Documentary History of American Water-works

Introduction Historical Background Chronology Geography Biography Technology Ownership and Financing General Bibliography
Middle Atlantic States New York Albany 1798 Water System

1798 Water System in Albany, New York

In 1779 Captain Thomas Machin surveyed a route for a water conduit from the Five-Mile House on the Schenectady Turnpike to the Public Square in downtown Albany. (1845)  William McKown leased this property in April 1786, and in 1793 he purchased purchased a large tract of land along the Kromme Kill (now called Krum-Kill) where he built a new hotel and tavern.  The original house was on the east branch of the Krum Kill, which is believed to be the source used for the 1798 water system.  McKown constructed his own water system on the west branch of the Krum Kill, with wooden pipes from his system being discovered during work on the McKownville Water Filtration Plant in 1966. (1969)

A large fire swept through Albany on November 17, 1793 that was fought by residents using leather buckets. (1867) On December 31, 1793, the Albany Common Council resolved that "John Jauncey, Dirck Ten Broeck & Jacob J. Lansing be a committee to report to this Board the most Expedient method to Supply this City with water." (1971, 1)

The Common Council advertised for bids in November, 1794 to construct, own, and operate a water works taking water from a spring near the Five-Mile House, which was on the site of the current SUNY Albany Indian Quad.  Several bids were received, and they chose the proposal of Benjamin Prescott, who had previously built an aqueduct system in his home town of Northampton, Massachusetts,  The City and Prescott signed a contract in September 10, 1795, "to lead the Water in conduits from Mr. McKowns into Albany by the first of November 1797."  The City also secured "An act to enable the corporation of the city of Albany, to supply the said city with water by means of conduits" on March 9, 1796, that allowed the City "by themselves, or by an water engineer or other person to be by them employed," to install conduits and reservoirs. 

By August, 1796, Prescott was at work and the City was soliciting bids for "1,980 iron bands" to connect the 23,760 feet of pitch pine that Prescott was providing to deliver water from the Five Mile House water source.  In June, 1797, Prescott complained about the log suppliers and asked to substitute white pine, which is assure is suitable. On April 5, 1798, Prescott reported that "The aqueducts are through the following streets [viz] from the Public Square, through State Street 2000 feet, Court Street 1400 feet, Markel & Watervliet Street 2100, Pearl Street 2000 , Washington Street 800, Hudson Street 1000 feet , Pine Street 800 feet, Barrak & Green Street 1500 feet, Dock Street  800 feet , from Barrack Street through Steuben Street to Market Street 700 feet , from Market Street through Columbia and Montgomery Street 900 feet."

Although the aqueduct from the spring at the Five-Mile House appears to have been substantially complete in the summer of 1798, it appears that that source was either insufficient or unsuitable for the desired use, as the prior August Prescott had secured rights to use water from Maezlant Kill. (1906)  In August, 1800, a Baltimore newspaper reported that "The Albany Water-works, progress with rapidity, and it is expected that in a few weeks the principal streets of that city will be supplied with pure water from Maesland Kill."

The Albany Water Works Company was organized in March, 1800.  Water rates were adopted at a meeting held in August of that year at the Lewis Inn.  The company applied for a charter, which was granted in February 1802 to Stephen Lush, Philip S. Van Rensselaer, and John Tayler,

The company installed cast iron pipe in 1813, believed to be the fourth American city to do so after New York City in 1799, Philadelphia in 1801, and Baltimore in 1807.

Albany Argus, April 6, 1813, Page 1.

The water system was sold to the City of Albany in 1850.

1793 Philadelphia Dunlop's American Daily Advertiser, July 20, 1793
Albany, July 8.  We learn that enterprizing citizens of Hudson raised 1000£ last week, for the purpose of making additional water works, and bringing the water of a larger flowing spring, nearly three miles, through pipes, into that city--the spring along cost them 100l.  Few places have worse water, and perhaps none are capable of having better water, by the same means, than this city, and at a very small expense--especially should this mode come into general life, as it doubltess would, if once the great utility of it was made obvious.

