The City That Never Seeps: The Underground History of Manhattan's Lost Minetta Brook

Egbert Viele, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Egbert Viele, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not so far below the streets of Manhattan lie the remnants of a lost river. Once one of the island's major waterways, Minetta Brook—also known as Minetta Creek or Minetta Stream—used to wind through farmland and colonial estates in Lower Manhattan. And though it was paved over during the 19th century, signs of the brook can still be found in New York today.

Before it was forced underground, Minetta Brook was fed by two tributaries that merged together in what is now Greenwich Village. One tributary began as a spring in the area around 21st Street and Fifth Avenue, and the other at a marsh near 16th Street and Sixth Avenue. After meeting near the future 11th Street, the brook flowed through present-day Washington Square Park and eventually dumped out into the Hudson River along the city's west side.

The history of Minetta Brook is far older than New York City itself. For centuries, the brook was known for its abundance of trout and was a popular fishing spot for Native Americans. In the 17th century, the Dutch settled in the area to farm, along with a group of "half free" African-Americans—slaves of the Dutch West India Company who were ostensibly freed and given plots of land under the condition that they pay an annual fee to the company. It became one of New York's first African-American communities, and as the neighborhood became more populous, the footpath that ran alongside Minetta Brook was referred to as the "Negroes' Causeway."

A 17th century map of Lower Manhattan
New Amsterdam in 1660, when Wall Street formed the northern border of the city. The Minetta Brook ran north of the city limits at that time.
New York Public Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

However, as Manhattan became more and more urbanized, the brook became an inconvenience to city planners and developers, and in the 1820s, it was moved underground. This was accomplished in part by leveling the hills directly east of the stream, as Sergey Kadinsky explains in his book Hidden Waters of New York City: A History and Guide to 101 Forgotten Lakes, Ponds, Creeks, and Streams in the Five Boroughs. Engineers buried the waterway in landfill sourced from the hills, then built over it.

"The engineers of those days evidently believed that the leveling of the hills, down the sides of which coursed the rivulets and the overflow from the springs which fed the Minetta, would exterminate the stream," The New York Times wrote in 1883. Of course, that water had to go somewhere. At some point in the 19th century, sewers and drains were built to divert the underground water, though the exact timeline of New York's early sewer construction is a little hazy. (Before the city came up with a systematic plan to build out its sewers in 1849, drainage infrastructure was a haphazard affair. In some cases, private landowners built their own sewers to drain their property.)

Any modern-day map of Manhattan will show that the effort to drive Minetta Brook underground was fairly successful, as all visible evidence of it seems to be gone. But if you know where to look, there are still traces of the brook in the city today.

Water pooling at the bottom of a manhole
Water at the bottom of a Manhattan manhole, which some urban explorers suggest is the remnants of the Minetta Brook.
H.L.I.T., Flickr // CC BY 2.0

According to some urban explorers, you can still see water from Minetta Brook in some places in Greenwich Village. One apartment building in the neighborhood, built in the 1930s, has a fountain that supposedly taps into the stream, according to the blog Scouting New York. A clear glass tube in the building's lobby runs down to the waterway, and reportedly, when the underground brook swells, you can see water bubbling up inside it. (The first time Scouting New York's Nick Carr visited the apartment building, he observed the tube looking bone dry, but on his second trip, following a rainfall, he reported seeing water "surging up in torrents.")

According to The New York Times, you might be able to catch a glimpse of the brook through a grate in a New York University Law School basement. Others claim you can still see what remains of the channel directly under the streets. During his walking tours of New York City's lost streams, for instance, urban explorer Steve Duncan peers down manholes to show water that has accumulated far below—water that appears cleaner than your average sewer sludge, as CBS New York reported after attending one of Duncan's tours. Could it be water from the brook?

A 19th century insurance map of New York City's Greenwich Village
A map of Greenwich Village around Minetta Street and Minetta Lane, 1884-1895
New York Public Library // Public Domain

Not everyone agrees on that point. Kadinsky (who, remember, literally wrote the book on the city's forgotten waters) doesn't believe the underground stream is still flowing along its natural route. Instead, he says, the water is fed into sewers that follow the modern street grid. "Nevertheless, the soil is much softer where creeks once flowed," as he said in a 2016 interview with the creators of the New York history podcast The Bowery Boys, which would explain the flooding and groundwater that many people point to as modern evidence of the brook.

