In May of 1916, workers digging a subway tunnel under a Manhattan intersection unearthed the blackened remains of a 17th-century sailing ship. The 80-foot-long vessel was the Tijger, a square-rigged Dutch ship that burned and sank in New York Harbor in January 1614 with a homebound cargo of furs. Three hundred years later, the shoreline had been pushed hundreds of yards into the Hudson River. The Tijger was not lying in a watery grave but in a landfill.
When Peter Minuit bought Manhattan Island from the Indians in 1626, the property was about 11.5 square miles. It has since doubled in size, to 23 square miles. This growth not been an act of nature, however. Soil, silt, refuse, and construction debris have been dumped along the Hudson and East River shorelines as a more convenient and less expensive disposal than hauling it away.
The tradition of creating land on the perimeter of Manhattan continues. The 1.2 million cubic yards excavated from the World Trade Center site was dumped into a prepared steel cofferdam in the Hudson River across the road. The result: 23.5 acres of instant real estate, worth an estimated $90 million in 1968.
Over the years, fine marine sand dredged from New York Harbor was added to the site to create 92 acres of what is probably one of the last spectacular Manhattan waterfront sites.
The high-rise residential towers of Battery Park City and the 14-acre commercial core, World Financial Center, which is being developed by the Reichmann brothers of Toronto, are rising on the landfill site, more than 700 feet from where the shoreline was in 1783, according to maps dated that year.
The $1.5 billion center, which is to be completed next year, will encompass some 8 million square feet of total construction. The project will include four 33- to 51-story towers, a four-acre waterfront plaza, and a winter garden.
Robert C. Johnston, who retired recently after nearly 50 years with Mueser, Rutledge, Johnston & DeSimone, an engineering firm, says the bedrock on which the foundations of the office towers will sit is only 70 feet below grade and will support any height of buildings.
MRJD did many of the initial studies of the Battery Park site. From the bottom up, the historical bric-a-brac uncovered during excavations for the neighboring World Trade Center begins with a two- to three-foot bed of oyster shells.
``From that point on you found blocks, ship anchors, cannon, cable, and rails,'' recalls George Tamaro, a partner in MRJD. ``Above that it started becoming less and less marine, and more and more industrial, and you found bricks of demolished buildings. We were finding colonial bricks and then started getting out of the construction debris and started getting into trash, bottles, horseshoes, and skeletons of animals. As you went progressively higher, there were more-contemporary things.''
At the World Financial Center, however, the five acres of excavation consists of sand, mud from the original river bottom, rock fragments, construction debris, parts of columns, and glacial till that sits on the bedrock. No artifacts have surfaced.
Still, elsewhere on the waterfront, urban archaeologists have uncovered layers of refuse of former generations of New Yorkers. Thirteen years ago, excavations for a Water Street tower on the site of the Old Slip uncovered an enormous log platform. Digs have also unearthed 19th-century leather from a tanning works, bits of food, and kitchen equipment.
As early as the 1700s, a fringe of wharves and slips jutted into the Hudson River. As space between them filled with silt and refuse, city leaders simply ordered stone and soil dumped in and then paved the surface. Then, as now, the piers were simply extended farther into the water. -- A. W.