The skyline of New York City is unique, if not for the soaring glass, steel, concrete and brick skyscrapers that create caverns in the sky, but for the redwood and cedar water tanks that sit on rooftops and hearken to days gone by.
A water tower, no matter the shape or size, and they vary, is simply a tall steel or wooden device designed to capture pressurized water. Most municipalities in the U.S. have them and some become landmarks or icons, i.e., the Chicago Water Tower—or the tank in Gaffney, South Carolina, that is in the shape of a peach or the one in Collinsville, Illinois that depicts a large-scale ketchup bottle.
The city’s conical-topped cylindrical towers, on the other hand, range from four to 26 feet in height and 10 to 20 feet in diameter, and provide city residents with the water they need for drinking, bathing, cooking and cleaning, and other everyday tasks. The tanks also provide the water supply needed by firefighters to fight any high-rise fires that may occur.
Water towers are elevated on steel platforms to supply the pressure needed to run major appliances and integral building systems. It is estimated that each foot of height is equivalent to approximately 0.43 PSI (pounds per square inch) of water pressure, according to Phil Kraus of Manhattan-based Fred Smith Heating and Plumbing.
All Pumped Up
According to the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), early Manhattan settlers obtained water for domestic purposes from shallow privately-owned wells. In 1677, the first public well was dug in front of the old fort at Bowling Green. In 1776, when the population reached approximately 22,000, a reservoir was constructed on the east side of Broadway between Pearl and White Streets. Water pumped from wells sunk near the Collect Pond, east of the reservoir, and from the pond itself, was distributed through hollow logs laid in the principal streets. In 1800, the Manhattan Company (now The Chase Manhattan Bank) sank a well at Reade and Centre Streets, pumped water into a reservoir on Chambers Street and distributed it through wooden mains to a portion of the community. In 1830, a tank for fire protection was constructed by the city at 13th Street and Broadway and was filled from a well. The water was distributed through 12-inch cast iron pipes. As the city’s population grew, so did the need for a safe, reliable water supply. The well water had became polluted and the supply was not sufficient.