Exposing the Wall Between the River and New York City
To the builders of the 21st-century World Trade Center it is both an obstacle and an engineering marvel of 19th-century New York: the massive granite river wall that opened Manhattan’s edges to a world of seagoing commerce.
The river wall near the trade center was long ago cut off from the Hudson River by the landfill on which Battery Park City stands. But the wall’s granite and concrete blocks are very much in place under the western edge of West Street and have posed an engineering and archaeological challenge to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
That is because part of the river wall must be removed to allow construction of an underground passageway between the new World Trade Center and the World Financial Center in Battery Park City. But at the same time, by agreement with state preservation officials, the river wall must also be treated as the historical resource it is. The New York State Office of Historic Preservation has deemed it eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
As a result, archaeologists will be given the chance to monitor, inspect and document the river wall as it is being dismantled. And for a week or two early next year, before it is removed, the section of wall will be visible from the Winter Garden, its rough-hewn but handsomely coursed granite blocks exposed to a depth of perhaps 15 feet below street level.
The top of the wall, which runs from the Battery to 59th Street, can currently be seen from many places along the shoreline. Just walk out on a pier and look back. But the chance to see a whole section of the wall — dry — will be exceptional.
“The beauty of it is that they’re going to be able to view an entire length,” said Clarelle DeGraffe, the project manager for the Port Authority. “About 80 feet of granite wall section will be exposed. It’s awesome.”
Awesome, but little known.
By restraining the land mass behind it, a bulkhead allows large vessels to dock at the island’s edge, rather than at the end of piers or wharves hundreds of feet off shore.
The depth and sturdiness of the shoreline is taken for granted now, but in 1873, the waterfront was so dilapidated and unnavigable as to “awake the amazement and indeed scorn of the foreigner,” The New York Times said. “What is wanted is a broad thoroughfare clear round the City, stone-faced, with all necessary piers, solid and imperishable.”
The river wall, formally known as the Hudson River bulkhead, was built under an improvement plan proposed in 1870 by Gen. George B. McClellan, the chief engineer of the city’s Department of Docks, who was far better known as a Union leader during the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s Democratic challenger for the presidency in 1864.
McClellan’s plan was “as ambitious, in its way, as the Brooklyn Bridge” and “the greatest public-works project of its period,” Phillip Lopate wrote in “Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan.”
It took six decades to complete.
According to an archaeological report prepared in 2006 by the Louis Berger Group, the bulkhead nearest the trade center was built with granite blocks atop concrete blocks atop vertical piles and lateral braces. The method suggests it was installed between 1899 and 1915.
But only physical inspection can determine the dimensions of the wall for certain, and only exploration can uncover artifacts behind the bulkhead or evidence of an earlier river wall or piers. Among materials that might be found, the Berger report said, are “historic ceramics, curved glass (bottle, table and furniture glass), pipes, small finds/architectural, bone, floral, shell and aboriginal (prehistoric).”
Ultimately, demolition of part of the river wall is needed to permit a clear path under West Street between the trade center and Battery Park City. One day, a commuter getting off the subway along William Street will be able to walk underground as far as the World Financial Center.
To prevent flooding during construction — the water table is only about 10 feet below street level — the passageway under West Street will be built in three phases, with barrier walls between each segment. It is the second barrier wall that will displace the bulkhead.
“No matter what, we’ve got a dam between us and the river,” said Raymond E. Sandiford, chief geotechnical engineer at the Port Authority.
While Mr. Sandiford’s enthusiasm is obvious for the passageway project, so is his admiration for the engineering feats of an earlier age. He noted that a preliminary excavation had disclosed the possibility of coming across timber structures from the early 19th century that were used in cribworks that functioned like a bulkhead.
“We may be uncovering even more of the historic waterfront,” Mr. Sandiford said, sounding hopeful that he would.