Even if the brook itself is gone, there is evidence of its history woven into the urban fabric of the city. Two New York street names reference it. In Greenwich Village, a short street called Minetta Lane intersects the block-long, curved Minetta Street. (If you've seen 1973's Serpico, Minetta Street might look familiar—it's the crooked block where Al Pacino's character lives in the movie.) While curved streets are unusual in Manhattan's grid system, in this case, the bend of the street follows the natural bend of the brook.

A carved image of trout on a paving stone surrounding a planter in a park
Shaunacy Ferro, Mental Floss

There are subtle reminders of the brook elsewhere, too. Minetta Green Park and Minetta Triangle Park, two tiny parks in the area, both feature a small tribute to the brook: During 1998 renovations, images of trout were carved into the bluestone paths that snake through each space.

The decorative carvings serve as just more evidence that although the Minetta Brook itself might be long gone, "the neighborhood's love of history and storytelling ensured that it would never be forgotten," as Kadinsky put it to The Bowery Boys.

Interactive Version of a Classic Color Manual Used By Charles Darwin Is Now Available Online

iStock
iStock

Scientists who study the natural world do more than tally numbers. Sometimes making an accurate scientific observation comes down to finding the perfect word to describe the shade of dried lavender flowers or the breast of a screech owl. In the 19th century, naturalists had Werner's Nomenclature of Colours to refer to—and now anyone looking to expand their color vocabulary can access the book's contents online, Fast Company reports.

Published in 1814, painter Patrick Syme designed the guide based on the work of geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner. It features 110 distinct hues, each with a name, number, and a list of the animals, plants, and/or minerals that feature it in nature. Prussian blue, for example, naturally occurs in blue copper ore, the stamina of bluish purple anemone, and the spot on a mallard drake's wing, while wine yellow can be found in the saxon topaz, white currants, and the body of a silk moth. The book was used as a handy reference guide by researchers recording observations the field, including Charles Darwin.

Now, using free scans of the book from the Internet Archive, designer Nicholas Rougeux has transformed it into an interactive digital experience. The original color swatches and descriptions are included, as well as some modern additions. Click on a color and the entry will expand to show photographs of the plants, animals, and minerals mentioned. Rougeux has also made posters based on the manual available on the website.

Werner's Nomenclature of Colours may have been the color bible of its time, but it still covers just a fraction of all the shades that have been named. After exploring the digital guide online, continue to grow your knowledge with this color thesaurus.

[h/t Fast Company]

How Lewis Keseberg Was Branded the Killer Cannibal of the Donner Party

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When the last of four relief teams arrived at a lakeside camp in the Sierra Nevada mountains on April 17, 1847 to recover what was left of the Donner Party, the log cabins built by the marooned pioneers were silent. Stranded there since the previous November—when the party realized the snow was too high and their cattle too weak for all 80 or so of them to travel safely over the summit blocking the last leg of their journey to California's Central Valley—they'd had little food on which to survive. First they slaughtered their cattle, then their dogs—and then, when rescue didn't come, they began to eat the dead. According to one account, the last relief team found human remains—battered skulls and bones stripped of flesh—scattered over the area, among other sights "too dreadful to put on record."

The scene was similar at George Donner’s tent, a few miles from the cabins at Truckee Lake. The doomed group’s namesake had been seen by an earlier rescue party on the cusp of death and in the care of his wife Tamzene. Now the tent was empty, and a pot filled with human meat stood at the front of it. George's split-open head, emptied of its brain, was found nearby. The only sign of life was a set of fresh footprints marking the snow.

After a physically and emotionally grueling day, the relief team was exhausted. They decided to make camp for the night, with plans to investigate the tracks further once they'd had a chance to rest. Setting out on the 19th, they followed the prints to Lewis Keseberg, a blue-eyed, 32-year-old German immigrant and the sole survivor at Truckee Lake.

The sight of men bearing provisions should have been a welcome one for Keseberg. But they had found him in a compromising position: Tamzene Donner, who had been in decent health when the last relief team saw her, had disappeared—and Keseberg was preparing himself a meal of fresh human lungs and liver. What’s more, he was carrying $225 worth of gold stolen from the Donners' coin hoard in his waistcoat. To the rescue party, it looked as though Keseberg had violated one of humanity's greatest taboos, one that went beyond mere cannibalism: Murdering a person—Tamzene—to feast on her body.

