “twelve miles from New York” according to the old brown milestone set by the roadside, just south of the arch.  This arch has for half a century challenged the admiring observation of every traveler entering or leaving New York City by the Hudson River Railroad.

The grounds are a specimen of old-time gardening, laid out in the Italian style with statues, walks and driveways.  Scattered about are small pieces of marble statuary on pedestals, representing Europa, Euterpe, and other classical characters.  Where the walks lead down a slope there are marble steps, with figures of lions at the sides. The dwelling itself is of marble and has ampelopsis vines trailed over its south side.  By those who live within sight of it, it is familiarly called “the marble house.”  This mansion is said to have cost $150,000.  From it there is a fine view of Spuyten Duyvil Creek towards the Hudson on the north and of the Harlem River towards the south.  The chief man now in charge has been there only eighteen months but the man under him has been there or in the immediate neighborhood some thirty years.  He lived near the Inwood Cold Spring sixteen years and built the basin for it.

Near and north of the marble entrance arch there was a fishpond, fed by a spring, which within the last month has been filled in by Mr. White who occupies the Nagle House.  Some of the gold and silver fish that used to be in it were eight or ten inches long, the caretaker says.  So many fish were taken from it that the neighborhood still smells of their decayed bodies.

From James Reuel Smith’s “Springs and Wells of Manhattan and the Bronx, New York City, at the End of the Nineteenth Century.”

The road from the entrance arch winds through the grounds up a gradual ascent to about sixty feet higher than the Kingsbridge Road level.  At this point, about three-eighths of a mile in, there is a well with a lattice arbor, south of the mansion.  (Plate 51a)  It is reached by a broad path on which there are a few stone steps ornamented at the sides with two large mortar vases prettily carved, and containing century plants.  The well is eighty-five feet deep, four and one half feet across, and curbed with stones.  It is latticed over, and is in good preservation.  It is fitted with a pump, of which the sucker was too dry to work, when I first visited the well, in May of this year 1898.  The pump was not used while the estate was leased by the driving club (which was until about a year ago.) The caretaker has since, however, poured water down the tube and got it working, and now, in June, he drinks nothing but this water.  He even carried it with him, for I found him making hay with a jug of this water carefully placed near him in the shadow of a haycock.

From James Reuel Smith’s “Springs and Wells of Manhattan and the Bronx, New York City, at the End of the Nineteenth Century.”

The gardener’s house, a stone structure, stands some five-hundred feet from the Harlem Ship Canal, and is shown in two of the photographs (Plates 51b and 52b).  There are large trees about its eastern front and ampelopsis vines growing over the wall at the back.  It has a one story extension with a roof shingled with wide cut slates.  Two gutters, one in front and one at the rear, conduct the water by two pipes down the southern end.  The two pipes join near the ground forming a large “Y,” the stem of which carries the water to a circular cistern with a wooden top and a trap door.  The cistern is full today (June 29, 1898).  A pipe leads from it to a pump in the gardener’s house.

There is a smaller cistern at the barn from which (when needed for the horses) the water is pumped into a large block of stone that has been symmetrically hollowed out as a trough.

North of the mansion there is a well which is now flagged over.  It used to feed the house pump, which has since been connected with the Croton system.  Water used to be pumped from the cistern near the mansion to the top of the edifice, to supply a fountain in the grounds.  As the house is some forty-five feet high, sufficient pressure was thus obtained to give a stream with considerable play, when water was turned on at the fountain.

From James Reuel Smith’s “Springs and Wells of Manhattan and the Bronx, New York City, at the End of the Nineteenth Century.”

The mushroom house on the estate is dug into the side of a hill.  It is some twenty-five feet wide and deep, and twenty feet high.  The back of it is formed by the natural rock of the hillside.  The front wall is two feet thick and is entered by a narrow and high doorway.  The door has fallen to decay.  In front of the house is a planked space some six by fifteen feet; the caretaker says the spring rises under this planking.  The water of it is first visible, however, some three-hundred feet away in a field, in a barrel (sunk in the ground and almost hidden from view in the tall June grass), to which a pipe leads from the mushroom house spring. (Plate 52a)  A few feet away is a box that formerly stood over the barrel.  Nearby, a line of white daisies marks the direction of a winding path that was once upon a time used from the gardeners house north to the stable.

From James Reuel Smith’s “Springs and Wells of Manhattan and the Bronx, New York City, at the End of the Nineteenth Century.”

West of the gardener’s house, and about forty feet from the edge of the Harlem Ship Canal, there is another spring. (Plate 52b) It is in the angle of a fence corner, about eight feet from the fence and near a gate that leads to a dock on the Canal.  The spring is two feet in diameter, and its basin is a large piece of cement pipe stuck in the ground.  The curbing of the spring is about four inches higher.  The outlet is through a slit in the cement curbing, and the water runs from it through the grass and into the creek.  The spring has a sandy bottom.  The land hereabouts is practically flat, and the ground nearby is marshy.  The caretaker says that the spring sometimes goes salty.

