At 250 Water St., Digging Into the Seaport's 18th-Century Past

Left: At the 250 Water Street site, workers have excavated to depths of eight to 19 feet. Right: Some of the artifacts, including glass, ceramics, clay pipe fragments, animal bone and shoe leather, found beneath Peck Slip during sewer connection work for the dewatering phase of the project. Photos: AKRF

Nov. 17, 2022

The full-block lot at 250 Water Street is more than the site of a planned 345-foot residential tower, or the center of a lawsuit that is fighting to halt that project. It is also the grounds of an archaeological dig.

In advance of the tower’s construction, the site has undergone a cleanup of buried mercury and other toxic refuse from what formerly was the location of a thermometer factory. And along with that excavation is a city-mandated archaeological investigation of the lot—a dirt and rock landfill that also contains garbage dumped into the river by 18th-century Dutch and other settlers to expand the island eastward, plus the remains of a retaining structure built to hold it all in place.

During the excavation, which is at varying depths of eight to 19 feet, archaeologists from the contractor AKRF were on the lookout for historical treasures. Elizabeth Meade, an archaeologist with the company, said “very few” artifacts have so far been unearthed from within the site. The bigger trove has come from just outside, on Peck Slip near Water Street, during sewer connection work for the dewatering phase of the excavation. Out came, among other things, pieces of glass and stoneware, a smoking pipe, and the soles of shoes that likely had last been worn more than 300 years ago.

“We’re still finishing up that cataloging and analysis but those [artifacts] seem like they could be fairly consistently dating to the mid- to late-18th century,” Meade said in a phone interview. 

Work on the site is now at a standstill following a temporary restraining order granted last month to opponents of the development. A spokesman for the Howard Hughes Corp., the developer, said archaeological monitoring is expected to restart in the first quarter of next year. When it does, there are plans to dig 6-by-20-feet-wide trenches deeper into the landfill—beyond what was required for soil remediation—for an expanded investigation. No date has been set for a final report on the findings. 

The monitoring for artifacts has been limited by safety protocols during the removal of soil contaminated with oil and mercury, Meade said. “If we weren’t dealing with contamination we might have documented them differently, and been in the pit more,” she said. “So we relied more on photo and video documentation rather than physically standing there and documenting the structures.”

Landfilling the river with soil, rock, trash and any other junk the Dutch settlers could find was continued by the British and then early Americans. By 1800, it was largely filled in all the way to today’s South Street. At the northeast corner of the site, workers came across giant timbers that were part of the landfill retaining structures, “essentially a big, wooden box,” as Meade put it, where the archaeologists were especially alert for signs of other artifacts. Workers removed the timbers and sawed off sections, which are still being analyzed, Meade said. She noted that they expect to learn the age of the trees and where they grew, as well as the age of the retaining structure.

“If you study those tree rings and measure the distance between each one,” she said, “you can kind of create a barcode that you can then compare to master lists of known chronologies and see where that barcode fits in. That gives you the date and the location.”

Because the timbers were dug from toxic soil, special care had to be taken to clean them, Meade said. That fell to her company’s hazardous materials department, who went to work on the old logs. 

“We weren’t sure if that would work, or how it would work, but it actually seemed to have turned out really well,” she said. “So we were able to get the data that we needed. We just had to do it differently.”