A SUSPICIOUS CHARACTER

When Keseberg had joined the Donner Party less than a year earlier, pioneers spurred on by the idea of Manifest Destiny were pouring into the West by the thousands. California promised mild weather year-round and fertile farmland—and the Donner and Reed families of Illinois wanted a piece of the bounty. Keseberg, his pregnant wife Elisabeth Philippine, and his 3-year-old daughter Ada were among the people who decided to join their covered wagon train in the spring of 1846 as it rolled through the heart of America toward the Golden Coast.

The stories that would later be told about Keseberg started with his behavior on the trail. He reportedly acted cruelly toward his own family—ignoring his daughter and abusing his wife—and often didn't treat other members of the party any better. On October 5, James Reed murdered a teamster during a quarrel involving oxen, and Keseberg vocally supported Reed's execution. The other men refused to hang Reed in front of his wife and children, and instead agreed to leave him in the desert without food or weapons.

That same week, Keseberg ejected an elderly Belgian man named Hardcoop from his wagon to relieve his tired cattle. The man’s legs had given out just days before, and he was unable to keep up with the party on foot. The last anyone saw him, Hardcoop was catching his breath in the brush, his feet black and bloodied.

Damning behavior aside, Keseberg’s personality wasn’t winning him any popularity contests. In his account of the ordeal [PDF], an emigrant named Jacob Wright Harlan characterized Keseberg as an eccentric, antisocial man who mostly kept to himself. He also struck Harlan as someone "predisposed to derangement of mind"—and this was before the tragedy.

“Keseberg was his own worst enemy,” Michael Wallis, author of The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny, tells Mental Floss. “His overall demeanor set the stage for the eventual vilification of him.”

TRAGEDY AT TRUCKEE LAKE

The Sierra Nevada, a roughly 70-mile-wide mountain range snaking through California and parts of Nevada, presented one of the biggest obstacles of the Donner Party's trip. The mountains become impassable in the winter when the snow piles up; to get ahead of the weather, the group should have departed from Missouri in mid to late April. But the first members of the Donner expedition didn't leave Independence, Missouri, until May 12. To make matters worse, the winter of 1846-1847 was especially brutal in the area: About 20 storms pummeled the mountains that season, adding up to 25 feet of snow.

By December, winter had crept up on the travelers and immobilized them under its weight. Unable to continue any further with their belongings, most of the emigrants, including the Kesebergs, made camp for the season at Truckee Lake, while the strongest among them formed what would come to be known as the Forlorn Hope Party, strapped on snowshoes, and set out in search of help. Though they were just 150 miles from their destination of Sutter’s Fort in California, a wrong turn set the Forlorn Hope fatally behind schedule.

Donner Lake (formerly Truckee Lake) as viewed from Donner Pass.
Donner Lake (formerly Truckee Lake) as viewed from Donner Pass.
© Frank Schulenburg, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Weeks passed, but the peak over which the Forlorn Hope Party had disappeared remained white and still, and the remaining members at the lake camp began succumbing to the cold and hunger. Those who died early on provided a shot at survival to the people around them: With starvation gnawing at their insides, a source of fresh meat—even if it belonged, as it did in many cases, to their closest kin—was often impossible to ignore. Roughly half the party, including most of the Forlorn Hope, engaged in cannibalism that winter. Those who did were haunted by their actions for the rest of their lives.

Lewis Keseberg never denied cannibalizing Tamzene Donner. When the final rescue party interrogated him on her whereabouts, he admitted to eating her flesh to survive, but he rebuffed any accusations that he had murdered Tamzene rather than waiting to butcher her only after she died of natural causes. As for the gold lining his trousers, and the bundle of stolen silks, jewels, and firearms found in his cabin, Keseberg eventually confessed to taking George Donner’s goods—but only upon request from Tamzene herself. As he told it, Tamzene left the tents after her husband died and slipped and fell into a creek on her way to his cabin. When she arrived she knew she didn’t have much time left, and asked Keseberg to gather up the money George Donner had hidden and return it to her children at Sutter’s Fort. She died later that night.

The rescue team didn’t fully buy his story, but they begrudgingly decided to lead him back to the central California valley where the rest of the party had ended up, so that a jury of his peers could decide his fate. After a slog across the Sierra Nevada, Keseberg reunited with his wife—who had been rescued by the first relief party (their daughter Ada and a child born on the trail both died of starvation)—and for the first time in months, sat down to enjoy a hearty meal that didn’t consist of dog, cattle, or human meat.