When they began to dredge the Harlem Ship Canal, the men took water from this spring for their boilers, but Mr. Drake objected. So they dug a hole about three feet deep in the ground on the other side of the fence, about twelve feet north of the spring, and thus took the overflow of the spring and obtained sufficient water.

West Of Broadway, North Of West 218th Street (Baker Field Of Columbia University) The Isaac M. Dyckman Well: Plate 53a

June 29, 1898.  The (Isaac M.) Dyckman house is west of the Kingsbridge Road, north of West 218th Street.  Its well is just north of the porch at the west end of the house.  This is a latticed well, built something like the Seaman-Drake well, but having a rope and bucket instead of a pump.  The rope runs over an iron pulley at the top.  Its use was discontinued within a year or so apparently because one of the buckets broke, and there is Croton water in the house, there was no urgent need for replacing it.  The well is about twenty-five feet deep.  It has a trap door, which is now down.  There is a spout at the side, and a stone slightly hollowed out to catch and carry off the water without having it dig a hole into the ground.  The entrance to the well is within three feet of the house, almost facing the house, so that it is not easily photographed by daylight.

This well is just about opposite the power house on the Kingsbridge Road, and west of it about four hundred feet.

North Of West 218th Street, Near Spuyten Duyvil Creek: The Dyckman Ice Pond: Plate 53b

June 29, 1898.  The Dyckman ice pond is about one hundred and fifty feet north of the gardener’s cottage on the Seaman-Drake estate.  It is a beautiful object.  The pond is about three hundred feet long by seventy-five feet wide and for the most part is cut out of the natural solid rock.  Heavy trees and foliage and vines surround it, and I came within a foot or two of walking into it over a bluff twenty-five feet high! A swallow was busily engaged skimming for insects on the pond and it darted about dipping into the water with a swishing splash every now and then.

The southern end of the pond is made of small blocks of Kingsbridge marble and there is a sluice cut to let the water out into the creek a few hundred feet away.  Near this sluice is a wooden platform with two long planks extending out into the pond.  It was made to haul ice up when it is cut from the pond.  They did not cut ice here last year.  These planks, worn quite smooth and white, were covered with a thousand tadpoles, and from the other end, every few moments, came the deep note of a full-grown bullfrog.

At the north, the shore of the pond slopes steeply upward with a bend, forming a ravine, which is crossed by a rustic bridge.  On the pond is a small red rowboat with a small anchor as if it were used for fishing in the pond.

This pond is supplied by springs, although there is Croton water laid into it also.  It takes two or three days to fill the pond when it has been drawn off for cleaning.

Just north of the pond is a hill, covering about three acres of ground, made from the white stone and stuff taken from the Canal, and for which the United States are paying Mr. Dyckman $2000 a year rent.  What with rain and settling, it is so solid a mass that Mr. White, the man who filled the Seaman-Drake fish pond, found it cheaper to go a good deal farther and get earth to fill with.

Near Spuyten Duyvil Creek, Inwood: The “Cold Spring”: Plates 54a and 54b

November 13, 1897.  The “Cold Spring” is some eight hundred feet south of the most northern point of Inwood, and on the east side of it.  It is about one hundred feet from the shore of Spuyten Duyvil Creek, or as it has come to be known as in it’s enlarged and modernized condition, the Harlem Ship Canal.  It is some six feet long east and west, and three feet wide north and south.  Its water comes out from under a piece of rock, and a spring house is built over it of just the dimensions of the spring and some six feet high.  From this house a pipe runs the distance of some ten feet into a barrel sunk in the ground.  The overflow runs out of the barrel near the top and into the Creek.

This is the largest spring within the corporate limits of the City of New York.

With the exception of the cottage of an old boatman, Abraham Seeley by name, there is not a house within a mile of this spring, but it pours forth as copious a stream as though its duties were to supply a city’s needs.

May 21, 1898.  The man on the Seaman-Drake estate lived at Cold Spring sixteen years and made a basin for it.  He says it discharges six gallons a minute, which is about three times as much as the flow from the usual bathroom faucet.

Near Cold Spring are two others, one nearly hid at high tide and cut out of a white rock.

From James Reuel Smith’s “Springs and Wells of Manhattan and the Bronx, New York City, at the End of the Nineteenth Century.”

June, 1898.  As this spring interfered with Seeley’s sale of soft drinks to boatmen, he put a padlock on the spring house, and filled in with earth the space where the water appeared outside, so that the overflow runs into the creek below the level of the tide.

On Tuesday, June 28, 1898, Murray’s house back of Seeley’s caught fire from frying fish, and burned down at four in the afternoon.  The fire engine had such a time getting there that it did not reach the place until half past four!  Even the next day many believed that it was Seeley’s house which had burned, and the cause of the fire was said to be incendiary resentment over Seeley’s having closed the “cold spring.”

