This post was written by Luis Rodriguez, Collections Management Specialist
By 1897, New York City was well on its way toward being the roaring metropolis of steel and concrete that we know today. Elevator cars were carrying passengers up and down in the earliest skyscrapers, while the elevated rail lines stretched further and further uptown. It was then that James Reuel Smith embarked upon his quest to document a particular feature of the city’s vanishing pastoral life—its springs and wells. Traveling by bicycle, Smith explored the upper half of Manhattan and much of the Bronx looking for and photographing those places where New Yorkers were still obtaining water without the necessity of an aqueduct or faucet.
Springs were very important to Mr. Smith. He made careful notes regarding each aquiferous site, and he always had in mind the publication of his findings. His interest led him to travel around the Mediterranean region in search of the springs mentioned in classical literature, and this work resulted in the 1922 publication of Springs and Wells in Greek and Roman Literature, Their Legends and Locations.
His study of New York City’s springs, however, was only published posthumously. When he died in 1935, his will directed that the New-York Historical Society should receive his photographs and papers, as well as some money, on the condition that it publish his then unknown work. The arrangement resulted in the 1938 publication of Springs and Wells of Manhattan and the Bronx: New York City at the End of the Nineteenth Century.
In Smith’s introduction to the book, written around 1916, he reflects on the rapidly changing city and on the practical and aesthetic pleasures offered by the remaining springs: “In the days, not so very long ago, when nearly all the railroad mileage of the metropolis was to be found on the lower half of the Island, nothing was more cheering to the thirsty city tourist afoot or awheel than to discover a natural spring of clear cold water, and nothing quite so refreshing as a draught of it.”
Many more of James Reuel Smith’s photographs can be found online at New York Heritage, where they are part of our “Photographs of New York City and Beyond” collection.