Robert Friedman’s excellent article “Digging Up the U.S.” was both informative and enjoyable. However, in it he states that it is doubtful that anything found at the 175 Water Street site in lower Manhattan would lead historians to dramatic new insights into urban life. Actually, since that article was prepared, analyses have revealed some unknown facts about New York’s development and its residents’ lives.
This city block, claimed from the East River by building massive log wharves and incorporating a derelict eighteenth-century ship as cribbing to structure the landfill, offers an outstanding example of eighteenth-century engineering techniques. Here they resembled those found at medieval European harbor sites where landmakers also had vast wood supplies and discarded ships at their disposal. In addition, the ship, which crosscut five individually owned water lots, graphically illustrated the interaction and cooperation occurring between members of New York’s eighteenth-century merchant elite (at 175 Water Street one of these elite, by the way, was a woman).
New finds refute records that document piped-in water as early as 1806 and a citywide sewage system by 1860. Dated artifacts from cisterns and privies on this commmercial seaport block indicated that water collection and waste disposal were undertaken by individuals rather than by the city until late in the nineteenth century. Archaeology at 175 Water Street again demonstrates that we can literally dig up our past.