Inwood Hill, East Side: Plate 55a

June 9, 1898.  This spring is about one hundred feet down from the road that, after resolutely winding its way through the forest of Inwood on the east side, finally when it is within half a mile of the northern end goes about and retraces its course towards the south again, although somewhat west of its first course.  The spring is some fifteen feet above the level of the Spuyten Duyvil Creek and within fifty feet of it.  A walk three boards wide leads to it from a little house nearby and towards the east.  It rises in two barrels side by side south of the walk.  One of them, for drinking purposes,  is covered with a hinged wooden flap, and the other, for ablutions is open.  The water is said to be a little hard for washing, unless soda is added, so rain is used for laundry purposes. The water appears to be muddy, but this is only the color of the sides of the barrels, for when water is dipped out, it is found to be crystal-white, as well as cold and very nice to the taste. The board walk is on the north side of the spring.  On the south side there is a board platform to stand on, as the ground is wet and soppy from little trickling streams.

If there is pure spring water anywhere on Manhattan Island, it should be found here, as there is only one house within four hundred feet of it, a second about seven hundred feet away, and no other within half a mile.  The primitive forest surrounds it without anything to contaminate the soil.  Immense tall trees, thick green foliage, and tiny rivulets, trickling down the sides of the hill are the characteristics of the place.

Inwood Hill, West Side: Plate 55b

May 18, 1898.  This spring is reached by following the road from Tubby Hook north along the Hudson.  It is about seventy-five feet from the river and forty feet above its level.  A basin has been scooped out of the nearly solid rock for it, and the sides of the basin slope conically upwards very symmetrically so that the periphery of the water at the surface is nearly a perfect circle.  A dome of stones is arched over the top almost exactly reversing the lines of the sloping walls of the basin below.  The dome is open in the front and the contour of the inside is that of a perfectly formed lemon.  The periphery of the basin at the surface of the water is cemented to make it perfect in form. The water is about two and one half feet deep and about three and one half feet in diameter.  The top of the arch is about three feet above the surface of the water.  The water is cold and good to the taste, and so crystally clear that the sides and top of the dome are reflected in it as in a mirror.  The overflow disappears down in a channel made in cement.

Two short converging gravel paths lead up to the spring from the road, and there is a house on the property about three hundred feet northeast of the spring.  Above the spring stands a sign reading “No Trespassing Allowed.” Round and about are large trees.

Inwood Hill, West Side: Plate 56a

May 18, 1898.  The last house on the Bolton Road is Mr. James McCreery’s.  One eighth of a mile south of this house, about two hundred feet from the Hudson River, a pump comes up through a slab of blue stone four feet square.  The handle is broken off near the top and the pump is rusty; it has evidently not been used for some time.  The pump is on a terrace some fifty feet above the level of the Hudson, and there are several terraces above it, which appear to have to have once formed a serpentine road to the river but now are so grass grown that they look merely like sloping lawns.  There is a pretty view of the river from here although now it is disfigured with shad poles, and the fishermen are inspecting their nets.  Wild birds are singing in the large forests round about and no sound is heard that is foreign to the country.

A maid in spectacles offered me a drink of distilled and boiled water as they have no well or spring and use Croton water.

Inwood Hill, Northern End: Plate 56b

June 19, 1898.  This forest well is nearly the highest point of Inwood and just beyond it the hill slopes down to the Spuyten Duyvil Creek.  It is the last natural water supply source on Inwood ridge and is nearly  a half a mile from any habitation.  The water is about five feet from the top, and about a yard in circumference.  It is symmetrically curbed with stones, and is covered with two flat heavy stones, one of which I could hardly move, and the other not at all.  The water is perfectly clean on top as the stones protect it thoroughly. Although it is within two feet of the pathway, it would never be noticed by a stranger as the covering stones look perfectly natural.

Seeley told me about it and said it was twenty-five feet deep.  Afterwards the man on the Seaman-Drake place told me that he measured it on a bet with McCreery’s gardener, and that it was thirty-four feet to the bottom.  He said it once supplied McCreery’s house.

Where does the water come from that rises to within five feet of the top of almost the highest point in Inwood?

A little brooklet appears about three hundred feet away and loses itself in some underground passage on its way to Spuyten Duyvil Creek.

Seeley’s son says that not far from here were found battle axes and other relics, and a cave that had been made by Indian braves.  He got a piece of British money from the cave but when he went to find the cave a second time there was no trace of it.  There had been a landslide, and hundreds of tons of stone concealed the place.

Author’s note:  After reading Smith’s account, myself, Cole Thompson, and my partner on all things Inwood history related, Don Rice, took to Inwood Hill for an exploratory mission of our own.  To our amazement, we think we may have located some of the wells described by Smith so many years ago.  Check out the Youtube video below and see for yourself.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Not sure if it’s the same one as above, but the Isham Stable Spring, or one nearby, was still flowing in 1996 anyway, the year I left Inwood. My old pal, the Inwood Park semi-hermit, Sebast, used it for his drinking water. He said it was the best water there was. Sebast used to live in the park part time using his own unique methods to keep warm, stash food, float down the river in the summer, etc. He told me he was writing a book. He’d sometimes sleep in the indian caves. I haven’t seen him since 1996.

  2. Great article! Thanks for introducing me to this. I just last night finished the Smith book. I was lucky enough to get one from the library in excellent condition. It was really intriguing, and the photos were fascinating. So recent really…

  3. Great article and it fills out some of various locations of homes of the early settlers. I remember some of the springs on the east side of the hill.

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