The Central Park spring that provided water for a forgotten village

It looks more like a large puddle than a source of fresh water. But close to Central Park West and about 82nd Street at Summit Rock is something unusual: one of the few remaining natural springs in Central Park.

Tanner’s Spring, 2021

It’s called Tanner’s Spring, and there’s a story behind that name. In the summer of 1880, Dr. Henry Samuel Tanner became the most famous man in the U.S. when he launched a 40-day fast, abstaining from all food and drink except for the “pure” water from this spring—which then became a local attraction associated with health and wellness.

But Tanner’s Spring has an earlier 19th century distinction: It may have been the water source that allowed Seneca Village to flourish, according to the Central Park Conservatory.

What was called “Dr. Tanner’s Well” in the caption looked different in 1899 in this NYPL Digital Collection image

Seneca Village has been described as a small community of roughly 300 people in this rocky, hilly section of Manhattan between 82nd and 89th Streets and Seventh and Eighth Avenues, stated educational material from the New-York Historical Society.

From the 1820s to the 1850s, Seneca Village was a mostly African American enclave also home to Irish and German immigrants. Three churches, a school, cemeteries, and small houses with gardens made this outpost a true village similar to the many villages dotting uptown Manhattan in the mid-19th century, albeit a small one.

Not identified as Seneca Village, but an idea of what the community may have looked like, from the NYPL

“Historians speculate that Black New Yorkers living downtown began moving to Seneca Village in part to escape the racist climate and unhealthy conditions of Lower Manhattan,” wrote the Central Park Conservatory. Here, Black residents, who likely worked in the service trades, were also property owners.

In pre-Croton New York, the many streams across Manhattan were vital, and Seneca Village wouldn’t have thrived without this one. Even after the Croton Aqueduct opened in 1842, water from the nearby Receiving Reservoir wasn’t accessible; it was piped to the Distributing Reservoir on 42nd Street and then to downtown homes and businesses.

Egbert L. Viele’s 1865 “Sanitary and Topographical” map shows the spring where Seneca Village once stood.

Much is still unknown about Seneca Village—but its demise is no mystery.

When city officials decided to build New York’s great park here, they seized the land via eminent domain in the mid-1850s and kicked out everyone living within the boundaries of the yet-to-be-built park, including residents of Seneca Village. Roughly 1,600 people were forced out, and at least some land owners were paid by the city.

The spring is behind a short wire fence

Forgotten for more than a century, Seneca Village is the subject of renewed interest. Historians have discovered stone foundation walls and thousands of artifacts, including the handle of a pitcher that one can imagine held fresh, cool drinking water from nearby Tanner’s Spring.

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18 Responses to “The Central Park spring that provided water for a forgotten village”

  1. Penelope Bianchi Says:

    Absolutely fascinating. As always. Thank you so much!

  2. countrypaul Says:

    It is hard to imagine Manhattan as a “real” island with real land features before it became “disciplined” into its current self. Thank you for shedding some light on it.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      You’re welcome! There are wonderful descriptions of Manhattan Island from early settlers who noted the abundance of hills, streams, woods, and wild animals. I plan to cover that in a future post.

  3. VirginiaLB Says:

    Just curious but what is the evidence for the ethnic makeup of Seneca Village? Thanks.

  4. Marty Oppenheim Says:

    Central Park Conservancy does a nice tour of Seneca Village and di take us to the spring

  5. SteveT Says:

    I just want to take a moment and thank you for not just this fascinating post but all your work showing NYC through the eyes of artists, architecture and photography.

    Though an expatriate, it is something I look forward to one Monday mornings!

    Great job, and again thank you!

  6. velovixen Says:

    Knowing about Seneca Village and Weeksville (in Central Brooklyn) piques my curiosity about other African-American communities in pre-Civil War New York, and what became of them.

    It would also be interesting to see a map of New York that includes springs as well as waterways that were filled in or otherwise altered.

    • Beth Says:

      Sandy Ground was another African American community of that era situated in Staten Island. For a map showing streams and ponds on the island, do a Google search for the Viele map. He drew it in the 19th venture but it’s so compressive, it is still used by engineers today. Viele was also the initial designer of Central Park before the competition was instituted and that Vaux & Olmsted’s Greensward Plan won. Poor Viele also lost out of designing Prospect Park to Vaux and Olmsted.

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        But he did give us his map, which is a treasure!

      • Beth Says:

        Absolutely a treasure!

      • Edward Says:

        Had the pleasure of visiting the Sandy Ground Historical Society in Rossville, Staten Island about a dozen years ago. Also have a good book called “Sandy Ground Memories” that I bought while visiting the museum.

  7. Doug Says:

    Your site is always fascinating, but this one really struck a chord with me. Already digging into the story of Seneca Village more. So, thanks once again!

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks so much! The story of Seneca Village keeps unfolding as more historians and city institutions dig into it.

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