28 MARCH 25, 2021 RIDGEWOOD TIMES WWW.QNS.COM
OUR NEIGHBORHOOD: THE WAY IT WAS
The search for water in the early days of Ridgewood
BY THE OLD TIMER
As hard as it may be to imagine Ridgewood
and surrounding neighborhoods as
mostly farmland, it may be harder still
to comprehend life in New York City without a
clean, reliable water system.
The first residents of our community depended
on fresh water ponds and streams flowing
through the area as their primary source of
water; those ponds disappeared long ago due to
development. It wouldn’t be until the early 19th
century that the area would have the network of
pipelines, mains and faucets that we now take
But fresh ponds weren’t the preferred water
option for the earliest settlers of colonial Newtown,
which would later become Ridgewood,
Glendale, Maspeth and Middle Village. Spring
water was highly prized because it was cleaner
than pond or stream water.
If a natural stream was discovered, it was
utilized by building a spring house over it to
prevent animals and birds from soiling the water.
Because a supply of good water was so important,
usually the farmhouse would be built near the
The surplus water would flow out of the spring
house as a stream which was used by farm animals.
The spring house also made it easier for
the farm and his family to draw water during
the winter time.
If no spring was available, the early settlers
resorted to digging wells, generally about five
or six feet in diameter, and — depending on the
area’s water table — anywhere from 10 to 40 feet
deep. In some cases, it was necessary to go even
deeper to find fresh water.
These wells drew on the ground water or
“first water” as it was called. If the well was dug
through sandy soil, it was necessary to line it
with fieldstone set with natural limestone mortar
to prevent the well’s walls from caving in.
The fieldstone wall was extended about three
feet above the level of the ground to prevent surface
water from entering the well. As you might
imagine, the method for retrieving well water
was very basic, with a bucket attached to a long
rope lowered and raised with a crank attached
at the top of a windlass.
The Moses Debevoise Farm located on the west
side of Old Fresh Pond Road (now Cypress Hills
Street) just north of Myrtle Avenue, used a well
dug in 1723 that was still supplying good water
until 1899, when the farm was sold.
Travelers on the dirt roads that ran through
the area back then usually carried a container
of water or would use public wells dug along
highways. Horses would be watered and rested
at public wells.
A large public well in our neighborhood was
once located at the corner of Dry Harbor Road
(now 80th Street) and Cooper Avenue in Glendale;
it was dug in the 1700s.
Wells were generally dug near farmhouses but
in a direction away from the privy or outhouse to
avoid contamination. During periods of severe
drought, some wells would run dry, creating a
crisis for the farmer and family.
In later years, driven wells equipped with hand
pumps came into use. They went much deeper
for their water supply which better insured
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
water during a drought and reduced the risk of
CATCHING THE RAIN
The earliest farmhouses in present-day Ridgewood
had thatched rooftops. When wood shingles
eventually replaced thatched roofs, some farmers
used cisterns to supplement their water supply
by catching rainwater. Cisterns, or large tanks,
were dug in the ground, comprised of fieldstone
set with mortar and a wooden cover.
During the colder months of the year in a
heavy rainstorm, farmers would wait an hour
or so allow rain to clean off the roof and divert
the valve in their downspout and channel the
water into the cistern. When the rain stopped
or the cistern was full, the valve was turned to
its normal position to allow rain water to spill
on the ground.
Cistern water was used for laundry and bathing
and, if necessary, for drinking in the event
fresh water was scarce. Rain water, however, was
not used during the summer due to the risk of
Reprinted from the Jan. 15, 2015 issue of the
* * *
If you have any remembrances or old photographs
of “Our Neighborhood: The Way It Was” that you
would like to share with our readers, please write
to the Old Timer, c/o Ridgewood Times, 38-15 Bell
Blvd., Bayside, NY 11361, or send an email to editorial@
ridgewoodtimes.com. Any print photographs
mailed to us will be carefully returned to you upon
A rendering of John Debevoise, descendant
of Moses Debevoise and inheritor of the
Debevoise farm located in the vicinity of present
day Fresh Pond Road and Catalpa Avenue in
Ridgewood. Robert Eisen Collection