Searching For An Underground River in Morningside Heights

About a year ago, I got a letter from a reader about an underground river hidden somewhere in Morningside Heights:

Years ago, I lived at [removed]. My father swore there was a stream running under a lot of the buildings there.

01

I’m endlessly fascinated by Manhattan’s underground rivers. Once an island covered in streams, brooks, rivers, swamps, and marshes, many of these waterways have managed to cut through landfill and building foundations to continue to follow beneath the city to this day. Last week, I finally found myself in the area, and stopped by the building to investigate.

02

According to the letter:

In the basement where we lived, there was a room to the right as you got off the elevator.

04

It was pretty large and had at one time been used for storage.

05

On the left as you entered the room was a large wooden trap door built into the floor.  There was always the sound of rushing water from under it and once when I had a chance, I saw my father lift it.  There was gushing water behind it.

06

I pulled up the trap door, and while there wasn’t a gushing river…

07

…I could definitely see a small stream flowing very quickly through a missing chunk of the foundation. It was hard to photograph, but those little bits you can see were zipping along as water flowed through.

08

That water would be underground here makes sense. The area used to have have a number of waterways, as seen on the 1865 Viele Map below. In fact, up until the early 1900s, two nearby springs, the Tiemann fountain and Indian Spring, provided drinking water for locals. From Springs and Wells of Manhattan and the Bronx, by way of Watercourses: the Tiemann drinking fountain was “one stop that nearly every driver of the old Broadway stages and trolleys might be counted upon to make several times during the day.”

streammap

But to those more familiar with building foundations, what exactly is going on here? What would be the purpose of having a trap door here? Could this have been filled in to close up the waterflow, only to have the stream erode its way right through again?

08

Will definitely have to check it out after a heavy rainfall.

-SCOUT

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19 comments

  1. I believe there’s a stream running underneath 302 W. 12th street. Have you ever investigated that. I’m curious to hear more about it.

  2. Check out the 8/22/71 NYT for an interesting, related article, “Manhattan Reminiscence: Fishing in 2nd Ave.”, which describes a “foaming and churning” stream running under a hardware supply house at 2nd Ave. and 53rd St. The author claims to have pulled a carp out of it, and to have interviewed an elderly neighbor who recalled fishing in it before it was built over.

  3. There is an almost constant sound of water rushing underneath the northbound platform of the 103rd St. Broadway #1 train station, rain or shine, under the 104th Street end. Could it be a drainage course for a stream that was re-routed when the subway was built? It can best be heard from the southbound platform, about where the next to last downtown car stops.

  4. Nick, first i would like to thank you for your web site. I love it! I am an urban explorer and hobby photographer! I live out on Long Island and love to explore all the old mansions. If you are ever on the north shore, I believe that there is a similar situation in Northport village. Main st. was at one time a river. I heard you can find the same trap doors in some of the older building along Main St. Would love to see what you come up with if you ever have the chance to explore it!!!

  5. There is a building on Spring Street which had a huge natural spring (duh) in the basement that was putting out 50,000 gallons of water a day. I used to work for an engineering firm that was hired to design a system for the recapture of that water, instead of dumping it into the NYC sewers, which the building owners had been doing for the past 80 years.

    The DEP has some pretty interesting maps (that they might let you look at) of all of these things (including where there is basement level access to see the bodies of water). But probably your best bet is to talk to civil engineers that work in Manhattan.

    • Virginia, is that by any chance, the restaurant Spring Street Natural at Spring & Lafayette? The name is just too perfect a fit!

  6. Water seeks its level, and I’d imagine the architects of this building built the channel to make sure the water finds its way to a sewer or other outlet rather than pooling in the basement and damaging the foundation. Pretty cool nonetheless.

  7. I’ve heard of an underground stream under Electric Lady Studios on West 8th Street as well.

    • I’ve heard of that, too. And when the space was being converted into a studio the builders hit a leak and had to install a sump pump. The only problem was it was really noisy and threatened the integrity of the studio, which needs to be quiet and soundproofed to ensure the best quality recordings. They managed to soundproof the sump pump so no damage was done, but I wonder if it’s possible to hear it in any of Jimi’s records.

  8. Depending on how old that building is, that’s probably the remains of an old sump or cess-pit.

  9. Check out Pete Hamill’s book “My Manhattan.” In it, he describes a building in lower Manhattan in which there is a clear glass dome in the lobby through which you can observe a running stream that dates back to the origins of the island.

  10. Have lived in Morningside Heights for ten years and never seen any mention of this. Great job uncovering this. Lived for a while on Tiemann Place too, never knew there was a stream there.

  11. My friend Rob passed on this story to me:

    He was on or near Canal street, browsing in a restaurant supply store. The staff were Chinese.

    He asked if he could use the restroom. After some resistance, he was led to a flight of stairs down. Eventually the finished sides of the stairwell gave way to rock. They emerged in a small cavern deep beneath the street, through which ran a small stream. The clerk who led him down there indicated that Rob should pee in the stream.

    • I read a book on the subject. You should check out “The Yellow River” by I.P. Dailey.

    • Actually, this reminds me of another bathroom where I wonder if there’s an underground stream. If you’ve ever been to McSorley’s Pub in Astor Place then you’ll know it’s the oldest bar in the city, dating to around 1850. The bathrooms are on the main floor, but for some reason they always smell like river water (Which overpowers the typical bathroom smell). I know that large bodies of water like the Collect Pond existed in downtown NY, so perhaps there’s some long forgotten stream or body of water beneath this old building.

  12. Richard m. Sawicki

    …”The DEP has some pretty interesting maps (that they might let you look at) of all of these things (including where there is basement level access to see the bodies of water). But probably your best bet is to talk to civil engineers that work in Manhattan.”

    WOW!! I’d love to pour over some of those maps…or…gain access to some of those places where we can see the bodies of water.

    I’m pretty sure there is a very deep eastbound-flowing stream under East 21st and 22nd Streets. When it was still part of the “Rose Hill Estate” it may have had a daily role in fishing/farming procedures.

  13. When I worked in a building on he north side of E 11th just off the corner of 5th (c. 1986), there was a flowing stream in the sub-basement that could get pretty wild after a lot of rain!

  14. The great journalist, William Langweische, covers the large and very,very long holes the carry trains, sewage and water through the Island’s tough metamorphic rock and the glacial deposits of the outer boroughs. They contend with all manner of outflow. Steve Duncan, noted in the center section of the article, has a great website Undercity.org: Something of a SloshingNY.com. Steve gets a mention in comments on Scout’s post on Minetta Brook. Worth bookmarking. Scout: love your site! See: http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/2013/10/new-york-city-underground-subway-danger

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