The case of the secret well started in October, with city contractors doing street work as usual on Bond Street and Pacific in Brooklyn. The workers were installing a catch basin and making the sidewalk compliant with disability law when they unearthed a hole some 35 feet deep, lined with rounded stones, water on the bottom.
The workers were standing around the pit scratching their heads, which made Phil Morgan approach them. He’s an owner of the restaurant Building on Bond, located just across the street. He loves jackhammers and getting involved with construction, and is one of various people in this story excited about the things discovered in the earth below them.
“What’s this?” he asked. But it seemed plenty clear by looking. He quickly snapped some pictures of the deep, undisturbed hole. Was it historic? When’s the last time wells were used in downtown Brooklyn? The workers covered the hole up a few hours later, a reasonable response to questions above their pay grade. Thus began the quest to find out about the possible historic site on the corner.
History just below the surface
History is discovered all the time in New York City when shovels hit the ground, sometimes in a big way. Remnants of an old wooden ship were found during World Trade Center reconstruction in 2010 (not the first ship found underground). An African burial ground for both free and enslaved individuals was discovered in 1991 due to planned construction of a federal office building in lower Manhattan. A 19th century burial vault came to light through infrastructure work for Washington Square Park in 2015. Sometimes, as with the early African American village destroyed in the creation of Central Park, the history remains mostly buried.
Morgan is no stranger to historical finds. Besides operating the restaurant he also co-founded a design and construction company, Hecho Inc., and he’s seen construction sites where old pottery or the remnants of outhouses were discovered.
He said the methods used to make the well appear to indicate an origin before the early 1800s — soon afterward, bricks and mortar were typically used to line wells. Morgan speculated that the structure might have been associated with a colonial-era fort that had been destroyed by the British.
He’s not the only one excited about the possibilities, as was evident in a December Spectrum News NY1 report. Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon lives a few doors down and missed the uncovering. But her husband saw it: “He’s always snooping about these things.”
“It clearly appears to be historic,” she says, while noting that most of the research into the discovery so far was done via Google.
The real professionals have not yet weighed in. The city’s Department of Design and Construction, which had been overseeing the construction project, is in the process of securing an archaeologist, with the goal being to have that expert examine the well by the spring, according to a spokeswoman.
The mystery remains unsolved
In the meantime, the well’s neighbors can muse and speculate. The corner has been completely paved over, the well undisturbed.
A preliminary search of city records didn’t turn up a mention of a well on that spot, said Kenneth Cobb at the NYC Department of Records, though 19th century property maps of the area include the names of George Martense, Samuel Gerritsen and Edward Kellogg — potential places for amateur and professional historians alike to start digging.
Simon suggested that, if the site is found to be historic, the city might preserve it and display it to the public via translucent material.
Morgan wondered what might be found at the bottom — old muskets or pottery, or even evidence of modern problems: had the water at the bottom been contaminated by the muck of the nearby Gowanus Canal, a federal Superfund site?
Just another mystery to be solved in the bowels of NYC.