Over the past 250 years, perhaps no stretch of land in America has undergone greater transformation than Lower Manhattan. Today, its shoreline barely resembles what the earliest Dutch immigrants encountered in the 1600s. The labyrinthine canyons formed by block after block of modern skyscraper construction were once an idyllic setting of small hills, streams, and wetlands. Lower Manhattan is a palimpsest on which each new era has written its own physical history. With the help of archaeology, it is occasionally possible to reconstruct those faintly visible landscapes of the past. The South Street Seaport is located along Lower Manhattan’s eastern shore, near the place where the East River meets the top of New York’s magnificently sheltered harbor. Today it is a tourist-friendly destination with shops, tour boats, and restaurants, and serves as a refuge from the bustle of neighboring Wall Street. No other place epitomizes the growth and transformation of Manhattan in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries more than the South Street Seaport, when it was the busiest port in the United States.
The 11-block area right around the Seaport, nestled in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, has recently been the focus of a city-led initiative to improve its utilities and infrastructure. The city has long hoped to stimulate the neighborhood’s commercial, residential, and touristic appeal, most recently after it was devastated by a seven-foot storm surge during 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. The initiative includes installing new curbs, resurfacing the streets, and maintaining and replacing damaged subterranean utility lines. All of these projects permit and, in fact, require that archaeologists be brought in prior to the work. Alyssa Loorya, founder of Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants, is one of the archaeologists contacted by city officials to evaluate sensitive areas slated for construction. Over the past decade her team has excavated areas along Fulton, Front, Beekman, Water, and Pearl Streets, as well as extensive sections of Peck Slip. “We have covered pretty much every block in the historic district that has been excavated since 2005,” she says. “It’s been really nice to get a whole little picture of the way this area developed.
Almost none of the land where Loorya’s team has worked existed when the first Europeans arrived in New York Harbor. The original Manhattan shoreline coincides roughly with the line of present-day Pearl Street, three blocks inland. The land associated with Water, Front, and South Streets, which form the backbone of the South Street Seaport, was completely created by human activity. From the late 1600s through the early 1800s, Lower Manhattan’s shoreline gradually crept farther into the East River as part of a deliberate landfilling process. Land, especially waterfront land, has always been at a premium in New York, and it was no different during the city’s early history. The real estate created for the South Street Seaport was extremely valuable, especially to the merchants, ship owners, and shopkeepers responsible for its growth.
The transformation of the East River waterfront was stimulated by the Dongan Charter of 1680. This allowed the city to collect revenue by selling “water lots,” designated sections of river adjacent to the shoreline. The Dongan Charter originally allowed for the development of an area extending 200 feet into the East River, a distance that was doubled to 400 feet by the Montgomerie Charter of 1731. Water lot purchasers were encouraged to, at their own expense, construct wharves, deposit landfill, and erect buildings on their lots. Lot by lot, the river was supplanted by land and fitted with warehouses, offices, and shops related to the burgeoning shipping industry. As the shallow waters of the original shoreline were eliminated, ships loading or unloading goods in New York no longer needed to anchor offshore and transport goods via smaller boats. They could now dock immediately landside along slips and piers. This new waterfront neighborhood soon became the focus of New York’s mercantile and maritime industry.
Archaeologists working along the Lower Manhattan riverfront over the past few decades have uncovered the methods that colonial New Yorkers used to create new land. The process almost always involved the construction of a wooden retaining device or framework that was sunk into place along the river bottom and filled with debris, gradually forming the foundation for new city streets and blocks. During recent utility work, archaeologists have been able to uncover sections of the colonial timber framing and cribbing in several places beneath the South Street Seaport, notably along Peck Slip and Beekman and Water Streets. In fact, in some places, the 300-year-old bulkheads were still successfully retaining the East River and their removal caused temporary flooding within the trenches. Although the depth of the landfill varies depending upon the original irregular shoreline, it measures between 20 and 35 feet deep in the most extensively filled areas.
In this way, beginning in the late 1600s, the South Street Seaport began to take shape. By the mid-eighteenth century, Water Street had been created, followed by Front Street later in the century, and ultimately South Street by the early 1800s. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, New York and its South Street Seaport had surpassed Boston and Philadelphia to become America’s primary port, and by the 1850s, only London was handling more marine activity.
For archaeologists, the layers of landfill deposits have provided a wealth of information about life at the Seaport during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. During the landfill process, a tremendous amount of fill was needed in a short amount of time. Owners of the water lots would petition locals to help them with material. Much of what they used, we (and they) would consider garbage. “Even today, New York is still figuring out where to put our garbage,” says Loorya. “[Back then,] there was no garbage pickup, so what do you do with your trash? You dump it in the East River and create land.” The examination of antique garbage is one of the best ways to reconstruct past daily life. Despite the fact that substantial modern construction and utility work carried out over the years has destroyed much of the colonial-era archaeological remains, small pockets of undisturbed fill have helped create an accurate image of the old Seaport. Some trenches provide clues to the Seaport’s creation, while others offer small tidbits of information about the colonial shipping industry and even the origins of certain voyages. In one instance, excavation beneath a section of Beekman Street revealed a large concentration of Caribbean coral, not native to the Northeast. It was likely taken aboard a ship sailing from the West Indies for ballast, and later discarded in the East River as waste. In an area along Peck Slip, among the fill debris, there was a large mass of British-made pottery that was broken but appeared to be entirely unused. Loorya suggests that the high-quality imported cargo was damaged during transit and deposited in the landfill upon arrival in New York.
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