Burr, Hamilton, Chase Bank and the Wooden Water Pipes

In my post about our visit to Trinity Church in Manhattan, I marveled when I saw a remnant of an old wooden water pipe in the church’s museum. This water pipe was a cross-section of a long log that once funneled fresh water to New York City residents. This was essentially Aaron Burr’s venture and he founded what became Chase Manhattan Bank in 1799. Why is it in Trinity Church, near the sacred grounds where Alexander Hamilton’s body lies? The story drips with such legend and corruption that you won’t believe it. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

Trinity10 Girls by Hamilton Grave
Alexander Hamilton’s final resting place at Trinity Church cemetery, in lower Manhattan.

The story begins in 1798. New York City was commonly plagued with epidemics, but the latest epidemic of yellow fever in late summer repulsed even the most hardened survivor. Coffins lined the streets, filled with hapless victims on their way to burial grounds followed by wailing and mourning families. Street vendors loudly hawked freshly-made coffins on street corners for the next commiserable captive.

Trinity34 Water Pipe

A segment of the wooden water pipes, at Trinity Church.

New York’s growing, crowded population had choked what little sewer and water supply systems existed. A group of concerned citizens, believing that yellow fever was spread through swampy water, got together and proposed the formation of a water pipe system to bring in fresh water from the Bronx River. Alexander Hamilton chaired the group. Also in the group was Aaron Burr, grandson and son of the illustrious Reverends Jonathan Edwards of Northampton, Massachusetts and Aaron Burr, Sr., president of College of New Jersey in Newark (later to become Princeton College). Burr was serving as an assemblyman for the New York State Legislature at the time. He wrote a charter to form The Manhattan Company, a water utility company, and pushed the bill for the charter through New York government. Buried deep within the charter for the utility company was a section that allowed the water company to divert excess profits to “any activity not inconsistent with the Constitution.” The entire venture seemed so philanthropic, didn’t it? But this water utility charter was not invented to help poor, sickly New Yorkers get fresh water, not exactly. Burr chose the “activity” to be a bank, The Bank of the Manhattan Company– a bank essentially controlled by the “Jeffersonians,” those “anti-Federalists” in the new American government led by Vice President Thomas Jefferson. This move was a political scheme, an underhanded attempt to gain power and squash President Washington’s and Alexander Hamilton’s growing Federalist government. This scenario went far, far deeper than a simple water pipe. It epitomizes the rancor and hate the two parties had for each other.

Alexander Hamilton raged against Burr for such underhandedness. He claimed the bank was created by “intrigue” and the water system was merely a front for the formation of the new bank, a bank created solely as a rival for Manhattan’s first bank, the Bank of New York, and for the Federalists in the national government. And you can probably guess who had founded the Bank of New York and was leader of the Federalist party: Alexander Hamilton.

“I have been present when he [Burr] has contended against Banking Systems with earnestness and with the same arguments that Jefferson would use. Yet he has lately by a trick established a Bank, a perfect monster in its principles; but a very convenient instrument of profit and influence.” “The Papers of Alexander Hamilton,” vol 25, p. 321 (Ed. Syrett & Cooke)

I have very little love for Thomas Jefferson. He is regaled as a great master of the Constitution when in fact he had nothing to do with its formulation and ratification. Worse still, Jefferson was a sneaky man. Historians like to call him “contradictory,” because what Jefferson WROTE about himself and his intentions and what Jefferson actually DID were often two opposing things. He used other men to attack his political opponents (such as sending reports to newspaper editors to attack Hamilton and Washington) while posing as a dedicated member of Washington’s cabinet, and other such underhanded actions. I know I know, my opinions are an assault on the current Jefferson worship that commences to this day. But Jefferson was a sneaky, devious man and he had no problem sending his cronies to get their hands dirty while he looked like a knight in shining armor. Thus entered Aaron Burr.

Jefferson wanted more power and support in New York, and promised Burr a position in the federal government as a reward. Burr was no angel, either. He was one of the rare anti-Federalists (Jeffersonians) in the northern states, and Jefferson encouraged Burr to generate support in the state legislature. Burr was also a master at political maneuvering and campaigning. He essentially created Tammany Hall (a group that wreaked untold corruption in New York’s state government). Later, after killing Alexander Hamilton in the 1804 duel in Weehawken, Burr traveled west and attempted a coup to create his own country with himself as great leader. Burr was placed on trial for treason, but was acquitted for lack of overt evidence. Oddly enough, Jefferson threw all his weight against Burr to no avail. There is evidence that Burr was involved in other seditious plots from foreign governments. Some historians speculate that Burr may have been a patsy in the duel with Hamilton, as Burr received large amounts of money or favors from wealthy tycoons (such as John Jacob Astor) for leases that he didn’t own (see the second source link, below). Many, many people wanted Hamilton out of the way. Once Burr’s usefulness was over, he was essentially thrown out by the Jeffersonians.

