“A New Manhattan”: Proposals to Drain the East River

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Kennard Thomson New York map
Map of T. Kennard Thomson’s proposal to expand the size of New York, from Popular Science, January 1916

Remember the plan to fill in the Hudson River? In 1934, Modern Mechanix reported that Norman Sper, a publicist and engineering scholar, had proposed damming the river on the north and south sides of Manhattan in order to create ten square miles of new land and connect the island with New Jersey.

There were also proposals to reclaim land on the other side of Manhattan.

The first such plan came from T. Kennard Thomson, an engineer, in 1911. He suggested filling in the East River and extending Manhattan to the south. The Harlem River would be widened and a New East River dug east of Brooklyn to empty in the Jamaica Bay. The Brooklyn Navy Yard, which would lose its access to the sea, was to be relocated to the mouth of the New York Bay.

Like Sper, Thomson recognized that an effort like this would be enormously expensive. But he also foresaw huge rewards, writing in the January 1916 edition of Popular Science that the returns would “quickly pay off the debt incurred, and then would commence to swell the city’s money bags until New York would be the richest city in the world.”

New York East River reclamation plan by John Harris
Visualization of John A. Harris’ plan to drain New York’s East River, from Popular Science, December 1924

Thomson revisited his plan in 1930, when it became a little less ambitious. Called “A New Manhattan,” it zeroed in on the idea of extending the island to the south.

In the meantime, somebody else had taken Thomson’s idea to drain the East River and run with it: John A. Harris, deputy police commissioner at the time, proposed in 1924 to transform the waterway into a transportation artery, including roads, subway lines and parking spaces, in order to relief congestion in Manhattan.

Harris envisaged the construction of two dams: one near the Williamsburg Bridge and one near Hell Gate. The riverbed would be “bridged with levels supported by steel uprights,” thereby connecting the boroughs of Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens, Popular Science reported that year. Midway along the thoroughfare would be erected an imposing city hall and community center.

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