The Many Faces of Canal Street

This 1807 painting shows what is now Canal Street. The bridge is at the intersection of today’s intersection of Canal and Broadway. Image courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Dec. 30, 2013

If any street in New York can claim to be the most beat-up and changed, Canal Street surely qualifies. In the beginning, in fact, it wasn’t a street at all, or even a canal. It was a drainage ditch. The ditch, in turn, owed its existence to Collect Pond, a stagnant body of water just north of today’s Foley Square, and to the Lis­penard Meadows, a patch of swampland that covered much of northern Tribeca.

When the landowner Anthony Rut­gers acquired the pond and the swamp in 1733, they were well outside the city limits—everything above Cham­bers Street was still farmland or woods—but he knew something had to be done about them. The swamp, he said, was “filled constantly with standing water” with “no natural vent and being covered with bushes and small trees [was] by the stagnation and rottenness of it… become exceedingly dangerous and of fatal consequence to all the inhabitants of the north part of this City bordering near the same, they being subjected to very many diseases and distempers, which by all Physicians and by long experience are imputed to those un­wholesome vapors occasioned thereby…”

Rutgers petitioned the city for permission to lay a drain “into Hudson’s River as far as Low Water Mark,” and got its okay. The resulting hand-excavated trench meandered its way from present-day Centre Street westward to the river.

Rutgers’ ditch was also a barrier, of course, and so at the point where Broadway (then little more than a lane) intersected it, a stone bridge was built, probably for military reasons, during the American Revolution. Farther west another bridge was also built, serving the road to Greenwich Village—today’s Greenwich Street. For a time these two bridges were the main exits from the city. But soon the bridge proved to be inadequate, and in 1792 no less a personage than John Jay, who happened to be Chief Justice of the United States, offered to donate some of the land he owned in the neighborhood if the city fathers should “judge it expedient to make a Canal from the fresh Water [i.e. Collect] Pond to the North [i.e. Hudson] River.”

At the same time, the city decided to solve the Collect Pond problem once and for all by filling it up with “good and wholesome earth,” and this compounded the drainage problem. After some years of debate the decision was made to convert the ditch into a plank-sided canal eight feet wide following a straight line from Centre Street to the Hudson, with a roadway on both sides. This was done in 1811.

The canal was popular among the residents of what was by now a lively neighborhood surrounding it. In the mid-19th century, a woman recalled that children “used to skate on the canal that is now Canal Street… and my mother says the poor people used to get a rib of beef and polish it and drill holes in it and fasten it on their shoes to skate on.” Such delights were short-lived, however, for the canal proved to be little more than an open sewer, and by 1819 it was covered over.

That was hardly the end of the changes that would befall the street. Clearly such a broad boulevard had no business ending at Centre Street, and so in the 1850s the blocks to the east were punched through and Canal Street was extended until it merged with Walker Street between Baxter and Mulberry. The blocks to the east that had been Walker Street were renamed Canal Street.

So much for the eastern end of the street. The western half endured its biggest changes in the 1920s to make way for the Holland Tunnel. An entire block between Varick and Hudson just above Canal was demolished to provide an entrance plaza to the tunnel, and all the buildings on the south side of Canal between Varick and Hudson were removed to provide an exit ramp. Because that exit dumped traffic directly onto Varick Street (today’s larger exit system to the south came later), the triangular block bordered by Varick, Laight and Canal streets was also cleared; it is now a park.

Finally, because the city fathers as­sumed, correctly, that traffic the tunnel would one day prove gargantuan, a very pleasant park that had existed for decades at the western end of Canal was demolished in 1930 to create what was called a “triangular safety zone.” After serving for years as a parking lot for sanitation trucks, that park was wonderfully restored.

Old-timers may recall that when an elevated highway ran along West Street, a bridge carried traffic across the Canal Street intersection, seemingly without rhyme or reason. The reason was that the canal, still there underground, made the elevated footings unreliable. When the highway was torn down, the last visible reminder of Anthony Rutgers’ ditch disappeared.

But underneath all the honking and screeching and cursing that we now associate with Canal Street and its monster traffic jams, the watercourse is still there, silently delivering to the river the subterranean waters of Tribeca.

This article was excerpted from “Tri­beca: A Pictorial History” by Oli­ver E. Allen, published by The Tribeca Trib.