Alyssa Loorya has led the historic investigation at the site
Digging in Lower Manhattan can uncover a lot of history. So last month, when Department of Design and Construction (DDC) crews uncovered both a well and a stone wall more than 200 years old, archaeologists were excited -- but not surprised.
The well and wall were revealed when crews were excavating Fulton Street as part of the city’s $30 million capital-reconstruction project. Located just west of Pearl Street, they were originally both situated on the shoreline of Lower Manhattan, before “Golden Hill” was flattened out and landfill extended the shore another three blocks into the East River.
Alyssa Loorya, owner of Brooklyn-based Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants, has led the historic investigation at the site. An expert in revolutionary-era New York City history, Loorya and her team have surmised that the gray fieldstone wall predates the 1814 opening of Fulton Street. It likely stood on the estate of Stephanus van Cortlandt (1643-1700), the city’s first native-born mayor.
The well, based on its location partially beneath the stone, pre-dates the wall -- likely dating back to the 17th century. The two large-scale discoveries were complemented by about 60 small and fragmented artifacts scattered in the area -- including flatware, ceramics, bottles, pipe stems, and a children’s toy.
Because the Fulton Street Corridor utility project could not pause its progress for long, the wall, well and artifacts were removed from the site on April 1, 2011. That leaves Loorya and her team with many objects to analyze and research, eventually lending to a better understanding of the unique history of New York’s first colony.
LowerMahattan.info spoke with Dr. Loorya about her experience at this and other sites, and about her insights into the “cultural resources” that comprise the legacy of old New Amsterdam.
What are the steps taken upon revealing an archaeological discovery?
Dr. Loorya: When a construction project that is going to use public funds, its managers are required to do what we call a “cultural resource assessment” for historical sensitivity of an area. It’s basically a historic research study of what was on a property in the past, what developments have occurred, sometimes who owned the property, and if there have been an other archeological discoveries on the site or in the area.
The area we’re working in now is in a designated Historic District and right outside South Street Seaport, so archaeology was always part of this project. So essentially, we were monitoring construction activities with an archaeologist on site, in case during construction activities cultural resources are discovered. Occasionally we’ll be able to go in and do some archaeological testing beforehand, but more often than not it’s us monitoring or watching the construction activities in case something significant is uncovered -- which is what happened in this instance.
When a discovery is found, usually all work in that specific area stops. The archaeologist will then clear off the discovery and make a determination. It was determined relatively quickly that this wall was continuing [in size], so the next day, myself and another employee joined the larger crew, and we began exposing the entire wall. While we were in the process of clearing more of the wall, we found the well.
What’s the reason the well and wall might have existed there?
That portion of Fulton Street wasn’t open until 1814 to 1816, so that area was actually within someone’s property. It could have part of a house; it could have been part of an outer building of some sort. The area was on the original shoreline so it was always land -- it was never under water. And they did construct houses and stores all along the shoreline. Pearl Street was originally known as Queen Street and this was part of a building in that area.
We know that it extended approximately 30 inches high, but parts of it had already been removed. It’s likely that it was taller and then above it was a brick structure, because we found bricks and the mortar against the side of the wall. We do know that this wall was the northern wall and it was 24 feet long.
There had been a lot of earlier construction projects throughout the 20th century in the area -- a lot of utility installations, ducts for the transit authority, earlier conduits -- and one of those clearly went right through the wall. It probably went in long before there were historic preservation laws on the books. So unfortunately we had no idea that the wall was there. There was no pre-existing documentation of any archeological discovery in that immediate area.
Another nearby archeological discovery was on Beekman Street, where wooden water mains were found -- does that indicate that this well was older and predates water mains?
Yes; also that portion of Beekman wasn’t filled [with landfill] until later in the 19th century, so those water mains were installed after that. Everything between Water Street and the present day East River was all water, and it was filled in and built out throughout the late 18th into the 19th century.
