Buried Treasure: Dig at Development Site Could Unearth Seaport History

Left: Detail from illustration of Dutch New Amsterdam around 1667. Remnants of life during that period and later may be buried beneath the former parking lot at 250 Water Street. Right: The start of excavation for the foundation construction of a 345-feet-high residential tower. Photos: NYC Municipal Archives (historic rendering); Jason Friedman (excavation)

May. 14, 2022

What once was Seaport garbage may soon be archeological gold.

Workers are excavating down to centuries-old landfill, some going back to the 17th century Dutch period, as part of the foundation work for a 345-foot residential tower at 250 Water Street. At the same time, an archeologist is on the lookout for historic treasures as the digging, which began this month, continues to a depth of 18 feet.

The Seaport’s original shoreline ran along today’s Pearl Street, now the western boundary of the full-square-block development site. The Dutch began enlarging their settlement by filling in the river with soil, trash and any other junk they could find. The landfilling was continued by the British and then the early Americans, so that by 1800 the Seaport was largely filled in all the way to South Street. 

So what’s down there?

“It’s really a wide variety of what is essentially garbage,” said Elizabeth Meade, an archeologist with AKRF, a contractor on the project. “But archaeologists love garbage.”

Meade told Community Board 1’s Environmental Protection Committee last month that the site could contain some of the oldest landfill along the East River, as well as the old docks and piers that would have lined the original waterfront. “Very often during the landfilling process it was much easier to just bury those and use them to help retain and support the new landfill,” she said.

Buried in the dirt, she noted, is likely such detritus as animal remains from local butcher shops, shoe leather, and ”whatever might be thrown off incoming ships. Sometimes you get ship ballast.”

And sometimes you get the ship!

Meade said there is a slim chance that a ship is buried on the site, but it’s a chance nonetheless. “The presence of documented shipyards in the vicinity of this site makes it a little more likely, she said, “but still, the overall likelihood is considered to be low.” A couple of blocks away, the remains of a three-decked 18th century vessel—the first major discovery of a Colonial merchant ship—was uncovered during the 1982 pre-construction excavation of 175 Water Street. (Meade and her company have experience with such buried vessels. In 2010, they discovered and excavated an 18th-century, 32-foot-long boat buried beneath the World Trade Center site.)

The city-mandated archeology survey at 250 Water Street is part of a state-approved Brownfield Cleanup plan by developer Howard Hughes Corp. to remove soil contaminated with mercury and other toxins left by the thermometer factories that had occupied the site. The work has long been a subject of concern and protest, by neighbors and by parents of chidlren at the nearby Peck Slip and Blue Schools, over potential hazards during the clean up. With work now begun, those groups are now raising alarms over noise and vibrations from pile driving as well as the monitoring of mercury vapor.

Archeologists will begin their closest checking of the excavated soil after the top eight feet has been removed, Meade said, because shallower depths would already have been disturbed when basements of later buildings were constructed. Once the toxic dirt is gone, the archeologists will have a chance to dig deeper into the fill; up to five trenches, 6-by-20 feet wide, are planned. “Whereas we are not just watching the construction crew or the remediation crew excavate, we are actually specifically directing the excavation for the benefit of the archeological work,” she said. 

After the field work is completed—cataloging, identifying and dating the artifacts—a final report will be submitted to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. Once approved, the results will be posted online. Any significant artifacts, Meade said, will likely wind up in a museum, yet to be determined.