The Albany Basin: Liable to injure the health of all brought within its influence

One of our favorite local fantasies is the fantasy that Albany once had a blissful, beautiful waterfront where Victorian ladies in hoop skirts carrying parasols enjoyed leisurely Sunday strolls with their dapper beaus. Urchins rolled hoops on their day off from working in the factories and scrambled down the banks with string and bent pins to pull Albany beef from the teeming river. Beautiful, environmentally friendly sloops delivered the goods of the Caribbean to neat, orderly docks. And this was all ruined when a highway was put in, cutting the city off from its bluewater paradise.

We noted yesterday that the bustling Albany Basin, the constructed waterfront that extended from the opening of the Erie Canal down to about Hamilton Street was, from the start, a bit of a mess. It was built quickly, intended to function as a lock that didn’t really hold water, then was cut in several places, and started filling up pretty much immediately. One reason might have been all the sewers that emptied into it. In its roughly 50 years, it was never noted for its riverfront beauty. As its use declined, its managing organization essentially abandoned it in place and left its owners to their own devices. That didn’t help.

In 1889, the state engineer and surveyor’s report noted that dredging had been carried on in the basin, but “the sewerage of Albany is again filling it up with material of a very unwholesome character. Only a radical treatment will result in a permanent improvement. The sewerage of the city of Albany should by some means be carried to a point below the basin.” Basic sewage treatment wasn’t an option yet; relocation was the only reasonable option. The report suggested that “an intercepting sewer should be constructed, and it probably would be desirable for a portion of the length of the basin to build a wall with the intercepting sewer between it and the present dock. This space could be filled in, thus making available land for commercial purposes.”

So that was the end of it, right? No, of course not. In 1885, the Committee on Drainage, Sewerage and Topography (and if anyone wants to revive that, sign me the heck up for it), made a report to the State Board of Health in response to a petition from a large number of prominent citizens that set forth that the Albany basin was in a condition dangerous to the lives and health of the people. The basin, recall, was actually the property of the State and considered part of the Erie Canal. They found that

“This preliminary investigation proved that the basin was in a condition liable to injure the health of all brought within its influence, and that this influence was exerted in two important directions. . . The principal sewers of Albany were found to be emptying into the basin, and the organic material brought down in them had so filled it, that at low tide large sewage flats were exposed, while the whole water surface was found to be bubbling with the bases of putrefaction liberated from the bottom at low and half tide. Beside the evil effects which must result from the exposure to the heat of the sun of large masses of sewage, and of a large extent of polluted water, it was found that this polluted water probably reached the point of intake of the city’s supply from the river.”

Concerned, they tested whether or not the highly pungent and polluted waters of the basin reached the city’s drinking water intake. Surprise! They did.

The report’s description of the state of the basin at that time is useful:

“The dock front of Albany is a curve concave toward the city. Across the chord of this arc is built a pier about four thousand feet long and from one hundred and fifty to four hundred and fifty feet wide, containing some thirty acres. Into the northern end of this basin opens the Erie canal. The pier has in it three openings: one at the northern end; one opposite Maiden lane, through which ferry boats enter; and one at the southern end. This basin was intended as a harbor for canal boats, and it was expected to maintain in it seven feet of water at low tide. The basin has, however, become filled with mineral and organic matter from two sources, so that now at low tide from five to six acres of the bottom are laid bare and the remainder of the basin has become so shallow that it is not navigable at low water except where, by constant dredging, sufficient depth is maintained. It has been filled at the northern end and along the pier largely by silt brought down by the Hudson river in tie of flood … The second cause of the filling of the basin is the fact that fifteen sewers of the city of Albany empty into it. These fifteen sewers drain seven hundred and fifty acres of the most thickly populated part of Albany, carrying off the waste of some thirty-two thousand people … The examinations of the deposits show that over a large part of the basin the bottom is a mass of black decomposing organic mater, filled with a writhing mass of worms and microscopic organisms. So great is the amount and so rapid is the rate of decomposition in this mass that as the tide falls and the pressure is removed, the gases of decomposition rise to the surface of the water, which bubbles and breaks constantly, throwing into the air both the bases and the organism s, which probably rise with the gases of putrefaction. The Albany basin has, in fact become a gigantic cesspool nearly filled with rotting filth … There can be no question that the maintaining of a gigantic cesspool, thirty acres in extent on the principal water front of the city of Albany, is contaminating the air of that part of the city and needlessly endangering the lives and health of all who are brought within its influence.”

It’s hard to understand why they didn’t write a musical about its splendor, really. We could go on, but we post this stuff early and there’s a chance you’re eating breakfast. The rest of the details are just endlessly worse. Maybe tomorrow we’ll talk about the Martinville sewers.



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