Nineteen Reservoirs by Lucy Sante

Before reading Nineteen Reservoirs, I knew a little about the Croton reservoir system that brings some water to New York City—I knew there used to be a reservoir where the New York Public Library at Bryant Park is now, and I’ve walked up the spiraling stairs of the High Bridge Water Tower (and across High Bridge itself), and I’ve seen the Croton Dam. But I knew almost nothing about the “six great reservoirs” constructed between 1907 and 1967, to which Sante devotes the bulk of this book. Sante writes about how and when those reservoirs were built, and about the villages and farms and houses and lives that those reservoirs displaced; she writes about the way the city used eminent domain to acquire land, and about the often protracted claims processes for compensating people displaced by the reservoirs’ construction. She also writes about other factors in the conversation around water supply and water usage: I had no idea, for example, about the decades-long debates about installing water meters in New York City residential buildings, from the time of Boss Tweed onwards.

I like the historical context around water usage in New York City that Sante provides, like the fire risk posed by periods when a lack of water meant that “pipes lacked sufficient pressure to serve the upper floors of buildings” (5) or how before the bigger reservoirs west of the Hudson were built, the city had “$150 million worth of dry goods sitting uninsured in warehouses because the water supply was inadequate for putting out fires” (35). The text about the reservoirs themselves is full of facts and figures—how many people were displaced, how many bodies needed to be moved from cemeteries and reinterred elsewhere, how many gallons of water a reservoir holds, how much water the city was using per day at a certain point in time, how much different people in different villages were compensated for their land. All those numbers (and the dates of the reservoirs’ construction) won’t necessarily stick with me, but this book was worth reading to gain some awareness of the big-picture history here. I also loved all the historical maps and photos that Sante includes with the text, and the color photos by Tim Davis from 2020 that are included in the epilogue. (And the epilogue itself, with its looser/more poetic prose, is really pleasing to me—like when Sante writes that “the water reflects clouds that appear to come from an old-master painting, and the scene is so primordial the dam in the distance just looks like a piece of tape on the canvas” (162).)

On a personal note, this book also prompted me to learn some family history: I thought I remembered a story from my childhood about my maternal grandmother’s dad working on the Scituate Reservoir in Rhode Island; I also thought I remembered that my maternal grandmother was born in New York, and I wondered if her dad worked on any of the reservoirs in this book. I asked my mom and she said she thinks my grandma was born at Brown’s Station; this photo that Sante includes in the book of a camp school at Brown’s Station for children of reservoir workers predates my grandma’s birth by 5 years, but I think her dad probably did work on the Ashokan.






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