This is the fourth in a series of posts on the records of Brooklyn’s Corporation Counsel, which are currently being processed with funding provided by a Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) “Hidden Collections” grant.
One of the many modern amenities that we take for granted, along with paved roads, hot running water, and free public wi-fi, is the sewer system. In Brooklyn, the foundations of the sewer system were initiated in the 1850s, when the city established its first Board of Sewer Commissioners. By the late 19th century, the city was rapidly constructing the modern, underground sewer system that still exists today. This was, of course, a good thing for most Brooklynites. The streets and local waterways were cleaner, and instances of diseases such as cholera were greatly reduced. Unfortunately, the sewers also tended to overflow during especially bad storms, much to the distress of local residents.
Bedford-Stuyvesant, around the intersection of Halsey St. and Throop Ave., was especially prone to sewage overflows. In the records of the Corporation Counsel of Brooklyn I have found over a dozen claims by residents in this area for property damage caused by the city’s sewers, almost always during a particular nasty rain storm.
One homeowner explained that “the water came right up through the sidewalk and manhole through Throop Ave. and washed right through the walls and everything.” Another resident explained this his building’s basement was separated by several dividing walls, and when the storm hit, “the water coming in there accumulated so fast that when it raised to 6 or 7 feet it carried the wall clean back to the furthest end of the building, smashing stoves, machines and everything in my shop.” As you can imagine, it wasn’t just storm water that was flooding in. “The mud and stench and stuff in the cellar [was so bad that] the Board of Health had to tell us to move out … it was disinfected by the City.”
Why was this section of Brooklyn so badly affected by overflows? In 1895, the Corporation Counsel stated in a brief that “years before the streets were opened or graded or the sewage system was established, that there used to be a pond at the locality of Throop Ave. and Halsey St. a pretty large pond.” He further explained that there is a “natural descent to corner of Halsey St. and Throop Ave.; that this spot is the natural pocket of the entire district drained by this sewerage system, and would naturally, if no sewer was constructed, collect the waters from the territory drained by the sewer.”
Clearly he was of the opinion that this area was prone to flooding regardless of the sewer system. Still, the City paid out numerous settlements for damaged property during the 1890s.
The legal records related to these claims provide us with numerous insights into lives of turn-of-the-century Brooklynites. Take the claim of Oellrich Hudaff, a grocer who resided at 301 Halsey St. His extensive list of damaged property included coffee (mocha and java), codfish, potatoes, squashes, turnips, prunes (both French and Turkish), eggs, oil, oatmeal, and four types of sugar.
Clara Rost, of 347 Halsey St., lost her vegetables, wine, preserves, tools, several chairs, and her stove. W. M. Bennebroek Gravenhoerst (322 Halsey St.), a diplomat serving as the Vice Counsel of the Netherlands in New York, claimed damages for some rather uncommon items, including rare ores and shells, along with a collection of his father’s law books, which he had personally translated into English. He was quite certain these were irreplaceable.
Each claim contains information that our researchers will be interested in, whether their focus is building history (including names of residents, list of household goods, and even property appraisals), social history (who knew a Dutch diplomat once resided in the heart of Bed-Stuy?), or the history of the infrastructure of Brooklyn (including a thorough explanation of the sewer system by one of the city’s engineers).
We anticipate that these records will be open to our patrons by the end of the year. For more information on our collections related to the Brooklyn sewer system please check this blog post on the records of the Brooklyn Bureau of Sewers, as well as the Arthur Weindorf glass plate negatives and Brooklyn sewers construction photograph collection.