Around the turn of the last century, James Reuel Smith documented and photographed the natural springs and wells of New York City. Why? Well, he was born into a wealthy family and was clearly interested in fresh water.
Most were in the northern part of the city where there was less development and drinking water piped in through the Croton Aqueduct was not as readily available. Smith rode his bike to these locations, and that’s presumably his ride in the photo below, taken in 1897. His kit includes a couple of leather bags attached to the bike frame as well as a rear rack, perhaps used to hold his camera. You can see a communal tin cup hanging on a branch of the tree growing next to the spring, as well as the flat rocks laid around the spring opening.
Smith’s interest in water sources was not limited to New York. In 1922 he published Springs and Wells in Greek and Roman Literature, their Legends and Locations. Springs and Wells of Manhattan and the Bronx: New York City at the End of the Nineteenth Century was published posthumously in 1938.
Smith’s photographs have been digitized by the New York Historical Society. An interactive map shows the location of several of the springs: Drink Deep! A Look at Turn-of-the-20th-Century New York’s Lost Natural Springs
Most recently, photographer Stanley Greenberg has revisited each well and spring documented by Smith and published a book with modern photos of the locations.
In most cases, a century of construction and development has left Smith’s original locations unrecognizable. At the corner of Whitlock Avenue and East 136th Street, what was once a small pond surrounded by grazing cows is now — in Greenberg’s photo — a busy intersection edged by an overpass, the cows replaced with a Mister Softee truck and mural. Another of Smith’s photos, taken west of Northern Avenue near West 183rd Street, features a simple wooden well with a bucket in a shady meadow. Today, the same site is a manicured pathway between two multi-story brick apartment buildings.Lauren Moya Ford, A Photographer Retraces New York’s Forgotten Springs and Wells. Hyperallergic 2021.
Featured image: Unidentified boy at a spring located between Sedgwick Avenue and Lind Avenue at about W. 165th Street, Bronx, New York, December 6, 1899. James Reuel Smith Springs and Wells Photograph Collection, 1893-1902, New York Historical Society.