1794 Albany Register, November 17, 1794
In Common Council, held the ninth day of Nov. 1794
Resolved that this board will receive proposals until the first day of February next from any persons for supplying this city with water from the spring at the five mile house on the road to Schenectady--which proposals it is expected will contain--
1st, A plan accurately describing the dimensions & the mode in which the reservoir is to be constructed at or near the fountain and on the hill in the public square should it be thought necessary Also the mode in which the aqueducts from the spring and the reservoir in the public square are to be conducted through the principal Streets of the city .
2d, The dimensions of the pitch pine timber of which the aqueducts are to be made. the diameter of the bore that will be thought necessary the mode of securing the aqueducts at the joints and the depth at which they will be laid below the surface of the ground
3d, The expense of constructing the reservoir of stone by the square yard and securing it at the fountain by a proper building over them
4th, The expense by the rod of the aqueducts , calculating the bores at six, four & three inches diameter
5th, The time at which the work will be completed
6th, The security which the contractor will give for the fulfillment of this contract--which proposals shall be sealed up and directed to tbe Mayor of this city.
E. Willet, City Cham [Elbert Willett, City Chamberlain]

1795 Albany Gazette, February 16, 1795  The date for receipt of proposals was extended to May 1, 1795

1794-95 Proposals received
December 22, 1794 Aaron Buckland of Hartford, Conn
January 29, 1795 Elijah Church from "Jerico on the Susquehanna" [Jericho, Tioga County, Pennsylvania]
February 28, 1795 James Bolton, proposal to build a pipe boring machine for £60
March 7, 1795 Robert Smith of Troy
April 8, 1795 James Bradley "being Accustomed to such Imploymint in Europe"
April 25, 1795 B. Prescott of Northampton, Mass.
June 8, 1795 Joseph Dorr and Jacob Martin [Probably from Hoosick Falls, New York]

1795 February 11, 1795 Albany Common Council
Resolved that Mr. Graham , Mr. Van Renssellaer & Mr. Henry be a Committee to confer with such persons as may have any Estates in the Ground thro which the conduits for leading the water into this City will probably run or in which the fountains May be, from whence the water is to be brought & that they report the most Expedient mode of obtaining a right to lead the water from such fountains & the conduits thro' such grounds with free ingress and egress to make all necessary repairs.

1795 June 30, 1795 Albany Common Council (cost estimate)

1795 Aug. 12, 1795 Letter to Benjamin Prescott from the Mayor, Alderman, and Common Council of the City of Albany
Sir In conformity to the enclosed resolutions of the Mayor, Alderman & Commonality of the City of Albany I inform you that they have accepted your proposals relative to the construction of the water works in this city and I request that you will attend at as early a day as you conveniently can with sufficient securities to complete the contract relative to these works.

1795 Albany Register, August 21, 1795, pages 2-3
Very long and detailed article from a local citizen about the proposed water works.

1795 September. 10, 1795 Albany Common Council, Articles of Agreement between between Benjamin Prescott of Northampton, Obadiah Dickenson of Northfield, Caleb Lyman of Northfield and Samuel Dexter of Albany and the Mayor, Alderman and commonality of the City of Albany

1796 An act to enable the corporation of the city of Albany, to supply the said city with water by means of conduits, March 9, 1796

1796 Journal of a Tour from Boston to Oneida, June, 1796, by Jeremy Belknap. (1882)
Page 29:  Friday, July 1.  Stopped at McKean's, five miles from Albany, where we saw the spring-head of the projected aqueduct for the city.  The water is very pure and cool, and there seems to be a good supply.

1797 The American Gazetteer, by Jedidah Morse.
[n. p.] Albany.  Excellent water (an article in which this city has hitherto been extremely deficient, having been obliged to use the dirty water of the river, is about to be conduced into the various parts of the city, from a fine spring 5 miles west of the city.

1797 Stockbridge (Mass) Western Star, September 11, 1797, page 4
Wanted 15 good Labourers, at the Waterworks, in Albany, for two or three months, to whom generous wages will be given.  Eldad F. Goodwin.  Albany, Aug. 21 1797.

1799 An indenture between Benjamin Prescott and Albany dated April 16, 1799 to “draw off and take out of, and from a certain brook or stream of water running near to and south of the dwelling house now occupied by Bigelow & Bartlett in the said Town of Watervliet – commonly known and distinguished by the name of Maes Landte Kill so much of the water of said brook as can be conveyed through a line of conducts [sic] – through which the said conduits shall or may be laid with pure and wholesome water and for no other purpose whatsoever.”

