“Aqua Flatbush”: the Flatbush Water Works Company

Why is 69-year-old William Regan Sr. so happy about this pitcher of water?

FRG William Regan Flatbush Water Works

Perhaps “wistful” is a better word. This picture was taken for the Brooklyn Eagle in 1947 to mark the closure of the Flatbush Water Works Company. Mr. Regan was one of the few who enjoyed the salty, hard water that plagued Flatbush residents for decades – and ignited a six-year legal battle for the facility’s closure.

The original twelve wells of the Flatbush Water Works Company were built on Paerdegat Pond in 1881. At its height in the early 20th century, it would be a 24-hour operation with 62 wells. Its engineers took several precautions to protect the springs from being contaminated, but by 1913 the water had gotten so brackish that the company used city water to dilute its product. The high lime content, while not unhealthy per se, tasted bad and caused corrosion.

Other Brooklyn water sources were being closed in favor of supply from upstate, but the original owners had negotiated a 99-year monopoly with the Town of Flatbush. This agreement was transferred to Brooklyn in Flatbush’s 1894 annexation, and then to New York City in the consolidation of 1898. Quite simply, the city could not do anything until 1980 – or until the Water Works property was condemned.

The lease still had 39 years remaining when advocates filed a lawsuit seeking the latter route in 1941. Said one fed-up person: “Flatbush water is the worst water in the world. I’d recognize it in Timbuctoo.”

Part of Flatbush Water Works in the 1920-1922 E. Belcher Hyde atlas. (from the Brooklyn Collection)

Part of Flatbush Water Works in the 1920-1922 E. Belcher Hyde atlas. (from the Brooklyn Collection)

On June 27, 1947, the agreement (now owned by New York Water Services Corporation, thanks to a 1926 merger) was terminated by court order. 350,000 residents finally had access to pure water from the Catskills. Restaurants no longer had to worry about filmy residue on their pots and pans; teenage girls no longer had to take special measures with their hair before dates.

Victorious advocates joined political players for a ceremonial “valve-turning” at Borough Hall on June 30. Here, Mayor William O’Dwyer enjoys a sip of “Ye Olde Flatbush Cocktail”. Longtime Borough President John Cashmore looks on with amusement.

FRG Flatbush Water Works cocktail

In 1950, the Water Works facility and part of a nearby park called Farragut Woods were razed and replaced with housing projects called Vanderveer Estates. This federally financed endeavor was horribly mismanaged, changing hands like a hot potato.

Vanderveer Estates was privatized in 2006 and changed its name to Flatbush Gardens. (Check out this swanky YouTube promo!) The new identity didn’t stop the complaints; tenants filed a lawsuit against the landlord earlier this year.

Satellite image of the area in the Hyde map above. (Google Maps)

Satellite image of the area in the Hyde map above. (Google Maps)

For more details on the Flatbush Water Works Company, check out Brooklyn’s East Flatbush by Brian Merlis (Israelowitz Publishing, 2009).

Special thanks to Ben at the Brooklyn Collection for letting me look through these photos. Cheers!

FRG William Regan Sr pitcher

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5 Responses to “Aqua Flatbush”: the Flatbush Water Works Company

  1. Joel Wolfram says:

    Corrosive water indeed, from the look of that guy’s teeth.

  2. H nemzer says:

    Excellent pictures, maps and recap. You truly captured it. The IRT train that terminated at the “Junction” was always slowed at Newkirk Ave; you could see water in the center of the tracks. Must have been a high water table near the old pond.

  3. Peter Hopson says:

    I remember asking a station employee about that swift current between the tracks during the 70s, he said that it was indeed from the old water supply company veins. Much later (1990s) there was a newspaper article about how previous attempts to cap the flow were unsuccessful. There was even an old photo of the mayor (Lindsey?) drinking the water. I believe at the time the city had given up on further attempts to cap it. Can’t remember if the 90s article was about finally being able to cap it or what.

  4. John Murtha says:

    I have not lived in the neighborhood in over 40 years but I still wonder if they were ever able to cap the water?

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