We discovered those wooden water mains on Beekman during a water-main replacement project that the DDC was undertaking back in 2006. There were two inter-connecting pieces of 19th-century wooden water pipes. In the early days of people getting running water into their homes, they often used hollowed-out logs that were shaved to a point in one end; and joined with a collar into another piece of the log, and it was all private industry. Many people don’t realize that Chase Manhattan Bank was actually started as a water company and they owned the water rights in much of Lower Manhattan.
And do you think that this Fulton Street wall was partly covered up by that landfill being pushed out to extend the shoreline?
There’s been a significant amount of landfill over time. Fulton Street, in that area, is on the outside edge of what was Golden Hill, which was the highest point of Lower Manhattan. The area of John Street and further south was the more formal, higher point of Golden Hill -- so there were significant differences in grade historically. If you walk now along Fulton, starting from South Street toward Broadway, you’ll notice that there’s a gradual climb up. But it’s believed that it was a much steeper climb historically, and over time they added more and more landfill as they filled the piers and made the streets.
Actually, if you walk along Pearl Street from Fulton going south to John, around the parking lot there, you can see there’s this really steep incline between one side of the street to the other. It gives you an idea of what the original grade had been like. It’s much more steep than when you’re walking up Fulton Street or John Street -- this is a sharp incline.
How did the wall and well removal process go?
The new Transit Authority ducts that they’re laying had to go in right in [the wall’s] path. And because there are many existing ducts and utilities, the DDC didn’t have much room to move the new installations. If they could have, they would have gone around the [historic] features, but because there is so much other activity and construction pre-existing, there was nowhere else for them to go.
So, the resources were fully documented and photographed, and we deconstructed the wall and the well to make way for the development. I believe the DDC is going to put up some sort of signage commemorating the archaeological find and the history of the area.
Did you reach the very bottom of the well, and if so what did you find?
We did reach the bottom of it. The well was made of reddish-brown sandstone. It had a four-foot diameter. And it was certainly typical of well construction and design; where you’d take a wooden ring as a form and lay stone upon stone sinking it into the ground.
The well was under part of the wall, and therefore clearly predated the wall. The artifacts that we found in it were pieces of stone- and ceramic-ware, which date from middle-to-late 17th century into the early 18th century; one piece was decorated with the Arms of Amsterdam.
We were able to excavate four feet down into the well, at which point we had already hit groundwater. The water table has changed a lot since the 18th century, and when you think about it, we were already nine feet below the surface, so [the well builders] would have his water fairly quickly. I wouldn’t think it was a drinking well because the water would have been so close to the East River, it was incredibly brackish -- it certainly wouldn’t have been potable water for drinking. It was likely used for industry or task work on the property.
What happens to the artifacts?
The DDC has a tradition when -- on the rare occasion when artifacts are found on some of their sites -- they’ll occasionally do small displays in their office in the atrium. They did that with some of the materials from Beekman Street.
They also had given the wooden water mains to the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection), because the DEP maintains an archive of infrastructure associated with the history of water within New York City. Back in 2006, the DEP was quite happy when they got two pieces of water main, particularly the one [discovered] intact with the iron collar -- which you almost never find.
As an archaeologist, what other resources have you found or expect to find in the area?
Last spring we found another foundation wall. It was a 19th-century wall, and it had been part of a structure that existed prior to when Fulton Street was widened. [It was part of] a building -- apparently an old print shop -- and in what would have been the basement we found hundreds of ink bottles that dated to about 1860.
In terms of future work, eventually the Fulton Street project is going to proceed to South Street, and archaeology is a day-to-day part of it. We’ll continue to monitor the excavation work as it proceeds, and anytime there’s an indication of any cultural resource, we’ll go in and document it.
[In this area] there’s a possibility of anything. You could have more wooden water mains; you could have lots of landfill materials -- since we don’t know specifically what was used to fill that area, and there have been a lot of different types of landfill. It’s possible we might find the original cribbing that they used prior to adding the landfill. Quite often the areas of landfill were locations for residents to dispose of their trash -- because there was no regular garbage collection. Back then there were lots of ordinances that directed people on certain days of the week, depending on where you lived in Lower Manhattan, to dispose of your trash in certain areas along the East River.
You never know -- there could be lots to find, or it could be absolutely nothing. That’s the nature of archaeology.