Everything You Need to Know About New York’s Iconic Water Towers

We all know that water is essential for human life. And that means that in a city of more than 8 million people, you are going to need a lot of water.

In order to ensure that clean water can be accessed throughout all five boroughs, the City of New York began installing water towers, a water distribution strategy that dates back more than one hundred years. Today, there are more than 17,000 distributed across the city, many of which play a critical role in the city’s iconic skyline.

Some New Yorkers—as well as visitors—might take these water towers for granted. After all, water towers, like many other components of the Big Apple’s truly colossal infrastructure, are something people don’t really need to think about on a regular basis; as long as the water is flowing, who really cares where it comes from?

Well, the history and development of New York’s water tower network is probably quite a bit more interesting than you’d initially assume. Let’s take a closer look at this truly impressive network that is ultimately one of the key things making living in New York possible.

The Early Development of New York’s Water Tower Network

The land that is currently known as New York City was originally populated by a group of Native Americans known as the Lenape, who named the area Manhatta, a term that can be loosely translated to mean “hilly island.” At the time, the Lenape survived on the city’s many rivers and streams. But during the 1600s, Dutch settlers—who then dubbed the city “New Amsterdam”—began to populate the area; as population density increased and agriculture and industry accelerated, the once clean waterways soon became unpotable.

Eventually, a group known as the Citizens Association of New York identified the need for infrastructural change. By the 1870s, the Department of Public Works was created and one of their founding goals was to help create a clean water network—these developments also coincided with the increased spread of indoor plumbing systems.

Gradually, top-floor water storage tanks—capable of holding up to 10,000 gallons of water—began emerging across the city, which was continuing to become more and more densely populated. These water tanks were typically kept on the top floors of buildings because, prior to the introduction of the water pump, there was not enough water pressure to reach the higher levels of the city’s ever-growing skyline.

Water Tanks: Unique to New York City

Contrary to the larger water tanks you might find elsewhere across the country, New York’s water tanks were—and still are—relatively small, abundant, and usually made of wood. The wooden tanks, which typically last up to 40 years, rely on gravity and electric pumping in order to effectively distribute water and continue refilling, as needed.

The efficient development of the water tower network helped New York eventually become the most populated city in the world. Perhaps surprisingly, these tanks are built by only three different companies (all three of which are family-owned): American Pipe and Tank, Isseks Brothers, and Rosenwatch Tank Company.

People might be surprised to learn that, even in the modern era, each of these tanks—which are continually being replaced every few decades—are still often made of wood. However, a wooden tank costs less than a quarter of what it costs to build a steel tank, despite both types of tanks having relatively similar lifespans. Additionally, wooden tanks are easier to repair and replace as needed. And as the tanks become filled with water, they steadily expand outward, causing them to become even more watertight (this is the same sort of physics that is used to help build barrels).

Though New York is not the only place in the world to find these sorts of tanks, it is by far the city where they are the most common.

New York’s Water Tanks Today

For more than a century, New Yorkers have taken pride in the expansive, still increasing network of water tanks. Though other methods of distributing water have been introduced over time, you can still find roughly 17,000 tanks scattered throughout the city.

In 2014, an ambitious group of artists began the Water Tank Project. Within just a few years, many of these tanks were transformed into beautiful works of art, helping to further beautify an already beautiful place to live. The founders of the Water Tank Project also had a mission: use this art to help spread awareness about the global water crisis, which contributes to about 5 million people dying from dehydration every year.

The art project, undoubtedly, has had a resounding impact. It is impossible to look up at New York’s skyline and not think about the very important role that having access to water, particularly clean water, plays in our lives.

Some water tanks, both wood and steel, have also begun to become a part of New York City’s real estate community—in fact, a large tank on top of a Greenwich Village building that had been converted into a “fully functional rooftop cottage” recently sold for about $3.5 million.

New York City, without a doubt, is a place that’s always evolving. But it is also a place that will always remain connected to its eclectic and revolutionary past. Next time you are taking a walk around the city, particularly if you are in Manhattan, take a moment to look up and appreciate the history that surrounds you.

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