Now, I apologize– I do not intend this article to be a slanderous attack on Jefferson and Burr. These points are historically accurate and they do illustrate the motivations of the men involved. Surely, Hamilton and the Federalists were no perfect angels, either. While serving as Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton was engaged in a disgusting adulterous relationship with an immoral woman, and then blackmailed by her husband. This situation was used against Hamilton later, as he was accused of bilking federal money from the treasury to fund his blackmailer’s purse (a false accusation). Some historians think the woman and her husband were a plant, to bring Hamilton down and bring down the Federalist faction with him. But George Washington remained on Hamilton’s side, and — to her amazing graciousness and honor — so did Hamilton’s longsuffering wife, Eliza. In my opinion, she is the true hero. 🙂

So back to the wooden water pipes at Trinity. Such a seemingly unimportant and dull artifact behind that chunk of glass means much more now. The Manhattan Company water pipes were a dismal failure. To save precious money, the pipes were made of wood and not cast iron. The pumps were generated by horses! The water was brackish and residents complained of stomach ailments when the water was available. The only benefit to the pipes was the availability of water in case of fire, as the pipes were only buried four feet deep. Several of the pipes were unearthed recently. Check the sources links at the end of this post to view photos and learn more about the water system and their discovery — it’s absolutely amazing! The entire system, before construction was ceased, probably extended only 25 miles. But the Burr bank lives on.

The Bank of the Manhattan Company continued to do business until it merged in 1955 with Chase National Bank to become Chase Manhattan Bank. Chase Manhattan Bank begins it’s history with The Manhattan Company and its water pipe venture. Chase Bank and the Bank of New York were rivals for over 200 years until 2006. That year, Chase swallowed up the retail banking division of the Bank of New York. The BNY was then swallowed up by Mellon Financial based in Pittsburgh, PA. And here’s more trivia for you:

  • The Chase Bank used an image of Oceanus as their bank’s logo, representing the Greek Titan god of water that encircles the world.
  • The modern Chase Manhattan Bank logo? It is a stylized representation of those water pipes that started the whole thing.
  • The Manhattan Company helped to underwrite and finance the Erie Canal project of 1825. The Erie Canal was the greatest engineering project of its time (and perhaps of all time). The Canal opened up the western United States to commerce and settlement.
  • The dueling pistols used by Burr and Hamilton in 1804? They are owned by the Chase Manhattan Bank at 383 Madison Avenue in Manhattan. The pistols are on display in the lobby.

  • On a personal note, I was a young student living in Manhattan — 25 yeras ago! — when I opened my very first bank account at Chase Manhattan Bank on 383 Madison Avenue. I remember seeing the pistols in the lobby, and wondering why they were there. Back then, I had no education in history and knew nothing about Hamilton and Burr. How the times have changed.

“Alexander Hamilton,” by Ron Chernow, 2005.
Executive Intelligence Resource; “The Case of Alexander Hamilton” by Nancy Spannaus;
Alexander Hamilton, Patriot, accessed October 2011;
The History of JP Morgan Chase & Company, 2008;
The Foundation Forum: Let an Association Be Formed – Part 2;
Columbia University MAAP: Manhattan Company;
Archaeology: Excavating Beekman – Area 1; Water Pipes Unearthed;

About the Author

I've been traveling throughout New York State since I got the travel bug after touring the Herkimer Home on a school field trip as a youngster. We've been blogging about our travels since 2006 and have visited over half of New York's 62 counties so far.

Comments (2)

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  1. G Bohmfalk says:

    I’m so glad I found your site! I’ve become a full-on Hamilton buff over the past few years and plan a long visit to NYC this fall to explore all of the sites associated with him. I had not been able to determine whether CMB displayed the dueling pistols until reading your post here. That address is now on my list, and I look forward to seeing the pistols with great anticipation. So thanks for the tip, and I’m sure I’ll find all manner of other interesting things to see & do on your site. Keep up the good work! And I also share your lack of love for the venerated Jefferson. He reminds me of today’s obstructionist Republicans!