Thursday, July 15, 2010

NYC History Uncovered: The Discovery and Demolition of the Hudson Wall

There is no question that we build upon that which precedes us—quite literally, in some cases. Downtown Manhattan is littered with traces of our Dutch heritage. When opportunity arises to witness New York's past, it is a chance to reflect on how we have arrived at our present and the expansions that have been required to do so.

In 2008, construction at the World Trade Center site ran aground of a section of the Hudson River Wall dating to 1899. The sea wall, which took six decades to complete, is a historical resource. Though the uncovered section would have to be removed for construction of an underground walkway, the site was carefully studied by the Louis Berger Group, allowing researchers to understand more about New York's early waterfront—including earlier walls and piers as well as assorted symbols of life (e.g., ceramics, pipe, bone, etc.)

This week, a 40 foot section of the wall was visible to the public! Though portions of the wall currently exist along the shoreline, it was a real treat to see this bit of dry-docked maritime architecture. And so it is with immense pleasure that I share this bit of urban archaeology with you, Readers.

When the Dutch settled here, New York City was a veritable wilderness. The shoreline was so uneven it was dangerous. In fact for much of the 17th century, traffic along the waterway was restricted. As the colony grew, this limitation did not go unnoticed. In 1870 chief engineer of the city's Department of Docks Gen. George B. McClellan proposed a bulkhead along the Hudson. His plan was roundly supported by the New York Times:
Once done and well done, ocean steamers will find it more convenient to life off New-York than, as many of them do now, at New-Jersey or Brooklyn, nearness to the central of merchandise being, of course, a sine qud non.
A sea wall, or bulkhead, would help smooth and even the coastline by providing stability and slowing eroding forces. Larger vessels could dock at the closer to the shore rather than at floating wharves hundreds of feet off the coast—commerce would flourish. That point likely settled the matter. McClellan had his way and the Hudson Wall was built.

So how did the sea wall wind up under some 425000 cubic yard of concrete? It is likely that this section of the wall was buried in the 1960s when the city filled in the area that would become home to the World Trade Center and Battery Park City and extended the coastline well beyond the confines of the wall.

After learning about the wall, I spent some time tracking it down—and then watching it be dismantled. The heavy blocks are being ground up, perhaps to serve as filler for another area of the construction site. It was definitely a humbling moment to face the original boundary of the island. Perhaps in places where ruins are commonplace these feelings are less intense, but watching the wall come apart piece by piece drove home the march of progression. I'm glad for this opportunity to look back in time though, and what I found interesting and want to draw your attention to is the height of the wall. It's unclear to me whether this is the original height or if the wall was originally broken before it was buried. If it the height is as shown, then it seems we have literally added inches  to our landscape, which is plausible when one considers that the area was filled in.

Above: View from the WFC Winter Garden overlooking the dig site.

Left: Wall is shown in encircled area. | Right: Enlargement of circled area shown left.

It's really commendable that this bit of history was made available to the public before being erased completely. Though the viewing area was largely filled with tourists, there seemed to be a few folks interested in the structure though they may not have realized what it was initially. The workers seemed to appreciate the site as well: They were friendly and enthusiastic when I found my way to an opening in the fence where I could watch the yellow excavator in action. There is something to be said for seeing history in context, without the interpretation of scholars and the trappings of commerce. That is not to say that these elements are not important in the longer terms of preservation, but when history can speak for itself—even momentarily—it reminds the visitor that the past is present.

Here are some additional photos showing the action from my view at the fence:

And though it's small, I did manage to get a short video clip. Note the friendly construction worker showing off the wall:

As construction continues who knows what other signs of the colony may be revealed. An 18th century ship was also uncovered this week. Archaeologists are rushing to take measurements and gather as much information as they can. It is not clear at this point whether the discovery of the ship will delay construction. 

You can view additional photos here.

1 comment:

  1. You should have asked the workers to break off a piece of the wall to keep a bit of it for history. IMHO...