The Secret Rivers of New York City

By Claire Mathieson

The Viele Map

Just beneath the tunnels of present-day Manhattan’s subway system rest the remains of the island found by settlers centuries ago, the meadows, ponds, and streams sealed in a sarcophagus of asphalt decorated with the grey, glass, and neon jungle of the city.

Before new buildings can be constructed in Manhattan, structural engineers must consult a 19th century map detailing the locations of what are now underground pools and creeks, their outlines superimposed over the street grid. The “Sanitary & Topological Map of the City and Island of New York,” more commonly known as the Viele map after its creator, civil engineer Colonel Egbert L. Viele, has been essential to the development of the city. Before the island was leveled and paved, Manhattan was a marsh, dotted with ponds and crisscrossed with rivers and streams. While much of the swamp area was emptied prior to construction, New York City was built over the rest, and this natural waterworks system still flows beneath us as we surge from place to place above.

Viele, who served as engineer-in-chief of Central Park and drafted the original plans for the subway, preserved what would become a priceless record of Manhattan’s sunken water system. Engineers who have not heeded his map have run into trouble. In the 1960s, for example, the construction of a school at Columbus Avenue and 83rd Street had to be put on a costly hiatus when its foundation began to sink due to the presence of a subterranean stream. Because of this bizarre chthonic system that so influences the city’s structure, additional factors must be taken into consideration when planning any new building, such as the erosive effects a stream may have on the soil below. While it’s strange to think that such an antiquated map – one that looks more like it belongs on a pirate ship than on a developer’s desk – is an invaluable resource to modern-day engineers, it will likely remain so indefinitely given the difficulty of redrawing an invisible, inaccessible system.

Despite the existence of Viele’s map, very few people are aware of this concealed water, let alone where it can be found. It is suggested that weeping willow trees are good indicators of the presence of underground streams, but if you are too impatient to wander around the city on the lookout for willows, the Viele map can always be purchased online – for $1,395, that is. Although the map probably won’t be gracing your wall anytime soon, maybe the next time you’re on the subway you will take the time to envision the streams coursing along beneath your train, trapped under the bell jar surface of this ever-changing city.

Claire is a sophomore at Barnard College and Features Editor of The Nine Ways of Knowing.

Photo courtesy of Watercourses and 


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