Unveiling Harlem’s Legacy: James Reuel Smith’s Timeless Lens On Lynch’s Well, 1898

May 21, 2023

In the heart of bustling Harlem, on the vibrant intersection of W. 119th Street and Claremont Avenue, lies a hidden gem from the past.

A relic of the bygone era that once quenched the thirst of a growing community.

Enter Lynch’s Well (see above), a testament to the interconnected network of wells and springs that once flowed through the veins of Harlem, the Bronx, and beyond.

These remarkable water sources, chronicled in a stirring article by Harlem World Magazine in years past, are inextricably linked to the ethereal allure of the “Indian Springs.” Through the lens of acclaimed photographer James Reuel Smith, we bear witness to the profound transformation from these mystical springs to the dawn of the industrial revolution—a time when mass production revolutionized the distribution of water, ultimately reaching the homes of residents throughout the area.

Born in 1852 in the quaint town of Skaneateles, NY, Smith possessed an unwavering passion for capturing the essence of springs and wells through his lens. His insatiable curiosity led him on a captivating journey, culminating in the publication of his seminal work, Springs and Wells in Greek and Roman Literature, Their Legends and Locations, in 1922. But it was during the years spanning from 1897 to 1901 that Smith truly immersed himself in the enchanting landscapes of Northern Manhattan, tirelessly pedaling on his trusty bicycle to unearth the secrets of Harlem’s waterways.

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As the curtains closed on a remarkable life, James Reuel Smith bid farewell to the world in 1935. Yet, his legacy lives on, serving as a timeless testament to the power of photography in capturing not only moments frozen in time but also the stories that lie beneath the surface. Through Smith’s extraordinary vision, we are transported back to a pivotal era in New York City’s history, where the delicate balance between nature’s bounty and the relentless march of progress was captured with breathtaking precision.

Today, as we reflect on the intrepid spirit of James Reuel Smith and his indelible contribution to the annals of Harlem’s history, we are reminded of the profound connections that bind us to our past. With each photograph, Smith invites us to explore the hidden narratives of our city’s evolution, sparking a sense of wonder and igniting a desire to uncover the forgotten stories that shape our collective identity.

Note: check out In his book Springs and Wells of Manhattan and the Bronx (New-York Historical Society, 1938; written in 1916), James Ruel Smith documented several springs in the area near Broadway and 125th Street in Harlem which were still flowing at the time– between 1890 and 1915.

Photo credit: 1) Smith, James Reuel. Springs and Wells in Greek and Roman Literature, Their Legends and Locations, 1922, (source).”Indian Springs in Harlem.” [From “Indian Springs” to the Industrial Revolution: Documenting the Transition through Captivating Photography], #harlem

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