1800 Albany Gazette, March 13, 1800, Page 3
At a meeting of the Subscribers to the Company associated with Benjamin Prescot, Esq. of Northampton, for supplying this city with Pure and Wholesole WATER, by CONDUITS, held at the City Hall, on Tuesday last, the following Gentlemen were elected TRUSTEES--
John Lansing, Jun.
Stephen Lush
Philip S. Van Rensselaer
John Tayler
Jeremiah Van Rensselaer

1800 Visit to the Falls of Niagara in 1800, by John Maude (1826)
Page 28:  Tuesday, July 1st.  Morse, in 1797, speaks of the extreme deficiency of good Water in Albany, and that the Inhabitants were about to introduce water from a fine spring five miles west of the City.  This fine spring water is yet without the gates of the City, where, on the 1st of July, 1800, I saw it playing like a fountain before the door of the Manor-House of the Patron, his Excellent the Lieutenant Governor.  As for being obliged to use the dirty Water of the River, I will beg lease to observe to Mr. Morse, that a very great proportion of the City do not use the river water, which said river water is far from being dirty; rather remarkable for its purity, being a pleasant wholesome beverage.  Great part of the City is supplied with water from a well in the main street; but the best water is from a pump to the Westward of the Episcopal Church; it is a water that my palate cannot find any fault with, nor my eyes perceive in those animalcules Kalm speaks of; neither could I discover them in the well water.  [The Rensselaer Manor House was on the route of the conduit from Mazeland Kill to Albany, as shown on the 1856 map (see below)]

1800 Baltimore Telegraph and Daily Advertiser, July 23, 1800
The Albany Water-works, progress with rapidity, and it is expected that in a few weeks the principal streets of that city will be supplied with pure water from Maesland Kill.

1801 Albany Centinel, January 16, 1801, page 3
For Sale, a convenient dwelling house, two stories high, with a good Cellar, situated in Montgomery-street.-- It has aqueduct water in the Cellar, and is a good stand for a grocery.  Enquire of the printer.  Albany, January 16, 1801.

1802 An act to incorporate the Proprietors of the Albany Water-Works, February 17, 1802.

1803 An act to amend the Act, entitled " An Act to incorporate the Proprietors of the Albany Water-Works," March 4th, 1803.  The recorder of the City of Albany to be one of the five Trustees.

1813 An Act relative to the Albany Water Works Company, February 12, 1813.  Authorized an increase in capital to $80,000.

1813 Albany Gazette, March 22, 1813, Page 2
Cast Iron Conduits for the Albany Water Works, Wanted
Notice is hereby given, That Proposals in writing will be received by the subscriber, in behalf of the Trustees of the Albany Water Works, for furnishing, by Contract, One Hundred Tons of Cast Iron Conduits, of a bore of six inches diameter, three feet in length, and five eights of an inch thick--The Proposals are to be accompanied by two pipes as samples of the casting, and must be forwarded to the subscriber, by the first day of May next, and are to specify the shortest time time at which the above, or any less quantity of such conduits, can be delivered at the city of Albany.
By order of the Trustees of the Albany Water Works, Jas. VAN INGEN, Clk
Albany, March 18th, 1813

1815 "The Albany Water Works" from The American Magazine, Volume 1

1825 A Gazetteer of the State of New York edited by Horatio Gates Spafford
Page 319:  Mill Creek, or Patroon's Creek, a small stream or some 3 or miles in length, which enters the Hudson in the SE. corner of Watervliet, 1 mile N. of Albany, supplying water power for the Patroon's Mills, and Caldwell's Factory.  It is fed by durable springs, and is far the more valuable, because mill streams are hereabouts so scarce.  Albany is supplied with water, by an aqueduct from these hills, traversing this stream.

1838 Sketch of the civil engineering of North America: comprising remarks on the harbours, river and lake navigation, lighthouses, steam-navigation, water-works, canals, roads, railways, bridges, and other works in that country, by David Stevenson
Page 291: Albany on the Hudson is principally supplied with water procured in the high ground in the neighbourhood, and conveyed in a six-inch pipe for a distance of about three miles to a reservoir near the town.

1845 History of Schoharie County, and Border Wars of New York by Jeptha Root Simms
Page 576:  In May, 1779, Capt. [Thomas] Machin was engaged in taking a waterlevel between Albany and Schenectady, with a view of supplying the former city with water. He submitted a plan for this object to the city corporation, with drawings to show the manner in which an aqueduct and reservoir should be constructed. Agreeable to his table of levels, a mark on a post at the watering trough at Bratt's half-way house, was 277 feet 3 53/100 inches above the city hall wharf. The first mile stone out of Albany was 211 feet 5 25/100 inches below the mark at Bratt's.