"BETTER THAN CALIFORNIA BEEF"

After Keseberg's return to civilization, news of the “Donner Party Tragedy” rippled across the nation by way of newspapers and word of mouth. The cannibalism aspect gripped the American consciousness, and Keseberg was cast as the savage who ate humans not just for sustenance, but for pleasure. Journalists dubbed him the “human cannibal” and began reporting the murder of Tamzene Donner—which had never been verified—as fact. Gossipers added their own embellishments to the account. According to one telling, which allegedly came from the surviving Donner Party children, Keseberg had taken a young boy to bed with him one night and killed him by morning, later hanging his carcass on the wall like a slab of game.

The most persistent rumor may have come from Keseberg himself. The story goes that after settling in California, he would frequent the local bars and brag about his escapades in cannibalism to anyone who would listen. In this version, Keseberg claimed human meat was more delicious than California beef, and described Tamzene Donner’s liver as the sweetest bite he had ever tasted.

It's easy to see how rumors like these could snowball. But according to Wallis, even if Keseberg did say these things, they don’t necessarily prove his guilt. “To people who know about the human mind and know what starvation and hyperthermia can do to you, it’s not too much out of the ordinary for him to say something like that,” he explains. Post-traumatic stress disorder is known to provoke psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions, although it's unclear whether this was the case with Keseberg.

Whatever the source of the grisly stories, they led to legal trouble. Keseberg was ultimately accused of murdering six of his fellow Donner Party members, including Tamzene, but was acquitted on each count due to lack of evidence. He later returned to court, this time as the prosecutor, to sue members of the relief party who had found him at Truckee Lake for fueling the vicious rumors attached to his name. Again the jury sided in his favor, but his reward was modest: just $1 for the damages, and he was still expected to cover the court fees.

LAST CHANCE FOR REDEMPTION

Life never got easier for Keseberg, but he was granted one last bit of closure around age 65. A journalist named C.F. McGlashan was writing a book called History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierra when he reached out to the surviving members to interview them. Finally, Keseberg had the platform to tell his version of the events that transpired that winter, and address the rumors that had dogged him for years. His first-hand account was a stark departure from the infamous stories of his barroom braggadocio:

“The flesh of starved beings contains little nutriment. It is like feeding straw to horses. I cannot describe the unutterable repugnance with which I tasted the first mouthful of flesh. There is an instinct in our nature that revolts at the thought of touching, much less eating, a corpse. It makes my blood curdle to think of it!”

Keseberg’s greatest chance for redemption came when McGlashan arranged for him to meet Eliza Donner Houghton, Tamzene Donner’s youngest surviving daughter. Eliza had been only 4 years old at the time of the Donner Party tragedy, and when Keseberg saw the grown woman standing before him, he collapsed to his knees. He didn’t deny eating Tamzene’s remains, but he swore to Eliza that he hadn’t murdered her. Hearing the sincerity in the voice of this man she barely remembered from childhood, Eliza decided to take him at his word.

Despite earning validation from the courts and a descendent of the Donners, Keseberg’s reputation continued to shadow him wherever he went, whether in the towns where he lived or aboard the supply ship where he eventually worked. Toward the end of his life, he gathered enough money to open his own inn in Sacramento, but even this endeavor failed. “People thought, ‘Well, why would we stay there where this cannibal lives?’” Wallis says. The inn burned to the ground, and the cause of the fire was undetermined.

An internet search of Keseberg today still pulls up results related to his alleged crimes. The story’s stubborn presence through the decades becomes more notable in light of certain facts concerning the Forlorn Hope Party: During that trek, two Miwok men, named Salvadore and Luis, were murdered for their flesh by William Foster, but because they were Native Americans their story was ignored by newspapers. Tamzene Donner's death, and the gossip surrounding Keseberg's alleged involvement, however, received plenty of coverage.

Lewis Keseberg's wife Elisabeth Philippine died in 1877, and the widower lived out the remainder of his life poor and struggling to care for the couple’s children—both born after the Donner Party saga—who had intellectual disabilities. He died in 1895, nearly half a century after the events that defined him in the public eye. “He took his last breath in a hospital for the poor. The only thing in his pockets was lint,” Wallis says. “Keseberg is just one of the many great tragedies of this whole story.”

Additional Source: The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party

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