St. John's Lodge and... Drinking Water?

The Old Croton Reservoir, since torn down to make way for the current main branch of the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue and 42nd Street.

The Old Croton Reservoir, since torn down to make way for the current main branch of the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue and 42nd Street.

St. John's Lodge has an interesting history with the idea of bringing fresh water into the city of New York.  

New York's drinking water is often referred to as the 'champagne' of drinking water because of its consistent taste and high quality.  In fact, there are over 1,000 water sampling stations throughout the city of which at least 50 are checked by field scientists every day.  Our quality water, though, wasn't always so great.

The first attempt at building a waterworks for the city was interupted by the Revolutionary War.  During and after the War, the city's water needs became more urgent as the water sources, like ponds and wells, were becoming increasingly more polluted from human and industrial waste.  There was no distribution to get water to fires that occasionally popped up around the city.

The New York Common Council, in 1799, agreed to a plan to secure water from a private company.  This company, called the Manhattan Company, was chartered by the New York Legislature to supply the city with wholesome water.  At the last minute, though, Aaron Burr sneaked in a clause allowing the company to use surplus capital for business purposes.  His intent was to form a bank to compete with his rival Alexander Hamilton's Bank of New York.

The first pipes to deliver water came from bored out wood logs.  These logs were cut from yellow pine with a hole augured through the center.  This system was very efficient, but met with limited success due to the fact that Burr's company chose to obtain water from the very same polluted ponds and reservoirs that were causing the problems in the first place and not from the Bronx River as had been envisioned.

One of our members, Ezra Weeks, was responsible for supplying the wood pipes used by Burr's company.  It's also worth noting that Ezra was a builder who helped design and construct both Alexander Hamilton's The Grange and Gracie Mansion, the home of New York City Mayors.  He also built the current City Hall which broke ground in 1803.

You can see the evidence of his craftsmanship in one of today's most recognizable logos.  The Manhattan Company was acquired by Chase National Bank in 1955 which then acquired J.P. Morgan & Co. in 2000 to become J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.  The logo is still a design of one of Ezra's hollowed out logs.

It became evident fairly quickly that the Manhattan Company would be better off sticking to banking and not delivering water.  Plans were made and in 1837 construction began on a massive engineering project; taking water from upstate and diverting it to follow a route leading into the city via a system of gravity fed tunnels, piping, and reservoirs.

On October 13th 1842, St. John's Lodge No. 1 was requested to bring the Washington Bible to the dedication of the Croton Aqueduct.  We happily complied and on October 14th, the Acqueduct opened to public use culminating in a day long celebration that had a 50 foot fountain of water coming from the Croton Fountain in City Hall Park.  This small park is directly in front of the building Ezra Weeks, a Past Master of the Lodge and friend of Alexander Hamilton, helped build.

Manny Callias