1850 View of the New Reservoir of the Albany Water Works Company and the Albany Burgesses Corps

1853 Annual Report of the Board of Water Commissioner of the City of Detroit. In 1853, the new Board of Water Commissioners of the City of Detroit sent superintendent Jacob Houghton, Jr. to visit and report on water works in other cities, including Albany.
Pages 22-23: Albany - The city of Albany is supplied with water from "Patroon's" Creek, across which, about six miles from the Hudson river, an embankment of earth, forty feet in height, has been built: thus forming a retentive reservoir, called Rensselaer Lake, covering an area of thirty acres, and containing about 160,000,000 gallons of water. From thence the water is conducted by gravitation through a brick aqueduct, about four miles in length, to Bleecker reservoir, from whence it is distributed in the usual manner. A further supply is delivered to the lower part of the city, through iron pipes, laid directly from Watervliet Lake. This artificial lake is on the same stream with, and about four miles below Rensselaer Lake, and was formed by constructing a dam twenty-five feet in height, across the stream. It overflows about twenty acres, and'contains thirty millions of gallons.
These works are capable of delivering ten millions of gallons daily, and have cost about $800,000.
Population of the city about sixty thousand.

1854 Map of Albany County by Jay Gould.  This map shows "conducts" [conduits] from Rensselaer Lake northeast of the City and from the Maezlandt Kill to the north.  Rensselaer Lake was a reservoir formed by a dam installed on Patroon Creek in 1851.

1867 "The Conflagration of 1793," Collections on the history of Albany - Volume 2, by Joel Munsell

1881 "Albany Water Works" from Engineering News, 8:226 (June 4, 1881)

1897 "Water Supply" from Landmarks of Albany County, New York, by Amasa Junius Parker

1906 Albany Chronicles: A History of the City Arranged Chronologically, from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time compiled by Cuyler Reynolds
Page 355: August 1797 Benjamin Prescott endeavors to supply water from Maezlandt Kill, in logs bored, and is given a grant by Stephen Van Rensselaer.
Page 386:  November 10, 1794 Common Council advertises for proposals to supply the city with water by an aqueduct from the spring at Five-Mile House on the Schenectady turnpike.
Page 388:  February 17, 1796  Legislative act allowing Albany to obtain water by conduit.
Page 396:  February 2, 1802 Albany Waterworks Company organized, making use of large trunks of trees bored through the centres with a hole of about two inches, jointed with iron pipes; capital $40,000: securing supply from the Maezlandt kill, northwest of the city.
Page 393: Picture of Waterworks Company Reservoir
Page 410:  1811 Reservoir erected behind a high stone wall. Eagle. Columbia and Steuben streets, opening into iron pipes and deriving supply from the Maezlandt kill.

1919 "The Albany Water-Works a Hundred Years and More Ago," and "Purification-Plant Methods and Results at Albany" from Engineering News, 83:605 (September 25, 1919)

1969 "Old Wooden Water Pipes In Fair Exhibit," Altamont Enterprise and Albany County Post, August 8, 1969, page 1

1971 A Documentary History of Early Waterworks and Water Supply Technology in the City of Albany, 1793-1850 by Chester H. Liebs

1985 "From McKown's Tavern To Burger King," Altamont Enterprise, November 14, 1985, page 7

2000 A Landscape Transformed:  The ironmaking district of Salibury, Connecticut, by Robert B. Gordon | Also here (subscription required) |
Pages 35-36:  Holley and Coffing.  They were about to deliver 200 tons of conduit pipe to Albany.
Page 61:  In addition to making bar iron, they supplied cast-iron pipe for Albany's first water system.

2014 "Rediscovering Benjamin Prescott (1755-1826) & the Albany Water Works: Soldier, Engineer, Surveyor, Administrator, Entrepreneur, Patriot" From the Colonie Historical Oracle Volume 10, Number 2, April-June 2014 and Volume 10, Number 3, July-September 2014.  My thanks to Kevin Franklin, Colonie Town Historian, for permission to post this article on line and providing a wealth of other information about early water works in the area.

2015 A Short Biography of Engineer Benjamin Prescott by Kevin Franklin

For  the Krum Kill and Five Mile House area, see the northeast quadrants of | 1893 | 1927 | 1950 | from Albany NY Quadrangle from Historic USGS Maps of New York and New England


© 2015 Morris A. Pierce