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Filling In New York City Rivers Was A Popular Idea In the 1800s

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Removing New York City's rivers by filling them in with land seems completely insane idea today, but it was proposed?and seriously considered?many times in the past. We've looked at the 1934 plan to develop the Hudson River and a 1924 proposal to drain the East River, but similar plans were concocted long before these. Michael Miscione, the Manhattan Borough Historian, sent along information and historic articles about a few other river-filling plans that were floated in the second half of the 19th century. As early as 1856, there was talk of filling in the East River to connect Brooklyn and New York.

The idea came from State Senator Cyrus P. Smith, a former mayor of Brooklyn, during early talks about consolidation. He suggested filling up the East River with gravel, and selling the new land at high prices to pay for the construction of the landfill. Miscione notes that the scheme was detailed in an 1898 book about the consolidation by Edward Hagaman Hall that has the ridiculously long name of A volume Commemorating the Creation of the Second City of the World by the Consolidation of the Communities Adjacent to New York Harbor under the New Charter of the City of New York.

Further north, a similar plan was put forth to connect the Bronx and upper Manhattan. In the late 1800s, plans began for the Harlem River ship canal, which would link the Hudson and Harlem Rivers, providing a quicker route for ships into the Long Island Sound. The plan would (and eventually did) sever the neighborhood of Marble Hill from Manhattan, but several people thought the city should do the opposite: fill in the Harlem River to connect the land. In 1891, the Real Estate Exchange proposed such an idea, and the New York Times wrote an editorial supporting the plan. "The Harlem River is at best a serious obstruction, and if it can not be obliterated, it certainly should be mitigated rather than aggravated as a hinderance to public growth." The railroads supported this plan because they did not want to have to build and maintain bridges over the river.

A year later, in 1892, lawyer Simon Stevens presented a similar proposal to the City Commission of the Sinking Fund. He suggested a narrow "covered waterway" between Third and Eighth Avenues, and then filling in this area of the river to extend the streets of Harlem into Morrisania. Mayor Hugh Grant hated the idea, and swore he'd vote against it. He told the Times, "Why doesn't Paris fill in the Seine, London the Thames, New-York the North River [another name for the Hudson]? I don't think this matter worth an argument."

By 1893, work on the canal was slowed by setbacks, and the Times published another editorial urging the city to reconsider and just fill in the river. "Until the Harlem River is filled up, or reduced to its lowest terms as a water course, the expansion of New York City is interrupted. It is too bad that this city should be put to a useless and continuing inconvenience because somebody fancies that at some time the navigability of the Harlem may be important to the Nation at large."

The Harlem River Ship Canal opened in 1895.

Many thanks to Michael Miscione, who sent along links to all of the articles referenced here. Miscione credits Dr. Gary Hermalyn of the Bronx County Historical Society for his knowledge of the Harlem River landfill proposals, as Hermalyn published the historic account "The Harlem River Ship Canal" in 1983.
· Curbed's Could Have Been archives [Curbed]